While Chianti Classico may be such an agreeable and appealing wine to millions of consumers around the world, its complex history belies the apparent charm of this product. In their latest book Chianti Classico: The Search for Tuscany’s Noblest Wine, Bill Nesto and Frances di Savino tell the remarkable story of how this wine came to emerge out of hundreds of years of internal struggle among local individuals who sought to create a specific identity for this wine. This fighting, the authors suggest, is still going on today.
Nesto, an American Master of Wine, and his partner di Savino, know their subject extremely well and go to painstaking detail to weave a highly entertaining tale. What comes through in these pages is the ever changing definition of what Chianti Classico has been and continues to be. “From its earliest days, Chianti has been shrouded in mystery,” is an iconic line of text from early in the book; we learn how deep that mystery is, be it an exact definition of the Chianti (or Chianti Classico) zone, or what varieties were required at particular times in the production of Chianti Classico. The authors write a great deal of how the wine has changed over the years, due to the constant variation of local regulations; while Sangiovese has always been the primary variety that has defined the wine, today international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are allowed in the blend, and the authors explain how the current wines are vastly different than those produced in the 1960s and ’70s.
There is quite a bit of technical information in the book, including a section on clones of Sangiovese, as well as analysis of the difficulties of growing the grape; factors here include its late ripening, leaving it susceptible to late season rains, along with the fact that the thin skins of the grapes make Sangiovese prone to botrytis. There is even a separate chapter titled “Viticulture in Chianti,” which is well done. Serious wine lovers will be fascinated with this section of the book, but even casual wine lovers should enjoy this text, as it is engagingly written.
The authors include a lengthy section on their favorite producers, noting that they will be discussing small to midsize artisanal producers in the various zones in Chianti Classico. This chapter alone makes for integral reading, as the authors give a brief history of each estate, along with their insight on recent releases. While they recommend most of the wines they tasted, they do have some critical evaluation for a few of the wines that they believed lacked fruit or seemed over oaked; this is a nice touch.
My favorite chapter is titled “Chianti’s Hidden Roads”, in which the authors are treated to an insider’s tour of the territory by Giovanni Brachetti Montorselli. Having worked for the Chianti Classico consortium for almost forty years, Montorselli was the perfect individual to show the valleys, rivers and hidden paths of this land to the authors, and Nesto and di Savino describe this journey in captivating fashion.
I do have one criticism of this book, and it has nothing to do with the authors’ text; rather it is with the lack of photography. After being treated to such endearing descriptions of this beautiful territory, is it asking too much for a few images? Now there are some beautifully detailed maps and historical plates that are very informative in telling this story, but there are only three photographs here: a lovely cover photo by Nesto and two smaller black-and-white-images, also taken by Nesto. These two images are of individuals, but there are no photos of vineyards. Again, why not?
Having written three wine books myself, I do know about production costs when photos are included, especially color images. I also realize that this is not a coffee table book, meant for consumers to thumb through idly; rather this is a book meant for serious wine students. Still, I’m sure that most of these readers would want to see images (especially color) of Chianti Classico. This is a major fault, and it’s something that the publisher has done previously in several of their wine books. Production costs aside, I do hope that in this age of visual media, the publisher will change their methods and begin to include more photographs – especially color – in their wine books.
Apart from this, Chianti Classico: The Search for Tuscany’s Noblest Wine is very highly recommended.
P.S. I wonder what the producers of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, another of Tuscany’s celebrated red wine types, think of the subtitle of this book!
Chianti Classico: The Search for Tuscany’s Noblest Wine
University of California Press, 360 pages, $39.95 (32.95 British pounds)