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. Wine lovers have savored Sangiovese’s herbal tang for centuries. Yet the wine simultaneously speaks to Medieval history and the demands of modern tourism. This is a story which deserves more credit than a straw-covered bottle. The wine does what few others can- remains relevant, harbors cherished history, and offers 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. Subsequently, the the Renaissance forged the heart of Italian culture. Traditionally, land owners would rent their vineyards to sharecroppers through a system known as mezzadria. Within this system, half of the crop would be returned to the landowner in exchange for use of the land. This exchange formed the beginnings of a noble class of merchant winemaking families. Thus, the wine business was founded in Tuscan culture, setting the bar for quality for centuries to come.
During the 1950s and 1960s, quality dropped significantly when the sharecropper system ended. Consequently, a mass of wine growers left to start 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 the local wine economy by emphasizing higher yields. They also required 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. As American restaurants famously poured the cheap juice from iasco straw-covered bottles. 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 which 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. The designation highlights the superior grapes grown on the albareze and galestro soils prized for producing the finest Sangiovese grapes. Chianti quality has been on a multi-decade upswing. It’s now the source for dry, tangy reds at serious value.
Climate & Style
Chianti sits among the rolling hills of Tuscany in Central Italy. The warm Tyrennean Sea greatly influences the region. Olive trees scattered among the vineyards signal the textbook Mediterranean climate of the region. Summers are warm, but cool breezes blow down the Apennines Mountains from the North cooling the vines.
The best wineries grow their grapes at higher elevations, as seen in Chianti Classico. The chalky and sandy soils here lead to intense aromas and underlying minerality. The Sangiovese grapes in Chianti produce wines that are both elegant in body but zippy and dry to the finish. Canaiolo is occasionally adds body and fruit.
The wines are always oak aged. However, 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 and balsamic are Chianti’s typical aromas. There’s also 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 no longer reflect the cheap buzz served over checkered table cloths. The wines remain relevant and resilient, a reflection of 800 years of evolution for wine lovers worldwide.