Chianti has had a long, uphill slog toward respectability. Originally invented in the mid-1800s by Baron Ricasoli, it was intended to restore a measure of financial stability to a desperately poor region. The plan worked, but barely—the wine remained rustic and cheap for more than a century. As late as the 1970s, it was primarily known to Americans as a low grade wine in a straw bottle, quaffed with pizza in Italian restaurants.
In terms of winemaking technology and quality, Italy today is light years ahead of where it was three decades ago, and the image of Chianti has turned around completely. If you were to pick one wine responsible for this, it would be Ruffino Riverva Ducale. Long before most consumers thought that Chianti was a wine worth drinking, Riserva Ducale occupied a special place at the top of the pyramid. It comes in two varieties: the regular Riserva Ducale (known as the tan label) which first appeared in 1927, and the Riserva Ducale Oro or gold label, initially produced in 1947.
Putting aside the fact that it was Tony Soprano’s favorite wine (which endeared it to an entirely new generation of consumers), Riserva Ducale was always unique among Chiantis in terms of its ability to age gracefully. Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to try some spectacular older vintages, most notably 1958 and 1964, which I still remember fondly nearly two decades later—pretty good, considering that most days I can barely remember what I had for lunch. I looked forward to the new vintages with a sense of anticipation, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The nose of the 2008 Riserva Ducale ($25) reveals classic Chianti aromas of plums, anise, minerals and smoke. The wine is ripe and luscious in the mouth, with flavors of black cherries and red plums balanced by mouthwatering acidity. The tannins are supple, but provide enough structure to frame the fruit; the finish is moderately long, marked by a nice spicy edge. Drink this with pasta, sausages, veal and pork.
By contrast, the 2007 Riserva Ducale Oro ($35) offers up a distinct earthiness on the nose; whiffs of saddle leather mingle with scents of minerals, spice and black fruits. It is full-bodied and richly concentrated in the mouth, displaying a seamless integration of tannin, wood and acidity with flavors of black cherry and raspberry. The finish is long and resonant, and the wine—which is a pleasure to drink—cries out for game dishes.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to iconicspirits.net.