Everyone loves Tuscany it seems, so it follows that everyone loves Chianti. It is arguably the most-loved red wine in the world, if you think about it. Bordeaux and Burgundy may be more famous and regal, but the price of many examples of those wines keep them from being appreciated by so many people. Thus Chianti, historically a moderately priced wine, is seen in many more markets across the globe, giving more consumers the chance to embace this lovely Tuscan red.
The name Chianti has been around since the year 1100, when it was first used to describe a wide area in Tuscany’s central zone. The Etruscans who began viticulture along the region’s west coast, soon spread their efforts north and east, planting Sangiovese near the town of Siena, Pisa and Arezzo. It was in 1085 that the Ricasoli family began to produce wine at Castello di Brolio in Gaiole, one of Tuscany’s most famous estates.
Given the success of Chianti wine, farmers outside the center of Tuscany, wanting to cash in on the popularity of this name, started to produce Chianti throughout the region. Eventually the heart of the Chianti territory- the hills between Florence to the north and Siena to the south – became known as Chianti Classico, and today there are seven sub-zones that use the name Chianti with a geographical suffix, such as Chianti Colli Fiorentini (“the hills of Florence”) and Chianti Colli Senesi (“the hills of Siena).
The DOCG regulations are slightly different for Chianti Classico as compared with the other Chianti zones; basically the minimum amount of Sangiovese in Chianti Classico is 80%, as compared with 75% for the other zones. In the past, only local varieties, such as Canaiolo or Mammolo for red or Trebbiano or Malvasia for white were allowed in a Chianti blend, but the regulations were changed in the 1980s. Several producers, most notably Antinori and Le Pergole Torte, started to add Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon to the blend, leaving out traditional varieites. At first, these wines such as Tignanello, had to be called vino da tavola (table wines), as they did not conform to the Chianti regulations. But with the success of these wines and the more common use of international variteties from other area producers, the laws were changed. White varieties were banned from the Chianti blend a few years ago and today, Chianti can be made with small amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvgnon, Syrah or other varieties; it can also be 100% Sangiovese. (A Riserva bottling of Chianti must be aged longer than a normale bottling; in the case of Chianti Classico Riserva, the wine must be aged for a minimum period of two years and three months in wood.)
Top estates of Chianti today include:
- Castello di Brolio (Barone Ricasoli)
- Castello di Cacchiano
- Castello di Bossi
- Badia a Coltibuono
- Castello di Volpaia
- Castello Monsanto
- Castellare di Castellina
- San Felice
- Le Miccine
- Rocca di Montegrossi
CHIANTI COLLI FIORENTINI
- Castello di Poppiano
- San Michele a Torri
Chianti was traditionally a rustic red; while that adjective can cover a lot of flaws, rustic really was an apt decriptor for old-style Chiantis. Made from Sangiovese, which is high in acidity with moderate tannins, these wines were aged in large casks, giving them a cedary quality. Usually displaying notes of brown herbs, dried cherry and tomato as the wines aged, these were simple, charming wines meant for food; even today, the traditional style of Chianti (such as the excellent wines from Badia a Coltibuono) works beautifully with any number of foods such as veal, pork or pastas with tomato-based sauces.
However, modern methods both in the vineyards and in the cellar have changed the style of many Chiantis (as of course have the blending laws). The wines today are deeper on color, while many are oakier, especially the ones aged in French barriques.
Perhaps the biggest difference between today’s Chiantis and the older botlings is the fact that today, yields are much lower. Left to its own, Sangiovese can be uncontrollable, often getting 12 tons to the acre. This means a lot of wine, but wine that is thin and too acidic. Yields are often cut to 4-5 tons per acre these days (sometimes lower) and the wines are much fuller and riper with excellent Sangiovese fruit character.
While the style of wines can be argued, there is no question that today’s Chiantis are better quality offerings. Here are thoughts on this subject from Francesco Ricasoli, owner of Castello di Brolio; “The wines of today are without discussion much better wines from the ones of the past. Chianti Classico today is tracking its way for the future with innovation but still keeping its roots with Sangiovese and preserving its own style that makes it unique worldwide. It cannot be “duplicated” elsewhere in the world.”
Whatever your preference for Chianti – traditional style versus modern style – the best bottlings do present the charm of Sangiovese, with its lively acidity and fresh red cherry fruit in a nicely balanced wine that everyone loves.