Chianti may not have been the first wine I ever bought. But I’m sure it was close. And like a lot of firsts in life, it has become a cherished memory.
I know why I bought it. And you probably did too. I bought it for the fiasco, which is what the bottle inside the raffia basket that it came in was called. And how appropriate that this unusually shaped bottle wrapped in straw shares its name with a word that can be defined as a disaster, catastrophe, debacle, flop, bomb, absolute total failure.
I’m talking about Chianti in the sixties. And especially the Chianti that fit my budget. Which was the cheapest possible Chianti you could buy. As long as it came in a fiasco. I mean why spend more? It was only to impress the woman who’d invited you over for a spaghetti dinner. And to catch the drips from a candle if you were ever invited back.
Cheap Chianti was pretty rough in those days. But even though there were a lot of wines I much preferred drinking, they just didn’t come in a fiasco.
Chianti has improved a lot since those days. But not as much as my palate. Or as much as my wine budget. And just like a fine Chianti, I’ve improved with age…the older I get, the more I like it.
Liking Chianti is one thing. Finding it in San Miguel is another. Chianti Ruffino and Chianti Classico Terre have made occasional appearances at La Europea. But you can never confidently shop at their San Miguel store, knowing there will be a bottle there.
About three years ago, however, a new source of Chianti arrived in town. Riccardo Simeone, a man who had spent years living in the Chianti region, began importing some very good bottles to Mexico. I asked Riccardo how he came to be in Tuscany, one of the world’s most desirable places to live.
“At around the age of 45”, he said, “having had a rather successful career as a real estate developer, my wife and I decided to move to Europe to enjoy, because of our previous travels, what we always found to be a different and perhaps a more satisfying way of life. We decided that Italy was to be our destination for several reasons. One, I could speak Italian having been brought up in an Italian household…both my parents were born in Italy. Two, we still had relatives in Italy. Three, I thought because of my background we could easily fit into Italian society. We chose Florence as our city because of its incredible beauty and endless works of art.”
Riccardo continued, “One day while having lunch in the medieval city of San Donato in Poggio we asked the proprietor where we could buy some Chianti to consume at home. He directed us to Fattoria La Ripa where he said they made exceptional Chianti. There we met the owner and winemaker Sandro Caramelli, who we found to be a fine fellow and became fast friends. Several years later he informed us at one of our social gatherings that he was converting several areas in his estate into first class apartments. So we decided to move into one or them and stayed for several years.”
About a month ago, Riccardo Simeone sent me an email to let me know the latest shipment of Chianti had arrived. About a week ago, 20 guys got together on my rooftop terraza to sample them.
Now I always separate wines into those that work fine on their own and those that need to be paired with food to be enjoyed. Chianti, to me, has always been a food wine.
So I asked private chef Mark Tamiso to prepare a three course lunch to pair with the three different Chianti that Riccardo had imported.
The opening course had three delights: A Spanish piquillo pepper stuffed with white shrimp, chunks of pork belly with caramelized pineapple and homemade Chinese BBQ sauce, plus slices of the town’s best baguette (from Cumpanio) spread with sun-dried tomato butter. The accompanying wine was a plain Chianti (if any Chianti can be called plain) that, due to more and more overly complicated restrictions on what grapes can be grown and where (that seem to have little benefit to the drinker and even less benefit to the maker), Fattoria La Ripa makes from juice that they purchase and then bottle. The label carries the words “Le Terre di Monna Lisa” (yes, two n’s is the correct spelling) and commemorates the fact that, in the 15th century, La Ripa was owned by Antonio Maria di Noldo Gherardini, the father of Monna Lisa, who gave a smaller part of the property as dowry for his daughter’s wedding with Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo. It obviously doesn’t hurt sales that the winery includes an image of Leonardo’s most famous model on its label.
The wine spends no time in oak barrels so that the freshness and fruitiness of the Sangiovese grape comes through. It’s the least expensive of the three Chiantis that Riccardo opened and was the favorite of many of us.
The next course from Chef Mark’s kitchen was a farmer’s market zucchini and English cucumber salad with locally smoked bacon, two year aged Cotija cheese, housemade chipotle/honey pecans and guacamole caesar dressing. The wine was Fattoria La Ripa’s 2012 Chianti Classico.
Riccardo Simeone told me, “Fattoria is located in the prestigious Gallo Nero section of Tuscany. The wines that the government allows to be made there can only be Chianti Classico. This wine is strictly controlled with only so many vines allowed for each hectare of land. 80% of the grapes must be Sangiovese and aging must be in oak barrels for a minimum of one year.”
The Classico was well balanced with black cherry flavors plus the nuances that come from being aged in wood…vanilla, caramel and a hint of coffee.
Fattoria de Ripa’s Chianti Classico also made an appearance in the next course, not in a glass but in the sauce that Mark Tamiso’s Italian lamb shanks and root vegetables were braised in and was poured over a bed of Mascarpone mashed potatoes. The wine in the glass was Fattoria La Ripa 2009 Classico Reserva, a wine that spent a minimum of two years in oak then six months in the bottle. Wine Spectator gave it a score of 92 points, which is remarkable considering the price.
“The winemaker, Sandro Caramelli at Fattoria La Ripa”, Riccardo Simeone told me, “was trained in his youth as an electrical engineer at the highly regarded Politecnico Institute in Milano, so his attention to detail is enormous, trying each year to make a perfect wine. He has been working at this for over 40 years and has been awarded many international prizes for his wines.”
So how do you get your hands or, more importantly, your mouth on Sandro Caramelli’s Chiantis? There are three ways. You can purchase them by the bottle at Carne y Vino or Via Organica. You can order them directly by the case from Riccardo Simeone by contacting him at email@example.com (Le Terre di Monna Lisa is priced at $250 a bottle). Or you can pair them with a meal at any of these San Miguel restaurants: Firenze, Berlin, Mon Bistro, Cent’Anni, Vinos+Tapas, Francesco’s, El Tupinamba, Marsala, Via Organico or Carne y Vino.
Your smile may be as coy as Monna’s or as wide as mine when I helped finish off the case at our lunch.
Mark Tamiso is an almost retired chef who is available to prepare small but special dinners in your home. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.