Is there any other Italian red wine that carries the same reputation as Chianti? While Barolo and a few others come close, it seems that Chianti is the wine that many turn to when looking for the best of the best of Italian wine. This at least seems to be the case in international territories, even if it isn’t on the domestic level.
Of course, regardless of your opinion of its status in the pantheon of great Italian wines, one thing that can’t be denied is the fact that the drink has a rich history that stretches back for centuries and is well worth exploring. Here we will take a look at how Chianti has developed into the drink that it so beloved today.
The Early History
The roots of Chianti stretch back all the way to the 13th century, which is when the first mentions of a wine culture in the ‘Chianti Mountains’ around Florence is first mentioned in official records. This local wine soon began to gain a reputation throughout the fractured states of Italy, at the time, which led to a number of townships in the area forming what became known as the Lega del Chianti once the 14th century came around. This demonstrates the amount of respect that was afforded to the wines from the region, even in the early stages of its development.
However, the differences between the Chianti we know today and the one that was produced during that era are vast. For one, records obtained from the late 14th century indicate that the wines from the ‘Chianti Mountains’ region were actually white wines, rather than the red we are now so familiar with.
However, the process for making it evolved over the years and, by the time the 18th century had rolled around, Chianti was recognised as a red wine, rather than the white that it initially started out as.
The 18th Century
Chianti really began to makes strides in the 1700s. The wine has become so respected that Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, released an edict stating that only three villages of the Lega del Chianti could actually make the official version of the wine. This ruling existed until the 1930s, when the area was expanded, before further expansions led to the Chianti region that we know today.
As previously mentioned, by this point Chianti had become recognised as a red wine, though the exact composition of the grape varieties used to make this version of the drink are still unknown, though some clues have been found in pieces of writing that were contemporary to the era. Canaiolo, Sangiovese and Mammolo are all believed to have been part of the makeup of the drink during this time period.
However, towards the end of the 18th century, steps were taken to develop the composition that is most commonly known as Chianti Classico in the modern day. Italian statesman Bettino Ricasoli worked to create a “recipe” for the drink that would not only solidify its place in Italian wine history, but also ensure that producers were making a product of consistent quality.
In the mid-19th century, Ricasoli developed his recipe for the drink, which was primarily based around the amount of Sangiovese that was used in its production. He called for a blend of 70% Sangiovese, 10% Malvasia and 15% Canaiolo, with the remaining amount made up of a local red variety of the creator’s choosing.
This recipe evolved again over the years, with the eventual Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) regulation stating that a true Chianti must be made using Sangiovese, with anywhere between 10-30% of Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes.
The 20th century was a turbulent period for Italian winemakers in general, with many moving to different countries in order to continue exploring the craft that they had come to love. Those who stayed behind worked on repopulating vineyards in an effort to bring the industry back to its former glory. This was particularly the case for the Chianti region, with the wine starting to slowly become less prominent for a brief period during this time.
This culminated in production of the drink during World War II, when the market desired cheap and easy wines that placed an emphasis on quantity over quality. Caught up in this trend, the reputation of Chianti went into freefall and it became known as little more than a cheap Italian red wine that could be easily mistaken for so many others to the amateur consumer.
It was a reputation that slowly began to improve again over time, particularly after the introduction of the DOC regulations that ensures a certain level of quality was attained by any wine carrying the label. However, the evolution of the wine did not stop there. In the 1970s, a group of producers thought that they could make an even better drink using new blends and improved technology. These went on to become the Super Tuscans.
Super Tuscan Era
Today, we know Super Tuscans, such as Tignanello, to be wines of exceptional quality. However, when they were first introduced they caused uproar in the Italian wine industry. Many who considered themselves experts when it comes to Chianti quickly vilified the drink for not following the traditions laid out over the centuries, with the DOC in particular refusing to grant any Super Tuscan its seal of approval.
Fortunately, creativity and quality cannot be denied, even by the most ardent of traditionalists. Experimentation led to an explosion of creativity in the Chianti region, resulting in wines of superb quality that quickly became popular overseas, as well as on the domestic level. This resulted in the DOC relenting and eventually creating a new classification for this sub-section of Chianti.
Today, wine lovers have the opportunity to purchase either Chianti Clasico or one of the Super Tuscans as they see fit. Both have established a niche in the market that they don’t look like giving up any time soon, making it an exciting time to be a Chianti drinker, no matter how you look at it.