Diving deeper into the world of wine should be easy, exciting, and fun. We’ve created these 5-Minute Primers with the goal of bringing it back to the basics — in other words, we’re honing in on the core fundamental facts you need to know about a given growing region/appellation. Get to know the history behind Chianti Classico, Tuscany’s best known yet most misunderstood wine-producing appellation, here.
(*Note: The most important takeaway here is that the Chianti and Chianti Classico growing zones are two very different entities. Chianti is the overarching region that encompasses a vast area across Tuscany. Wines labeled simply as Chianti are held to less-strict standards and generally find themselves in the ‘table wine’ category. On the contrary, Chianti Classico encompasses a smaller area in Tuscany and wines produced under this designation are held to much stricter regulations than those of Chianti.*)
Chianti as a region is no stranger to Italian viticultural fame. The earliest records of wine from Chianti date back to the 1200s, when the ‘Lega del Chianti’ was formed by local sellers in the villages of Radda, Gaiole, Castellina, and Greve. These wines were produced in various styles until the 18th century, when Baron Bettino Ricasoli created the modern Sangiovese-based assemblage that we know today. (Before Ricasoli’s creation, Canaiolo was actually set to be the dominant variety of the Chianti blend.) Ricasoli’s blend called for a minimum of 70% Sangiovese and was recognized by the DOC system in 1967.
However, things weren’t always easy in Chianti. By the late 1800s, phylloxera, economic unrest, and a slew of other hits greatly affected the region. The region became known for its quantity over quality mentality, and the majority of Chianti’s wine was considered subpar swill. This lasted until well after World War II, when a group of motivated winemakers agreed that change was imperative. (This small group of producers was originally based in Chinati and were fed up with the direction the region was headed.) By the turn of the century, Chianti was finally seeing a revolution in its viticulture and vinification. Small producers were experimenting with new grape varieties and blends, modern winemaking techniques were introduced, and a variety of oak regimens and fermentation styles were being used.
Enter Chianti Classico. Chianti Classico is the heart and soul of the Chianti region and is by far its oldest viticultural area. The designation first became recognized by the DOC in 1966 and was later elevated to DOCG status about 20 years later. Today, three levels of quality exist within Chianti Classico: Annata, Riserva, and Gran selezione. Annata is the standard for any Chianti Classico wine, Riserva wines are aged for a bit longer (24 months), and Gran Selezione wines come from single estates and are aged for at least 30 months.
The wine-producing zone of Chianti Classico covers a decent portion of Tuscany. The appellation’s limits encompass most of the land between Florence and Siena, where the Colli Fiorentini and the Colli Senesi create two natural borders around the appellation. The nine communes found within Chianti Classico are San Casciano in Val di Pesa, Greve in Chianti, San Donato (which encompasses Barberino Tavarnelle & Poggibonsi), Radda in Chianti, Castellina in Chianti, Gaiole in Chianti and Castelnuovo Berardenga.
Because of its vast size, many microclimates and soil types exist within the region. However, Chianti Classico is best known for its rolling hills, which reach from 800 to 2,000+ feet above sea level. The two main soil types in Chianti Classico are albarese (sandstone) and galestro (chalky marl). Galestro is more commonly found in the northern part of the appellation, while albarese is more dominant in southerly vineyards. In addition to the region’s many rolling hills, the northerly Arno River helps moderate temperatures and keep vineyard sites cool. Overall, the region’s climate is Continental, which means that summers are long and dry and winters are relatively cold.
Chianti Classico wines are generally known for being medium-bodied and are marked by relatively high acidity and firm tannins. These wines must have a minimum of 80% Sangiovese. Additionally, up to 20% of other permitted red grape varieties may be used, including Canaiolo, Colorino, Ciliegiolo, Mammalo, Malvasia Nera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Syrah. White grape varieties are no longer permitted in Chianti Classico blends.
Wines from Chianti Classico must be aged for at least seven months in oak. Wines labeled Riserva must see at least 24 months of aging. Basic Chianti wines can be released on March 1st (essentially six months post-harvest) the following year. Overall, wines from Chianti Classico are known for their earthy and cherry-driven flavors. These wines are known for being very food-friendly and provide great values for the price.
5 Key Takeaway Points
- Chianti and Chianti Classicoare two very different entities. Chianti wines tend to fall in the ‘table wine’ sector, whereas wines produced in Chianti Classico are serious expressions of Tuscan Sangiovese.
- Although Chianti had a longstanding reputation for mass-produced table wine, this changed during the mid 20th century, when a small handful of producers began implementing a quality over quantity mentality in the vineyard and cellar (and the Chianti Classico designation was created).
- Chianti Classico is dominated by a continental climate, marked by warm summers and chilly winters. Its two major soil types are galestro (to the north) and albarese (to the south).
- Chianti Classico wines are produced from Sangiovese-dominant blends. At least 80% of a wine’s assemblage must be Sangiovese, with the rest dedicated to other permitted red varieties.
- Chianti Classico wines are known for their earthy and cherry-driven flavors. The wines’ firm tannins and bright acid make them extremely versatile on the table.
Producers We Love:
Legendary producers from the region include (but are not limited to): Cigliano di Sopra, Felsina, Monteraponi, I Fabbri, Montevertine, Castell’in Villa, Fattoria Le Masse, Montagnani, and more.