Even if your wine knowledge is limited, you’ll have an opinion about Chianti. The region is rich in a romance and history that seems to transcend the need for an in-depth knowledge of its land and its wines, instead conjuring images of rolling hills, olive groves, and vineyards; the beauty and culture of Florence; endless days of blazing sunshine and terrace lunches – for many it’s the ideal place for a vacation, or even better, the second home.
Origins of viticultural activity date back to the Etruscans, who settled in the region in the eighth century BC, and etymology of the word “Chianti” has been attributed by some scholars to the common Etruscan name Clante or the Latin verb clango, supposedly relating to “sound” or “horn,” perhaps denoting the start of a hunt, although an exact root is unclear. Mentions of “Chianti wine” (early references are to a white wine) stretch back to the 13th century when the vineyards around Florence were referred to as being located among the “Chianti mountains.”
It wasn’t until 1716, however, that the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de’ Medici, legislated the first recorded boundaries of the region’s wines, much of which is today part of the Chianti Classico DOCG, now numbering around 17,290 acres of vines. Finally, in 1996, the DOCG, created in 1984, received a ministerial decree stipulating its independence and various rules, including a minimum of 80 percent Sangiovese grapes (the archetypal varietal of the region), minimum aging requirements (seven months in oak barrels, 24 for Riserva), minimum alcohol (12 percent ABV, 12.5 percent for Riserva), and banning white grapes Trebbiano and Malvasia from 2006 onwards (the use of those grapes was permitted until then to “soften” the wines).
These measures to protect the distinctiveness and integrity of the oldest area of Chianti (alongside the 700-year-old Black Rooster symbol of the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico, found on all bottles, a relic of the feuding between the townships of Florence and Siena), are topped off with a final tasting by the Consorzio to achieve the Chianti Classico DOCG stamp of approval. Even so, there is debate within the region as to what a “typical” Chianti Classico should be.
The wines are expected to express a certain typicity, with scents of violets, red cherries, and a ruby-red color when young
“It is difficult to give precise characteristics to a Chianti Classico and a Riserva due to the vast size and different pedoclimatic conditions of the production zone,” says Piero Lanza, winemaker at Poggerino, in the commune of Radda. “It should at once demonstrate the specific complexity of its terroir and be easy to drink. A Riserva, apart from being more complex, must have the qualities to age well through the years.”
The wines are expected to express a certain typicity, which includes scents of violets, red cherries, and a ruby-red color when young, with grace and elegance rising above brutish weight and power: a Sangiovese-dominated blend will always err towards a lighter, brighter expression of the region, when not bulked up with large percentages of weightier varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Sean O’Callaghan, winemaker at Riecine, whose Chianti Classico is 100 percent Sangiovese, sums up his ethos: “Sangiovese is a difficult grape, like Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo; I am looking for fresh, elegant, fruit-driven wines that are exciting to drink when young, and will age for at least five years.”
He feels blessed that the soils and aspect of the vineyards do much of the work for him, in terms of the style he aims to achieve. “Our vineyards are spread out over the Gaiole area. Each one has its own terroir, soil, microclimate, which gives the grapes varying ripeness and flavors,” he says proudly. “The combination of these sites between 450 and 700 meters [1,475-2,295 ft] above sea level gives us, even in hot vintages, the possibility to make the elegant style I am looking for. We are 100 percent organic and use some biodynamic aspects, so we are in the vineyards all the time.”
Chianti has always been thought of as ‘value,’ even though the wines are now better than ever before
One of the iconic images of Chianti remains the straw-covered “fiasco,” whose souvenir-shop image and cheap, underwhelming wine belie a more illustrious history. There are mentions of the receptacle by the 14th-century poet Giovanni Boccaccio in his Decameron, its distinctive round bottom being easier for glass blowers to make, but necessitating a flat-bottomed straw basket for protection and ease of handling.
The fiasco came to embody what some have referred to as Chianti’s “image problem,” but there is now talk of a renewed swagger in the region as it celebrates the 300th anniversary of Cosimo III’s demarcation of the Chianti Classico “sweet spot” boundaries. Per Holmberg, Vice President and Head of Christie’s Wine Department, Americas, points out the most recent innovation in the region’s marketing fightback: “The latest effort to increase the image of Chianti is the new classification ‘Gran Selezione.’ To use this designation the wines must come from Chianti Classico, only use estate-grown fruit (as opposed to purchased grapes), and have been cellared for at least 30 months before release.”
In many respects the Chianti category lost some of the limelight when, from the 1970s onwards, the so-called Super Tuscans (many of whom were Chianti producers) such as Sassicaia, Ornellaia, and Tignanello began to receive international acclaim. As producers broke away from the stringent rules of production of the time, the overall quality of the wines of Tuscany improved – although it’s these Super Tuscans that remain the most lucrative wines to invest in.
“Some of the best Chianti Classico producers today are Fèlsina, Castello di Ama, Querciabella, Brancaia, Fontodi, and Antinori. All these wines are wonderful, can be stored, and improve over time, but they do not really increase in value. Chianti has always been thought of as ‘value,’ even though the wines are now currently better than ever before,” observes Holmberg.
Central to many of the improvements in the region has been a return to trusted methods of years gone by, more rigor and work among the vines. As Lanza points out: “Most of the progress in the last few years has been in the vineyard, with the selection of Sangiovese clones, greater density of vines per hectare, more careful managing of the vineyards, with lower yields and organic farming. Above all, there has been a natural return to our roots: fermentations with wild yeasts, the use of cement tanks for vinification, and large casks for aging. All things done by our grandfathers 50 years ago.”
I love the beauty, the peace, the food; it never tires even after 26 years
O’Callaghan, the English winemaker who fell in love with Tuscany in the early 1990s, recounts the Chianti epiphany that began his own romance: “An ’85 Riserva under the pergola, with a view over a tiny patch of vines extending out over towards Siena. I love the beauty, the peace, the food; it never tires even after 26 years.”
A region that has seen plenty of vicissitudes over its rich history has a bounce back in its step: 300 years later, the rooster is strutting like never before.
Photography: Fabrizio Cicconi