The Chianti Classico Wines

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Chianti is a red Italian wine produced in Tuscany. It was historically associated with a squat bottle enclosed in a straw basket, called a fiasco ("flask"; pl. fiaschi); however, the fiasco is only used by a few makers of the wine now; most Chianti is bottled in traditionally shaped wine bottles. Baron Bettino Ricasoli (later Prime Minister in the Kingdom of Italy) created the Chianti recipe of 70% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo and 15% Malvasia bianca in the middle of the 19th century.


A Fiasco - traditional bottle for some
Chianti wines

The first definition of a wine-area called Chianti was made in 1716. It described the area near the villages of Gaiole, Castellina and Radda; the so-called Lega del Chianti and later Provincia del Chianti (Chianti province). In 1932 the Chianti area was completely re-drawn and divided in seven sub-areas: Classico, Colli Aretini, Colli Fiorentini, Colline Pisane, Colli Senesi, Montalbano and Rùfina. Most of the villages that in 1932 were suddenly included in the new Chianti Classico area added in Chianti to their name-such as Greve in Chianti which amended its name in 1972.

Wines labeled Chianti Classico come from the biggest sub-area of Chianti, that sub-area that includes the old Chianti area. The other variants, with the exception of Rufina from the north-east side of Florence and Montalbano in the south of Pistoia, originate in the respective named provinces: Siena for the Colli Senesi, Florence for the Colli Fiorentini, Arezzo for the Colli Aretini and Pisa for the Colline Pisane. In 1996 part of the Colli Fiorentini sub-area was renamed Montespertoli.

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And: The Wine Roads of Italy

During the 1970s producers started to reduce the quantity of white grapes in Chianti. In 1995 it became legal to produce a Chianti with 100% Sangiovese. For a wine to retain the name of Chianti, it must be produced with at least 80% Sangiovese grapes.

A Chianti may have a picture of a black rooster (known in Italian as a gallo nero) on the neck of the bottle, which indicates that the producer of the wine is a member of the "Gallo Nero" Consortium; an association of producers of the Classico sub-area sharing marketing costs. 

Since 2005 the black rooster has been the emblem of the Chianti Classico producers association. Aged Chianti (38 months instead of 4-7), may be labeled as Riserva. Chianti that meets more stringent requirements (lower yield, higher alcohol content and dry extract) may be labeled as Chianti Superiore. Chianti from the "Classico" sub-area is not allowed in any case to be labeled as "Superiore".

History

The earliest documentation of a "Chianti wine" dates back to the 13th century when viticulture was known to flourish in the "Chianti Mountains" around Florence. The merchants in the nearby townships of Castellina, Gaiole and Radda formed the Lega del Chianti (League of Chianti) to produce and promote the local wine. In 1398, records note that the earliest incarnation of Chianti was as a white wine.

In 1716 Cosimo III de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany issued an edict legislating that the three villages of the Lega del Chianti as well as the village of Greve and a 2 mile (3 km) hillside north of Greve near Spedaluzza as the only officially recognized producers of Chianti. This delineation existed until the 1930s when the Italian government expanded the zone. Subsequent expansions throughout the 20th century would eventually bring the Chianti zone to cover almost all of Tuscany. The original zone dictated by the edict of Cosimo III de' Medici would eventually be considered the heart of the Chianti Classico region.


The Italian statesman Bettino Ricasoli developed the first "modern" Chianti recipe that was Sangiovese based.By the 18th century, Chianti was widely recognized as a red wine, but the exact composition and grape varieties used to make Chianti at this point is unknown. Ampelographers find clues about which grape varieties were popular at the time in the writings of Italian writer Cosimo Villifranchi who noted that Canaiolo was widely planted variety in the area along with Sangiovese, Mammolo and Marzemino. It was not until the work of the Italian statesman Bettino Ricasoli that the modern "Chianti recipe" as a Sangiovese-based wine would take shape.

Prior to Ricasoli, Canaiolo was emerging as the dominant variety in the Chianti blend with Sangiovese and Malvasia playing supporting roles. In the mid-19th century, Ricasoli developed a recipe for Chianti that was based primarily on Sangiovese. His recipe called for 70% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo, 10% Malvasia (later amended to include Trebbiano) and 5% other local red varieties. In 1967, the Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) regulation set by the Italian government firmly established the "Ricasoli formula" of a Sangiovese-based blend with 10-30% Malvasia and Trebbiano.

