The origin of the word Chianti may be a mystery, but the wine is anything but. Arguably the world’s most well-loved red wine type, Chianti is also undoubtedly one of the world’s most famous. Originating from an area in Tuscany centered on the towns of Florence and Siena, Chianti today is a wine with a variety of styles, depending on where the grapes are sourced.
Chianti Classico – a district located between Florence and Siena – is the most famous characterization of Chianti, but to label it as the best is not necessarily true. That is because a number of the finest wines labeled as Chianti emerge from outside the Classico district; there are seven sub-zones in the adjacent territory, all of them home to Sangiovese-dominant wines that truly define what the word Chianti is all about.
The seven sub-zones are:
Chianti Montalbano – west of Florence
Chianti Rufina (pronounced roof-ee-nah) – east of Florence
Chianti Colli Fiorentini (“the hills of Firenze”) – just south of Florence
Chianti Colli Aretini (“the hills of Arezzo”) – south and east of Florence
Chianti Colli Senesi– the southernmost Chianti zone – encompassing an area that includes Montepulciano and Montalcino
Chianti Montespertoli – southwest of Florence
Chianti Colli Pisane (“the hills of Pisa”) – the westernmost Chianti zone
Each of these various examples of Chianti must contain a minimum of 70% Sangiovese (75% for Chianti Colli Senesi), the grape that truly defines what a Chianti is; the wines can be exclusively Sangiovese. Other varieties that can be used in the final blend include traditional varieties such as Canaiolo and Colorino, while international varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc can also be incorporated.
Note also that a wine merely labeled as Chianti can be made from approved varieties sourced from any of these seven sub-zones. While an entry level Chianti such as this often does not the complexities or richness of a wine from an individual zone, a humble Chianti does display the qualities of these wines, as it is primarily Sangiovese, with its delicate cherry fruit, good acidity and moderate tannins; these wines are often very good values as well.
Interestingly, producers in some of the most famous Tuscan districts can produce a Chianti along with their most renowned wine. For example, Capezzana makes both a Chianti Montalbano as well as Carmignano, a Sangiovese-based wine always blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, while vintners in Montalcino and Montepulciano can also make a Chianti Colli Senesi along with their more renowned wine type.
Look for many of these examples of Chianti to drink well for 3-5 years, and perhaps a bit longer, depending on the vintage. Many estates also make a riserva bottling; aged longer in wood, and generally a more deeply concentrated wine, look for 10-15 years of drinkability with these wines.
As with any Sangiovese-based wine, foods that pair well with any of these various Chiantis include pork, veal, tomato-based sauces for pastas and even tomato soups. The riserva wines, richer and more complex, are ideal for roast veal or cinghiale (wild boar).
There are several hundred producers in these areas. Among the finest producers and wines are these:
La Leccia – Chianti “Gotarossa”
San Fabiano – Chianti Superiore “Etichetta Nera”
San Vito – Chianti Colli Fiorentini “Darno” (90% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo)
Castelvecchio – Chianti Colli Fiorentini (Chianti “Santa Caterina” – a lovely, fresh, easy-drinking Chianti with a small percentage of Canaiolo; “Il Castelvecchio”, 90% Sangiovese, 10% Merlot)
Frescobaldi – Chianti Rufina (Chianti Rufina Riserva Nipozzano “Vecchie Viti” – old vine Chianti – superb!)
Tenuta Cantagallo – Chianti Montalbano Riserva
Vini Conti – Chianti Montespertoli “Vigna Antinoro”
Buccia Nera – Chianti Colli Aretini (Chianti Riserva “Tenuta di Campriano”)