Il PiaggioniBack from wedding planning with a vengeance; back with a fresh post about a fresh red wine that’s begging to go down with some steak before the nights get even more hot! Because it has been hot. Summer is finally here, after weeks of rain. And it’s still raining, on and off. Hot, humid… despite how oppressive the mugginess can get, red wine is still my preferred nighttime beverage – the steaks, like the show, must go on, and they must be paired with something, after all.

Most people turn to their established favorites for steaks; Bordeaux or some mid-range California Cabernet would be usual offerings. But when the t-bones hit the grill, I tend to turn to Sangiovese. The perfect balance between acid and fruit makes these wines exceptional complements to grilled meat, if you can bear to briefly abandon the safety of California’s red offerings. Remember, we’re talking about the grape that goes into Chianti, into Brunello di Montalcino. We’re talking about one of the prime grapes of Super Tuscans. More than enough “wine cred” to match anything you’re cooking.

For those adventurous enough to brave the Sangiovese front, this wine, the 2011 Mocali “I Piaggioni” Rosso Toscano, is a 100% pure and fine example of the breed. Mocali is a noted producer of Brunello di Montalcino; this is their “value” wine. The “I Piaggioni” is not aged for as long in oak as Brunello, and the Sangiovese grapes in this Rosso are not from the very best sites (although they are the same clonal selections as those used in Brunello). The flavors do not quite have the depth and concentration you would find in a Brunello, due to shorter aging in oak. However, in the end, what you get is a delicious Rosso with aromas of licorice and cedar, bright cherry fruit, a smooth mouthfeel, excellent acidity and balance, and a nice lingering finish. At $15, it’s hard to ask for more.

Cooking is the one pleasure I deny myself most often in this busy life. We all know the satisfaction of making a meal from scratch. Usually there will be some initial resistance, remnants of an “I don’t wanna!” attitude I’ve kept towards cooking for no good reason – then out come the pans, the butter, the pepper and salt. While water boils, tomato sauce simmers; spaghetti strands soften and curl. At the end of the day, it all amounts to beans (or noodles, or rice and beans on a tortilla, or hummus). The worst mood can be banished with the right food, and the right glass of wine to make that food shine. Appreciation is the key.

So this is a post about spaghetti and meatballs. But what are spaghetti and meatballs, really? A platform for Chianti. You didn’t know this? Don’t care. It’s true. Anyone who wants to understand my reasoning will need an understanding of Chianti. Here goes.

Chianti is a red still wine produced in a region by the same name (Chianti) in Tuscany, Italy. The region is designated by a Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), which guarantees certain methods of production: set yields, vinification practices, grape types, and production methods. Chianti is primarily made with Sangiovese – at least 75%. Sangiovese is a fun grape, with characteristics that make it perfect as a companion to food: nice acidity, earthiness, and fruit ranging from bright to dark. Younger Chianti tends to show lots of fresh raspberry fruit with notes of sage and spice, complete with sharp but not searing acidity, while older Chianti (such as a Riserva) is generally much more complex and balanced, with blackberry and other dark fruit balanced by earthy components such as leaves, cocoa, and floral or mineral notes. Sangiovese has a number of clones (genetic offshoots that exhibit distinct flavor profiles), and also displays different flavors and aromas depending on the amount of aging the wine sees. Besides being the source of Chianti, it is also the only grape varietal permitted in the prestigious Brunello di Montalcino (Chianti’s brooding older sibling, made from the Brunello clone). Other grapes permitted in Chianti include up to 10% Canaiolo and up to 20% of a few other red grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Syrah. The use of white grapes like Trebbiano has been prohibited for Chianti Classico.

Chianti Classico is considered the finest appellation (production zone with a legally-defined boundary) in the Chianti region, a 100 square mile region with Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) status – theoretically superior in quality – near Florence; however, nice wines can also be found in Chianti Rufina, another appellation. Chianti Classico must have a minimum alcohol level of at least 12%, and must go through at least seven months aging in oak, while Chianti Classico Riserva must be aged for at least 27 months at the winery, with a minimum alcohol level of at least 12.5%.

The subject of today’s post, the 2008 Loggia del Conte Chianti, is a far more modest fine, only provided with DOC status. Made with 100% Sangiovese, it has what wine drinkers refer to as typicity – the flavors and aromas are true to what would be expected of the grape. A nice garnet color, it’s just a bouncy, fruity, accessible Chianti with cherry fruit jumping out of the glass, some mineral and baking spice notes, and good acidity. Red sauce’s best friend. $8 a bottle. I recommend this wine to people as ideal for spaghetti and meatballs: the acidity cuts through any meat sauce, but the wine is in a softer style, so it doesn’t come across as lean to the point of meanness. Quick finish, but you will have moved on to your next bite anyhow. We paired this wine with (surprise) spaghetti and meatballs: the red sauce was perfect, with garlic, basil and oregano and crushed fire-roasted tomatoes, with meatballs I made by hand out of pork and beef with Worcestershire sauce, garlic, oregano, basil, salt, pepper, egg, seasoned breadcrumbs and shredded Parmesan cheese. Appreciation is the key.

Spaghetti and meatballs: the quintessential Italian-American red sauce pasta. Chianti is this dish’s playmate, its eternal companion in our cinema, contemporary literature, and public perception. Those ridiculous straw bottles… better candle holders than wine, to be certain. Squeaking violins, bad accents, mustaches you want to remove with a weed whacker – all of these belong in the Chianti section of popular imagination.

However, it is a wine with a rich heritage, like the land from which it comes, and can have serious heft in terms of quality and value. Produced in Tuscany primarily from the Sangiovese grape variety, Chianti is an appellation comprised of seven sub-regions, including Classico, Colli Aretini, Colli Fiorentini, Colline Pisane, Colli Senesi, Montalbano and Rùfina. Chianti covers a significant portion of the Tuscany region, and its sub-regions are full of Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) appellations with varying legal restrictions governing grape yields, blends, and production. All Chianti and Chianti Classico must feature at least 75% Sangiovese in the blend.

No exception to the general rule of thumb for Chianti, the 2006 Banfi Chianti Classico is a dark garnet in the glass, with decent clarity, and a nose chock-full of black fruit and floral notes, mostly violet. The mouth has a vibrant cherry and plum fruit core, with hints of leather. This is backed by supple tannins and good acidity, leading to a medium finish. As previously noted, this would be great with any red sauce pasta dish, particularly spaghetti and meatballs, but also pairs well with others roasts or grilled meats. Drink now. $16.

The best casual table wine for Italian food. A bottle of 2004 Renzo Masi Sangiovese di Toscana presents you with near-Chianti quality at rock-bottom price. It features a smoky, earthy aroma followed by a supple, lean fruitiness on the palate, in turn balanced with the brisk acidity typical of Sangiovese. Light-bodied, and a quick finish. I have frequently detected some effervescence resulting from secondary fermentation in the bottle (also something I’ve found in cheaper Valpolicellas), but it only enhances the wine at this price. Tasty! Any pasta with red sauce, such as spaghetti or lasagna, would be nicely complemented by this wine. It is also simply the best pizza wine in existence. On a totally separate note, I would like to note that Trader Joe’s stocks some excellent Chiantis at this price point: $7 a bottle.