The late 19th century saw a period of economic and political upheaval. First came oidium and then the phylloxera epidemic would take it toll on the vineyards of Chianti just as they had ravaged vineyards across the rest of Europe. The chaos and poverty following the Risorgimento heralded the beginning of the Italian diaspora that would take Italian vineyard workers and winemakers abroad as immigrants to new lands. Those that stayed behind and replanted choose high-yielding varieties like Trebbiano and Sangiovese clones such as the Sangiovese di Romagna from the nearby Romagna region.

Following World War II, the general trend in the world wine market for cheap, easy-drinking wine saw a brief boom for the region. With over-cropping and an emphasis on quantity over quality, the reputation of Chianti among consumers eventually plummeted. By the 1950s, Trebbiano (which is known for its neutral flavors) made up to 30% of many mass-market Chiantis.

By the late 20th century, Chianti was often associated with basic Chianti sold in a squat bottle enclosed in a straw basket, called a fiasco. However, during the same period, a group of ambitious producers began working outside the boundaries of DOC regulations to make what they believed would be a higher quality style of Chianti. These wines eventually became known as the "Super Tuscans".

Many of the producers behind the Super Tuscan movement were originally Chianti producers who were rebelling against what they felt were antiquated DOC regulations. Some of these producers wanted to make Chiantis that were 100% varietal Sangiovese. Others wanted the flexibility to experiment with blending French grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot or to not be required to blend in any white grape varieties.

The late 20th century saw a flurry of creativity and innovation in the Chianti zones as producers experimented with new grape varieties and introduced modern winemaking techniques such as the use of new oak barrels. The prices and wine ratings of some Super Tuscans would regularly eclipse those of DOC sanctioned Chiantis. The success of the Super Tuscans encouraged government officials to reconsider the DOC regulations in order to bring some of these wines back into the fold labeled as Chianti.

Wine regions within the Chianti

Chianti wine area within TuscanyThe Chianti region covers a vast area of Tuscany and includes within its boundaries several overlapping Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) regions. Other well known Sangiovese-based Tuscan wines such as Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano could be bottled and labeled under the most basic designation of "Chianti" if their producers chose to do so.


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Within the collective Chianti region more than 8 million cases of wines classified as DOC level or above are produced each year. Today, most Chianti falls under two major designations of Chianti DOCG, which includes basic level Chianti, as well as that from seven designated sub-zones, and Chianti Classico DOCG.

Together, these two Chianti zones produce the largest volume of DOC/G wines in Italy.

Chianti Classico

In 1716 Cosimo III de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany issued an edict legislating that the three villages of the Lega del Chianti (Castellina in Chianti, Gaiole in Chianti, and Radda in Chianti) as well as the village of Greve and a 2-mile (3-km) stretch of hillside north of Greve near Spedaluzza as the only officially recognized producers of Chianti. This delineation existed until July 1932, when the Italian government expanded the Chianti zone to include the outlying areas of Barberino Val d'Elsa, Chiocchio, Robbiano, San Casciano in Val di Pesa and Strada. The 1932 expansion was canonized into DOC regulations in 1966.

Since the mid 1980s, the Chianti Classico zone has had it own DOCG recognized area separate from the greater Chianti region. As of 2006, there were 17,640 acres (7,142 hectares) of vineyards in the Chianti Classico region.

The Chianti Classico region covers an area of approximate 100 square miles (259 square kilometers) between the city of Florence to the north and Siena to the south. The four communes of Castellina in Chianti in Chianti, Gaiole in Chianti, Greve in Chianti and Radda in Chianti are located entirely within the boundaries of the Classico region with parts of Barberino Val d'Elsa, San Casciano in Val di Pesa and Tavarnelle Val di Pesa in the province of Florence as well as Castelnuovo Berardenga and Poggibonsi in the province of Siena included within the permitted boundaries of Chianti Classico.

The soil and geography of this region can be quite varied, with altitudes ranging from 820 feet (250 meters) to 2000 feet (610 meters), and rolling hills producing differing macroclimates. There are two main soil types in the region: a weathered sandstone known as albarese and a bluish-gray chalky marlstone known as galestro. The soil in the north is richer and more fertile with more galestro, with the soil gradually becoming harder and stonier with more albarese in the south. In the north, the Arno river can have an influence on the climate, keeping the temperatures slightly cooler, an influence that diminishes further south in the warmer Classico territory towards Castelnuovo Berardenga.

