Chianti, once misunderstood, embodies the soul and history of Italian culture. The classic Tuscan red wine rests steady through the rise of Florence and the sting of politics. Chianti is a story of nobility, tradition, and evolution. The herbal tang from the Sangiovese grape has been tested and reworked over centuries. The wine somehow simultaneously speaks to Medieval history and the demands of modern tourism; it is a story that deserves more credit than a shrug or a straw-covered bottle. The wine does what few others can- stay relevant, historic, and at a great value.
The first mention of Chianti was in the latter half of the 13th Century, when Florence’s political influence was at its prime and the heart of Italian culture was forged. Land owners would rent the vineyards to sharecroppers through a system known as mezzadria, in which half of the crop would be returned to the landowner in exchange for use of the land. This exchange would form the beginnings of a noble class of marchant wine-making families that would incubate the wine business culture in Tuscany and set the bar for quality in centuries to come. Quality dropped significantly during the 1950s 1960s when the sharecropper system was forfeited, which led to a mass of wine growers left to create their own business, rather than relying on the traditions of the winemaking families, such as the Antinoris and the Frescobaldis. The Italian government chose to resolve the instability of local wine economy by emphasizing higher yields and requiring Sangiovese to be blended with easy to grow white grapes Malvasia and Trebbiano. Unfortunately this created an image of cheap table wine under the Chianti name; American restaurants famously poured the cheap juice from straw-covered bottles called fiasco. Ironically, it was the top producers who were labeling their wines as Vino da Tavola, or Table Wine, during this time. They did so in protest of the new laws that inevitably forced lesser quality and a bastardized name for the Chianti brand. These producers worked with 100% Sangiovese, French barriques, and lower yields. Eventually the governing body for wine, the Consorzio, reprimanded their mistake by abolishing the requirement for white grapes and enforcing stricter yields. In 1996 Chianti Classico finally received its own DOCG, highlighting the superior grapes grown on the albareze and galestro soils that are prized for producing the finest Sangiovese grapes. Chianti quality has been on a multi-decade upswing and is now the source for dry, tangy reds at serious value.
Climate & Style
Chianti sits among the rolling hills of Tuscany in Central Italy, which is greatly affected by the warm Tyrennean Sea. Olive trees are scattered among the vineyards, signaling the text book Mediterranean climate of the region. Summers can be warm, but the cool breezes that blow down from the Apennines Mountains to the North help to cool the vines. The best wineries grow their grapes at higher elevation, as seen in Chianti Classico. The chalky and sandy soils here lead to intense aroma and underlying minerality. The Sangiovese grape in Chianti produces wines that are both elegant in body but zippy and undeniably dry to the finish. It is sometimes blended with Canaiolo for added body and fruit. They are aged in oak, although individual producers may choose smaller French barrels for a more modern style, rather than the traditional large oak barrels that impart less oak flavor. Dried herbs, tobacco, tomato & balsamic are typical aromas on the nose of a Chianti, with a scent that somewhat mirrors the Tuscan olive trees. Most producers make a range of styles, from the basic Chianti DOC to a Riserva or Gran Selezione, which requires lengthier aging and a higher alcohol percentage. In any case, the wines are no longer a reflection of the cheap buzz that came with checkered table cloths and Americanized Italian dishes. The wines remain relevant and resilient- a reflection of 800 years of evolution for wine lovers worldwide. -AT