There are few wines in the annals of Italian history that are quite as well-defined and revered as Chianti. A hallmark of the Italian wine industry for centuries, the drink is right up there with Barolo and Amarone as one of the greatest Italian wines that has ever been made, and has even been the subject of controversy within the industry as a result of the charge of the Super Tuscan varieties and the enormous changes that this signalled for Italian wine as a whole.
Of course, as famous as the wine is there is still plenty of value in taking a look back at its origins and the great producers who have played important roles in ensuring that it has maintained high levels of popularity over the years. That is why we have decided to take a look back at the history of Chianti Classico, so that you can learn more about how one of Italy’s most famous wines came to be, how it has developed over the centuries and the production methods that are used to ensure that you only receive the finest possible examples of the wine.
The Early History
Chianti is one of the oldest wines that is still in production in Italy, with records demonstrating that the earliest mention of it in documentation came from the thirteenth century, which is only a short time before the Antinori family, which is perhaps amongst the most famous purveyors of Chianti Classico, began to dedicate themselves to creating wine.
Viticulture was known to flourish in what were known as the Chianti Mountains near Florence during this period, with the local merchants in nearby towns, such as Castellina and Radda, selling the product to those who visited the area. Chianti enjoyed such early popularity that many of these merchants saw fit to form the Lega del Chianti – literally translated as the League of Chianti – in order to ensure quality in production of the wine and ensure that it was promoted as they felt it deserved to be.
Interestingly, the earliest examples of Chianti are actually believed to be white wines, if early records are to be believed, which just goes to show how much the drink has evolved over the years.
The ideal of the Lega del Chianti was taken seriously by Tuscan nobility, leading to Cosimo III de’ Medici, who at the time was the Grand Duke of Tuscany, taking the interesting step of issuing an edict that declared that the villages of Castellina, Gaiole, Radd and Greve would make up the Chianti zone and would be recognized as the only official producers of the wine. Interestingly, this edict would hold true all the way up to 1937, when the Chianti region was finally expanded to include a number of other local towns and villages.
It was not until the eighteenth century that Chianti would be recognized almost entirely as a red wine, however, there is still a lot of mystery surrounding this era, as the exact grapes and their composition within the drink are still unknown, likely kept a secret by Lega del Chianti to ensure that there could be no imitators.
This all changes following the work of Italian statesman Bettino Ricaso, who formulated the modern Chianti Recipe that is still used by producers of Chianti Classico in the modern day. He was the man who put into words the idea that Chianti was a wine based on the Sangiovese grape, creating the framework from which all future producers would create their wines. His recipe would claim that Chianti is made up of 70% Sangiovese, 10% Malvasia – which was later changed to Tebbiano -, 15% Canaiolo and 5% of local grape varieties that would serve to distinguish different types of Chianti Classico from one another.
This has held true for many years, only being challenged by the arrival of the Super Tuscans, and many bottles of Chianti Classico will boast a receipt that is very similar to the one produced by Ricaso so many years ago.
What is Chianti Classico?
Of course, given the rise of the Super Tuscans and the growth of the Chianti region to the point where it now takes up a fair portion of central Tuscany, there are a number of differences of opinion in terms of how best to produce Chianti.
Chianti Classico, therefore, are considered to be the premium versions of the wine that tend to stick as closely as possible to the older ways in terms of composition and production methodology. They will usually be medium-bodied with firm tannins, containing medium to high acidity.
Furthermore, the wine is also distinguished by the rather unique combination of notes that the drinker will experience, which include floral scents, combine with cherries and a distinct taste of nuts that give the wine a complex taste that is more than worth exploring.
Perhaps most interestingly, the different regions that produce Chianti Classico will often provide wines that feature varying characteristics, which is perhaps the most obvious demonstration of the influence of Ricaso’s statement that a Chianti will also contain 5% of a local grape variety to give it a sense of local flavour. What this serves to do is ensure that no two versions of Chianti Classico ever taste quite the same, making it an ideal wine for those who want to explore further. For example, the wines produced in the village of Catellina tend to be very delicate in terms of aroma and flavour, whereas those made in Gaiole tend to be very structured, featuring firm tannins that may make the wine appear harsher to those who have experienced lighter versions.
Perhaps most importantly, the quality of Chianti Classico is ensured by placing all manufacturers under the supervision of Consorzio del Vino Chianti Classico, which is a union of producers in much the same vein as the ancient Lega del Chianti who role is to maintain high quality standards and ensure the promotion of the wine throughout the region and country.