Regional differences

Vineyards in Gaiole in Chianti in the Chianti Classico region Chianti Classico wines tend to be medium-bodied with firm tannins and medium-high to high acidity. Floral, cherry and light nutty notes are characteristic aromas with the wines expressing more notes on the mid-palate and finish than at the front of the mouth. As with Bordeaux, the different regions of Chianti Classico have unique characteristics that can be exemplified and perceived in some wines from those areas. According to Master of Wine Mary Ewing-Mulligan, Chianti Classico wines from the Castellina region tend to have a very delicate aroma and flavor, Castelnuovo Berardegna region wines tend to be the most ripe and richest tasting, wines from Gaiole tend to have be characterized by their structure and firm tannins while wines from the Greve area tend to have very concentrated flavors.

Chianti Wine Designations

The Chianti DOCG covers all the Chianti wine and includes a large stretch of land encompassing the western reaches of the province of Pisa near the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Florentine hills in the province of Florence to the north, to the province of Arezzo in the east and the Siena hills to the south. Within this regions are vineyards that overlap the DOCG regions of Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Any Sangiovese-based wine made according to the Chianti guideline from these vineyards can be labeled and marked under the basic Chianti DOCG should the producer wish to use the designation.

Within the Chianti DOCG there are eight defined sub-zones, that are permitted to affix their name to the wine label. Wines that are labeled as simply Chianti are made either from a blend from these sub-zones or include grapes from peripheral areas not within the boundaries of a sub-zone. The sub-zones are (clockwise from the north): the Colli Fiorentini which is located south of the city of Florence; Chianti Rufina in the northeastern part of the zone located around the commune of Rufina; Classico in the center of Chianti, across the provinces of Florence and Siena; Colli Aretini in the Arezzo province to the east; Colli Senesi south of Chianti Classico in the Siena hills, this is the largest of the sub-zones and includes the Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano areas; Colline Pisane the westernmost sub-zone in the province of Pisa; Montespertoli located within the Colli Fiorentini around the commune of Montespertoli ; Montalbano in the northwest part of the zone which includes the Carmignano DOCG.

As of 2006, there were 786 acres (318 hectares) under production in Montalbano, 2,236 (905 hectares) in the Colli Fiorentini, 140 (57 hectares) in Montespertoli, 1,840 (745 hectares) in Rufina, 8,780 (3,553 hectares) in the Colli Senesi, 380 (154 hectares) in Colline Pisane, 1,603 (649 hectares) in the Colli Aretini, and an additional 25,511 (10,324 hectares) in the peripherals areas that do not fall within one of the sub-zone classifications. Wines produced from these vineyards are simply labeled as "Chianti".

Sub-zone differences

A bottle of basic DOCG Chianti Riserva that does not specify a sub-zone on the label. This wine may be a blend from several zones.  Outside of Chianto Classico, the wines of the Chianti sub-zone of Rufina are among the most widely recognized and exported from the Chianti region. Located in the Arno valley near the town of Pontassieve, the Rufina region includes much area in the Pomino region, an area that has a long history of wine production. The area is noted for the cool climate of its elevated vineyards located up to 2,950 feet (900 meters). The vineyard soils of the region are predominately marl and chalk. The Florentine merchant families of the Antinori and Frescobaldi own the majority of the vineyards in Rufina. Chianti from the Rufina area is characterized by its multi-layered complexity and elegance.

The Colli Fiorentini has seen an influx of activity and new vineyard development in recent years as wealthy Florentine business people move to the country to plant vineyards and open wineries. Many foreign "flying winemakers" have had a hand in this development, bringing global viticulture and winemaking techniques to the Colli Fiorentini. Located in the hills between the Chianti Classico area and Arno valley, the wines of the Colli Fiorentini vary widely depending on producer, but tend to have a simple structure with strong character and fruit notes. The Montespertoli sub-zone was part of the Colli Fiorentini sub-zone until 2002 when it became its own tiny enclave.

The Montalbano region is located in the shadow of the Carmignano DOCG, with much of the best Sangiovese going to that wine. A similar situation exists in the Colli Senesi which includes the well known DOCG regions of Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Both regions rarely appear on wine labels that are exported out of Tuscany. The Colli Pisane area produces typical Chiantis with the lightest body and color. The Colli Aretini is a relatively new and emerging area that has seen an influx of investment and new winemaking in recent years.

