Rediscovering Chianti Classic
The late, great gastronome Waverly Root in his seminal 1971 work The Food of Italy, writes: “The one Italian wine every foreigner knows is Tuscan, Chianti. The pear-shaped, straw-covered bottle is familiar all over the world.” Indeed, it’s not hard to picture the scene in numerous trattorias around the world, a flagon of acidic, rough-hewn Chianti sitting on a red-and-white-checked tablecloth-dressed table. Yet renown of this sort has kept a generation of wine lovers away from the wines grown in the hills between Florence and Siena, flocking instead to the more polished, international-style reds from the Tuscan coast, or the more chic-boutique Brunello di Montalcino hailing from the south.
But if Chianti still brings to mind a straw-covered bottle of dubious quality, it’s time to rediscover this red beauty. You’ll find that wines from the heart of Tuscany have changed, and decidedly, for the better. The finest contemporary Tuscan wines are worthy of serious attention and admiration.
In order to protect the celebrated wine produced in the provinces of Florence and Siena, Chianti, the region first mapped out in 1716 by Grand Duke Cosimo dei’ Medici III in 1716, was done so to avoid fraudulent pretenders. But subsequent references to the region and its wine, beyond that famous decree, fade into the mists of time, and with them, wine quality.
In an epic twist of bad timing, the modern Chianti Denominazione di Origine Controllata (appellation, or DOC) was drawn up in the mid-1960s. It was a period of massive economic upheaval and radical reform in Italy following WWII. Many parts of the country had barely moved beyond the latifundia system, a medieval form of sharecropping whereby wealthy landowners allowed tenant farmers to live, and farm their land in exchange for a share of their crops. Tuscany was one of the last regions in Italy to abolish sharecropping, where it persisted up until the 1960s. A mass labor exodus was underway, and countless estates were abandoned. Industrial tractors were taking over, and the best hillside vineyards were forsaken for easier fields to farm.
The administrative authorities from Rome arrived in Tuscany during this volatile period to draw up the new official wine growing regulations. Appellations by nature are a codification of tradition, and the traditions of Tuscany at the time were aimed at maximizing quantity, not quality. The Chianti regulations that had been codified as “traditional” reflected a medieval mentality: high yields, early harvests to lower risks, mixing white grapes with red, and other techniques that resulted in a more ‘rustic’ type of wine. And for good measure, the production zone was also expanded well beyond the original hills between Florence and Siena, to ensure that the world would be awash in cheap Chianti.
It didn’t take long for a handful of visionaries such as Niccolò Antinori, and Piero Incisa dell Rochetta (Tenuta San Guido) to realize that following the official rules would lead to mediocre wines. A cadre of ambitious producers began crafting wines using non-traditional techniques, resulting in the loss of rights to the Chianti name. The only designation they were entitled to use was lowly Vino da Tavola (Table Wine). Yet it did not matter, these wines – Tignanello, Sassicaia, Cepparello, and others – quickly became some of the most famous, expensive, and sought-after wines in all of Italy.
Others, of course, took note. The Tuscan countryside was slowly repopulated, often by wealthy industrialists from other parts of Italy and Europe. Their aim was to make great wine, not follow archaic rules and regulations. The growing momentum of quality wine would eventually bring Chianti into the 21st century.
Appellation regulations were officially changed in 1996 to reflect contemporary reality. White grapes were excluded, and notably, a separate appellation, Chianti Classico, was created for wines grown in the original heartland mapped out in the 18th century. Wines from these steep, stony hills are subject to much more stringent regulations than basic Chianti and are far more naturally suited to quality wine.
Into the new millennium, quality has risen immeasurably. There has never been a better time to re-shape your image of Chianti Classico. Each expression is like a snowflake, composed of the same material, but displaying an infinite range of nuance born of micro variations in soil, elevation, slope aspect, and winemaking philosophy. These wines are once again among Italy’s finest.
In addition to straight Chianti Classico, look for wines labelled Chianti Classico Riserva – superior wines given longer aging. And at the top of the quality pyramid is Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, wines from an estate’s top (often single) vineyard(s) and aged at least three years before release. But be sure wines are labelled ‘Classico’ as straight Chianti is generally inferior.
Waverly Root’s 1971 description of Chianti Classico wines still stands the test of time: “In colour, it should be a bright, ruby-red; in texture, suave; in taste it suggests violets, with a lurking agreeable slight bitterness in the background. Occasionally it delivers a slight sting to the tongue, like a not-quite-gaseous mineral water.”
Naturally, the best way to appreciate them is in the region itself, and few are as welcoming as Chianti, a wine, food, and art lover’s paradise. Start your rediscovery with wines from any one of these top estates:
• Badia a Coltibuono
• Castello di Ama
• Castello di Volpaia
• Fattoria di Fèlsina
• Fattoria Le Fonti
• Isole e Olena
• Poggio Scalette
• San Giusto A Rentenanno
Photo Credits: John Szabo