Tuscany is the postcard for Italy's wine country. It has rolling bucolic hills, quaint hilltop towns, earthy sienna-hued Italian villas (often rundown farmhouses in masquerade, but why quibble), and a patchwork pattern of olive groves and vineyards covering the earthy and romantic countryside. For many, Tuscany exemplifies the Italy of imagination with its long history, entrenched traditions, art, culture, Italian cuisine and of course, wine. Italy is one of the world's biggest wine producers with a myriad of wines to try. But ask anyone to name an Italian wine and reflexively they will answer, "Chianti." This familiarity could emanate from the straw covered fiasco bottles hanging from the ceiling at Luigi's Ristorante or perhaps from a certain grisly Anthony Hopkins movie. And while the character Hannibal likes Chianti when he dines, he is not alone. It's a medium-bodied dry wine that is bright with cherry, plum, and raspberry fruit that can be spicy and balanced, with bracing acidity that makes the omnipresent Chianti a welcoming match with food and not surprisingly, Italian food.
Chianti as a region is in the center of Tuscany. It runs throughout the Tuscan landscape, starting from Florence at the northern boundary and spreading south to the medieval town Siena. Tuscany is noted for other important wines besides Chianti - there's Brunello di Montalcino, Vino di Montepulciano, and the Super Tuscans. But as all roads lead to Rome, all wines lead to Chianti. Think of the region as a Chianti pie sliced into eight Chianti zones and within the D.O.C.G. designated appellation, Classico is the most famous and the model for the eponymous wine. That being said, overall more Chianti is produced in the other seven zones of Chianti Rufina, Colli Fiorentini, Colli Aretini, Colli Senesi, Colline Pisante, Chianti Montespertoli, and Chianti Montalbano. Wine from these non-Classico regions can be labeled simply as Chianti or with their subzone name.
The Black Rooster-Chianti Classico
Wines from the other Chianti zones can range from good to exceptional, most being of the leaner, simpler, and easy quaffing variety. One subzone, Chianti Ruffina, can produce exceptional and superior wines. But it is the Classico that dominates the Chianti category and commands attention. Wine has been made in this Italian region for centuries and Chianti winemaking can be documented as far back as the 13th Century. This is where Chianti started and the rest of the D.O.C.G. evolves around this epicenter. Chianti as an institution came to pass in 1716 when the Medici Grand Duke Cosimo III issued an edict legislating the wine region around the village of Gaiole, Castellina, Radda, and expanded to include Greve. And so Chianti began. These were core neighboring districts that formed the nucleus of Chianti Classico. In time these were stretched outward and in 1932, the boundaries were defined to include the communes of San Casciano Val di Pesa, Barberino Val d'Elsa, Tavernelle Val di Pesa, Castellnuovo Berardengo, and finally Poggibonsi. (Here I must confess that Poggibonsi is my favorite. That's not necessarily because of the wine, but just because I love to say Poggibonsi. Go ahead, try it. "Poh-ghee-bon-cee." Fun, eh?)
What you'll also notice on the bottleneck labels of Classico bottles is the image of a black rooster surrounded by a red ring as well as the Italian, Chianti Classico. This Gallo Negro has become the trademark symbol for Classico wines and represents a consortium of producers that banded together with the charter to protect authentic Chianti wines. They adopted the Gallo Negro to represent their consortium and to symbolize their commitment to quality and Chianti integrity. Why the Gallo Negro? Well, it is Italy after all and there's a legend that pitted the perennially warring city-states of Siena and Florence over territory. A knight from each city was supposed to set out upon the rooster's morning crow. At the point where the knights met was supposed to be the boundaries between the cities. Well, the Siennese used a plump and fat white rooster and the Florentines used a scrawny and starving black rooster who crowed much earlier, giving the crafty Florentines a head start and consequently a bigger stake into Chianti. Today there are over 600 members of the Gallo Negro consortium, including small to large producers and cooperatives. The black rooster on the bottle will usually indicate a higher quality wine over other Chiantis.
The original Chianti wine was made predominantly with Canaiolo grape blended with several others. Modern Chianti can be traced back to an influential Chianti winemaker, Baron Ricasoli, who in 1872 declared a superior formula of 70% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo, and 15% Malvasia. This became the standard formula and it was strictly regulated until 1984 when the DOCG regulations changed, allowing a minimum 75% Sangiovese with up to 10% non-traditional varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. In the present, Classico regulations allow up to 100% Sangiovese. The law stipulates a minimum of 75% Sangiovese, with a maximum of 10% Canaiolo, 6% white grapes, and up to 15% of Cab-Merlot-Syrah varietals. Another note to Chianti is reference to Riserva. These are the higher quality Chianti Classico wines that are deemed worthy for further aging and by law must be aged for two years in oak barrels with three months in a bottle prior to release. Riservas are made from the best vintages and crank up the Chianti a notch with complex flavors beyond the cherry-plum-raspberry fruit combined with smoke, leather, minerals, and thought-provoking intrigue with nuanced body. Riservas are restricted from using any white grapes.
Just a word about Super Tuscan wines. These are from the renegade winemakers who wanted to break away from the strict formulaic structure of Chianti that many felt created ennui among winemakers and degraded the wine's quality and prestige. Super Tuscan wines broke from the Chianti laws and traditions producing wine outside the regulated formula. An example of this is by the iconclastic winemaker, Marchese Piero Antinori. In 1982 he introduced his Tignanello made from 85% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Cabernet Franc. He didn't care if the word, Chianti, appeared on the label. He was looking to make a better realized wine dictated by good winemaking rather than tradition. He broke the mold and others followed him.
Long known as the spaghetti and meatball wine, Chianti really is the proverbially Italian food wine, friendly and versatile. It goes just about with anything: pastas, pizza, poultry, pork, beef, vegetables, and cheese.
Like the weather in San Francisco, Chianti's reputation fluctuates. It can be relegated to the cheap plonk category or it can rise to higher latitudes of excellence. Sangiovese, by nature, can be a finicky varietal for winegrowers to work with, heavily influenced by weather, soil, and climate. Quality vintage years are inconsistent, which contributes to Chianti's muddled reputation. However, improved winemaking techniques and a watchful eye on quality control has helped Chianti regain some of its stature.
Some Producers of Note
There are many wonderful winemakers. The following is an abbreviated list of some of the top producers that are easy to find. Many of these producers are not strictly in Chianti but might also have estates in Montalcino or Montepulciano as well. For example, Antinori produces his Super Tuscan wines in Chianti, but also has multiple estates such as Peppoli and that is strictly Chianti Classico.