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Two classic Chiantis from Tuscany

Wine of the week: Melini's Riservas elegant, substantial, graceful vintages
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If I were looking for a beautiful, opulent wine to present as a holiday gift or to bring to dinner with good friends, I would go right to Italy, to Tuscany and a bottle of small-production Chianti Classico.  Such a wine won't be found in the bargain bin of your wine store. But for a special occasion it is well worth spending somewhat more for a wine that will be remembered for a long time.

I tried two such wines recently and thought they would be just right for robust holiday meals or for gifts that will make an impression.  Both are from Melini, the large and venerable Tuscan producer that makes a broad range of wines.  While I am not particularly interested in trying the company's inexpensive "Straw Cask" Chianti, I found the higher-end wines real treats.

Both are from the 1999 vintage -- Melini's Chianti Classico Riserva "La Selvanella," at $24, and the Chianti Classico Riserva "Massovecchio," at $30.  The names refer to the vineyard areas where the grapes are grown, Massovecchio accounting for just 15 acres, La Selvanella about 100.

Frederick Wildman and Sons

The grape, of course, is Sangiovese, the signature variety of Tuscany - 100 percent for La Selvanella, 95 percent for the Massovecchio, which also has five percent Merlot. "Riserva" means that the wines have been aged in oak barrels for at least 30 months.

What does all of this add up to? These are elegant, substantial and graceful wines.  In their reference, "Vino Italiano," Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch describe a good Chianti as having "a foresty, smoky quality; drinking it is like eating berries in the woods, the spicy scents of the underbrush mingling with the sweetness of the fruit."

The Melini wines are defined by raspberry, blueberry and plum with overtones of spice from the oak.  Both have character, warmth and balance. The main difference is in the tannic structure.  La Selvanella is a bit firmer, making it a slightly more "chewy" wine; the Massovecchio, with its touch of Merlot, is a bit softer and more refined.  Which is better? It really boils down to the style you prefer.  For me, it was the Massovecchio.  I liked its elegance and accessibility.

Both wines drink well now, though they will continue to develop in the bottle for a number of years, particularly La Selvanella.  But why wait?  I can taste them right now with a nice roast beef, lamb or venison, or a hearty meat sauce on a chilly winter night.