Chianti blend and legal requirements

Since 1996 the blend for Chianti and Chianti Classico has been 75-100% Sangiovese, up to 10% Canaiolo and up to 20% of any other approved red grape variety such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah. Since 2006, the use of white grape varieties such as Malvasia and Trebbiano have been prohibited in Chianti Classico. Chianti Classico must have a minimum alcohol level of at least 12% with a minimum of 7 months aging in oak, while Chianti Classico's labeled riserva must be aged at least 27 months at the winery, with a minimum alcohol level of at least 12.5%.

The harvest yields for Chianti Classico are restricted to no more than 3 tons per acre (7.5 tonnes/hectare). For basic Chianti, the minimum alcohol level is 11.5% with yields restricted to 4 tons per acre (9 tonnes/hectare).

The aging for basic Chianti DOCG is much less stringent with most varieties allowed to be released to the market on March 1st following the vintage year. The sub-zones of Colli Fiorentini, Montespertoli and Rufina must be aged for a further three months and not released until June 1st. All Chianti Classicos must be held back until October 1st in the year following the vintage.


Wines

Sangiovese grapes used to make Chianti wineJancis Robinson notes that Chianti is sometimes called the "Bordeaux of Italy". The flexibility in the blending recipe for Chianti accounts for some of the variability in styles among Chiantis. Lighter bodied styles will generally have a higher proportion of white grape varieties blended in, while Chiantis that have only red grape varieties will be fuller and richer. While only 15% of Cabernet Sauvignon is permitted in the blend, the nature of the grape variety can have a dominant personality in the Chianti blend and be a strong influence in the wine.

Chianti Classico

Chianti Classico wines are characterized in their youth by their predominantly floral and cinnamon spicy bouquet. As the wine ages, aromas of tobacco and leather can emerge. Chiantis tend to have medium-highacidity and medium tannins. The acidity in the wines make them very flexible with food and wine pairings, particularly with Italian cuisines that feature red sauce, as well with as beef, lamb and wild game. Basic level Chianti is often characterized by its juicy fruit notes of cherry, plum and raspberry and can range from simple quaffing wines to those approaching the level of Chianti Classico. Wine expert Tom Stevenson notes that these basic everyday drinking Chiantis are at their peak drinking qualities often between three and five years after vintage with premium examples having the potential to age for four to eight years. Well-made examples of Chianti Classico often have the potential to age and improve in the bottle for six to twenty years.

Chianti Superiore

Chianti Superiore is an Italian DOCG wine produced in the provinces of Arezzo, Florence, Pisa, Pistoia, Prato and Siena, in Tuscany. Superiore is a specification for wines produced with a stricter rule of production than other Chianti wines. Chianti Superiore has been authorized since 1996.  Chianti Superiore wines can be produced only from grapes cultivated in the Chianti wine areas except from those vineyards that are registered in the Chianti Classico sub-zone. Vineyards registered in Chianti sub-zones other than Classico can produce Chianti Superiore wines but must omit the sub-zone name on the label. Ageing is calculated from January 1 after the picking. Chianti Superiore cannot be sold to the consumer before nine months of ageing, of which three must be in the bottle. Therefore it cannot be bottled before the June after picking or sold to consumers before the next September.

Chianti Superiore wines must be produced with the following grapes:

  • Sangiovese: min. 75%

  • Canaiolo Nero: max. 10%

  • Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia del Chianti: max. 10%

  • Other authorized red grapes: max. 20%

Gallo Nero

The gallo nero seal of the Consorzio Chianti ClassicoThe black rooster (gallo nero in Italian) that appears on the neck labels of many Chianti Classico is the symbol of the Consorzio Chianti Classico, a foundation of producers in the Chianti Classico region. The foundation was founded with the aim of promoting the wines of the region, improving quality and preventing wine fraud. Since the 1980s, the foundation has sponsored extensive research into the viticultural and winemaking practice of the Chianti Classic area, particularly in the area of clonal research. In the last quarter of a century more than 50% of the vineyards in the Chianti Classic region have been replanted with improved Sangioves clones and to modern vineyard schematics as part of the Consorzio Chianti Classico's project "Chianti 2000".

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