Learn Wine: Chianti

Learn Wine:  Chianti

Even if you are relatively new to the world of fine wines, odds are you are at least somewhat familiar with Chianti.  Chianti, like many other types of wine, is named for the region where it is produced.  Chianti is located in central Tuscany, and originally referred to the relatively narrow area surrounding the villages of Radda, Castellina, and Gaiole.  Merchants in these villages as early as the 14th century banded together to promote the wines that local vineyards were creating.  The current DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) includes most of the Tuscan region of Italy.


History of Chianti

Let’s take a look at the origin and evolution of Chianti.  While today’s Chianti is a dry red wine, the first Chianti referenced in historical documentation was actually a white wine.  In 1716, the Chianti region was expanded by the Grand Duke of Tuscany to include Greve as well as the hillside north of that village.  It was only then that Chianti came to be known as a red wine.

In the 20th century, the government of Italy expanded the definition to include several more areas: Strada, San Casciano in Val di Pesa, Robbiano, Barberino Val d’Elsa, and Chiocchio.  The grape varietals and formulas for Chianti have continued to transform over the years.  After World War II, cheap wines became very popular, and the Chianti region dove headfirst into the cheap-wine trend.  This made Chianti profitable for a while, but eventually took its toll as Chianti developed a reputation consistent with cheap wine.  Chianti took on a recognizable image in terms of packaging as well.  Typically you will find Chianti in a short, round-ish bottle with a straw basket around it (the basket is known as a fiasco).  This makes Chianti instantly recognizable in the liquor store.

Several decades ago, a few vineyards in the Chianti region grew tired of the stiff regulations restricting the growth of the Chianti market, as well as the cheap reputation the beverage had taken on.  These producers started pushing the boundaries and blending new grape varietals and using different types of barrels to see if they could produce a higher-quality result.  They became known as “Super Tuscans.”  Eventually the Italian government realized that their wines were superior, and adjusted regulations to allow them to again label their wines legally as “Chianti.


Grape Varietals in Chianti


Chianti wine is divided up according to the specific areas where it is produced within the Chianti region.  Currently there are eight regions, and thus eight different denominations of Chianti: Classico, Colli Aretini, Colli Fiorentini, Colli Senesi, Colline Pisane, Montalbano, Montespertoli, and Rufina.  The best known and most popular Chianti is Chianti Classico.

While there is some variation in the blends used for Chianti, the blend for Chianti Classico since 1996 has been established as 75-100% Sangiovese (the Super Tuscan producers originally were the ones to push Chianti in this direction of including more Sangiovese).  They may include up to 10% Canaiolo.  The remaining 20% may include any type of red grape that is on the government sanctioned list.  Examples of red grape varietals which are used in the production of Chianti include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah.  White grapes currently may not be used in the production of Chianti Classico.  The wine must be aged for 7 months or longer, and include a minimum alcohol level of 12%.



What does Chianti taste like?  The flavors depend on how long the wine has been aged.  In younger Chiantis, the flavors include floral notes as well as spices.  Typical floral notes include roses and violets.  Cherry may also be prominent in certain blends.  Older Chiantis take on a different character, with notes of leather and tobacco.  Generally (no surprise here), Chianti is paired with Italian cuisine, typically tomato-based dishes.  You can get a basic Chianti for around $10.  For double that price, you can indulge in a high-quality Chianti Classico.

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