Revered by wine lovers the world over, Chianti is one of Italy’s most popular wines. This famously food-friendly vino hails from stunning Tuscany. Nestled south of Po Valley, Tuscany stretches down the western, sun-soaked coast of Central Italy. The Apennine Mountains, which run south through the center of the country, dominate this region. Growers leverage their hillsides with varying elevations and exposures to moderate Tuscany’s increasingly hot temperatures. Plus, sea breezes from the nearby Mediterranean also offer some respite from the heat and Mediterranean sunshine.
Chianti Wine – Grape Characteristics & Wine Profile
Broadly speaking, Central Italy divides into three zones. Chianti sits in the mountainous region in the northernmost portion of Central Italy. Below Chianti, you’ll find hilly Southern Tuscany where wines like Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano call home. Then, there’s also the flat coastal plain where Super-Tuscans were born.
Though the terrain varies throughout Tuscany, Sangiovese is the region’s most prestigious grape, dominating production in all three zones.
Since this is a late-ripening variety, Sangiovese’s perfect home is under the Tuscan sun, whose warmth helps to ripen the grapes. This Italian variety produces wines with high acidity and tannin. Along with its juicy acidity, Sangiovese offers robust flavors of red cherries, plums, and dried herbs. These wines typically mature in oak, which contributes some spice notes and helps soften those tannins. Bottle-aged Sangiovese that’s been cellared for a number of years will also develop gamey or meaty aromas.
Chianti wines can be made from a number of grape varieties. However, Sangiovese must contribute at least 80% of the blend. Other grapes permitted in Chianti wines include Canaiolo, Colorino, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and other red grape varieties. Though all grapes must grow locally within the Chianti region in order to label the wine as Chianti D.O.C.G.
While sipping a well-made Chianti, you’re also likely to discover notes of balsamic vinegar, dried oregano, dark espresso, and sweet tobacco.
Chianti D.O.C.G. vs. Chianti Classico D.O.C.G.
The Chianti D.O.C.G. lies between the often-visited cities of Pisa, Florence, and Siena. This designation covers a wide area encompassing seven different sub-zones. Therefore, you’ll find a varied range of quality levels produced under the Chianti D.O.C.G. For example, large volume wineries source their fruit from throughout the wider region of Chianti. Whereas higher quality wines are frequently made with grapes grown in a single sub-zone of the region. In cases like this, the name of the sub-zone can appear on the label.
If you’re looking for quality Chianti, then keep an eye out for these seven sub-zones:
- Rufina (hills near Rufina to the east of Florence) – aged for 1 year minimum
- Colli Senesi (hills around Siena) – aged for 6 months minimum
- Colli Aretini (hills towards Arezzo) – aged for 6 months minimum
- Colline Pisane (hills towards Pisa) – aged for 6 months minimum
- Montalbano (vineyard area in the Montalbano hills) – aged for 6 months minimum
- Colli Fiorentini (hills around Florence) – aged for 1 year minimum
- Montespertoli (hills around Montespertoli) – aged for 9 months minimum
The first two are especially well-known for producing high quality wines.
Chianti Classico D.O.C.G.
Chianti Classico D.O.C.G. delineates a separate D.O.C.G and is not a sub-zone of the wider Chianti D.O.C.G. The vineyards of Chianti Classico sit at higher elevations than those of Chianti. This results in a slower ripening of Sangiovese, creating wines with more acidity and herbal aromas. Chianti Classico D.O.C.G. wines must age for a minimum of 12 months before release.
Additionally, there are two other designations within the Chianti Classico D.O.C.G. which have further aging requirements. The Chianti Classico Riserva D.O.C.G. must age for a minimum of 24 months, 3 of which must be spent in bottle. Finally, Gran Selezione holds the highest designation for Chianti Classico wines. Gran Selezione requires the grapes to be sourced from a single estate and the wines must be aged for 30 months, or 6 months longer than Riserva wines.
The Chianti Fiasco
Have you ever seen those bulb-shaped wine bottles wrapped in straw frequently associated with Italy? If you’ve ever eaten at an Americanized version of an Italian restaurant, then I’m sure you have. In the 14th or 15th century, straw was wrapped around these bottles for extra protection during shipping. They’re called fiascos and are still available on the international market. However, don’t expect them to hold the highest quality Chianti available. More often than not, it’s quite the opposite. Though the empty bottles make for a great candleholder!
