Hannibal Lecter gave us arguably the world"s most famous wine pairing early in Silence of the Lambs. Come on now, everyone sing along:

"…I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti."

Lecter was a brilliant man. Patron of the arts. Gourmand. Wine aficionado. So, why a Chianti? You know -- straw-wrapped bottles that usually end up as candle holders you see hanging near the ceiling in Italian restaurants? Chiantis are cheap, uncomplicated table wine. Why would Lecter select one for his meal? Thankfully for us, we"re not trying to solve a murder, so we have the luxury of re-examining this rather misunderstood wine.

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First, Chianti is not a grape. It"s a province in Tuscany. Chianti is primarily made from the sangiovese grape. (The roots of the word "sangiovese" mean "blood of Jupiter") The Chianti region has produced this wine for 700 years. Chianti is a classic "food" wine -- this varietal really comes to life if you pair it with tasty vittles.

Chianti is an easy wine to understand. There are only two things that you need to look for on the label. First: origin. A wine simply labeled "Chianti" is generic - the grapes can be a blend of grapes from anywhere in the Chianti province. A "Chianti Classico" indicates a specific sub-region of the Chianti region. Classico is the most well-known and generally produces the highest quality wine. (There are also six other lesser-known regions) Chianti Classico is also sometimes designated by a black rooster on the neck of the bottle. Second, aging. If "Riserva" appears on the label - that bottle has been barrel-aged for a minimum of three years.

In terms of price (generally), regular Chianti will be least expensive - then Chianti Classico or Chianti Riserva - then Chianti Classico Riserva.

Oh, those wicker-wrapped bottles - the straw is a throwback to earlier days of glassblowing. Wine bottles were once globe-shaped. To prevent breakage, the winemakers wove straw cushions called fiascoes around the bottles. The tradition remains. Now, Fiasco-wrapped bottles are generally a curiosity and are reserved for cheaper Chianti. You can get a better value:

Gabbiano 2004 Chianti Classico -- The difference between "standard" Chianti and Chianti Classico is evident at first whiff. The usual cherry scent is much more pronounced, along with some smoky wood. The tartness of this Chianti is balanced nicely with a big dose of. The typical chalky finish of Chianti is balanced with a little sweetness -- which makes this a much stronger wine for bigger sauces. Roast pork or beef, risotto in mushroom sauce, or an aged cheese and crusty bread would be perfect here. $9-13.

Tiziano 2002 Chianti Riserva -- Tiziano makes a decent standard Chianti. Further aging makes a remarkable difference. The appearance is strikingly different -- much darker and heavier-looking than a standard Chianti. The big fruit nose on this wine has a pronounced earthy character. You"d probably want to uncork this one and let it breathe for a bit before drinking. The flavor is big and tart, but the aging largely removes the strong chalky finish, leaving you with lingering fruit and spice. If you ordered a steak, pasta Bolognese, or any kind of meat or pesto dish -- you"ve got a winner here at $8-10, a steal for a Riserva.

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So, returning to our old friend Dr. Lecter - liver is very pungent, and standard Chianti probably wouldn"t stand up to it. If you"re planning to dine on census taker, I would recommend a merlot. However, if you"re feeling traditional and you must have Chianti - find a big Chianti Classico Riserva…and a good attorney.

Until next time…Salute!

(Mike Rosenberg does not endorse the cannibalism of public employees. Contact him at thenakedvine
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by Mike Rosenberg