What’s with the Black Rooster?
If you’ve purchased a bottle of Chianti Classico before or visited the zone, perhaps you’re familiar with the region’s black rooster “mascot.” Here’s the story on why the black rooster became the symbol of this wine and region.
Ages ago, in the Middle Ages to be exact, Siena and Florence were fierce rivals. Yet the boundary between their two territories was unclear. In order to claim their territory, the two rivals decided to each send a knight towards the other starting with the rooster’s crow in the early morning. Where the two knights met would determine the boundary of the territories.
Siena selected a white rooster hoping their knight would wake early to its very loud crow. However, the Florentines chose a black rooster which they kept underfed. On the day of the race, the black rooster was so hungry that he crowed before sunrise. Thus, giving the Florentine knight a head start. The two knights met at Fonterutoli, a mere 12km outside of Siena. Thanks to the black rooster, much of Chianti was under Florentine rule.
Chianti D.O.C.G. wines have high acidity, herbal aromas, and red fruit flavors which make them a fantastic match for a wide range of dishes. Tomato-based dishes like a classic spaghetti Bolognese or margherita pizza are delicious pairings for Chianti. These pairings work so well because tomatoes are high in acidity and Chianti has the high acidity to match. Plus, the tangy tomato flavors and savory herbs in each dish is a great match for Chianti’s flavors.
Other irresistible pairings for this wine include grilled cheese and tomato soup, lasagna, fennel salami, Pecorino cheese, mushroom crostini, or a juicy grilled cheeseburger.
Furthermore, Chianti Classico D.O.C.G. wines are more complex, calling for heartier dishes with more elaborate flavors. Try pairing Chianti Classico with braised lamb shanks with rosemary and garlic, a stew of Tuscan sausage and cannellini beans, or an aged T-bone steak served with Parmigiano-Reggiano topped french fries.
Classic Chianti Producers
When exploring Chianti or Tuscany in general, Antinori cannot be ignored. The legendary Antinori family has been dedicated to winemaking in Tuscany since 1358. Their deep history of winemaking spans across 26 generations. Though they have ancient roots, Antinori is always a leader in innovation for the region. Today, the Antinori family has 12 estates throughout Italy. Learn more about their offerings in Chianti Classico here.
Castello di Vicchiomaggio
Castello di Viccihomaggio is an agroturismo housed in a Tuscan castle, which has produced wine ever since it was constructed. Castle Owners John and Paola Matta continue the centuries old-winemaking tradition of the property today. Situated in Chianti Classico, Castello di Vicchiomaggio claims 140 hectares of Tuscan terrain. Vineyards live on 34 hectares of the estate and olive trees grow on another 10 hectares. Discover more of the castle, the Matta family, and their wines here.
The Ricasoli family has made renowned wines in Chianti Classico since 1141. Today, their estate filled with rolling hills draped in vineyards and olive groves encompasses 1,200 hectares of property, 240 hectares of which are planted to vineyards. The Brolio castle is nestled amongst this lively terrain, as a symbol of the Chianti Classico territory. Explore the impressive Ricasoli family history and their wide range of wines here.
Mazzei – Castello di Fonterutoli
Mazzei has been a forerunner in Tuscan wines since 1435. Ser Lapo Mazzei penned the first known document to identify the Chianti denomination in 1398. While Philip Mazzei, a “citizen of the world,” frequently traveled to America, befriending politicians Jefferson, Adams, and Washington. Actually, Philip inspired Jefferson’s idea of “all men are by nature equally free and independent.” Today, the Mazzei dynasty continues their legacy at Castello di Fonterutoli, a historic monument of Chianti Classico. The family is dedicated to innovation, modernization, and renewal. Learn more about the legendary Mazzei family here.
Castello di Volpaia was originally built by the della Volpaia family, who were gifted artisans and builders. The most famous family member was Lorenzo dell Volpaia, who was friends with Leonardo da Vinci. Lorenzo built the planetary clock for the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Today, the Mascheroni Stianti family owns the castle, where they continue the Volpaia tradition of wine and olive oil production. Volpaia comprises 45 hectares of vineyards resting at 400 meters above sea level in Chianti Classico. Discover Volpaia here.