Chianti’s reputation has become rather simple: reliable, affordable, and relatively homogenous. While the majority of this statement rings true, the perceived uniformity of the region couldn’t be any further from the truth.
Chianti is home to some Italy’s most dynamic and drastically different growing sites, though over the last few decades, the idea of regional homogeneity has somehow taken over. The solution? Viewing the region through a ‘Burgundian-inspired’ lens — that is, taking a site-specific and terroir-focused approach towards understanding the region’s many sub-regions.
Chianti is no stranger to designating and classifying wine. The first documentation of regional designation dates back to 1716, when wines were produced in the Lega del Chianti (Gaiole, Castellina, and Radda). Under this newly introduced system, producers and their land were considered first, with emphasis on the land always placed at the forefront.
Production thrived over the next two centuries, though the sharecropping model put in place wasn’t necessarily ideal. Aristocrats and well-heeled merchants owned the majority of the land, while small farming families worked the soils for them in exchange for food. Under this model, hundreds of small individual farmers gave their fruit to larger overarching facilities, which in turn, cranked out mass-produced regional wines. A dramatic shift towards quality really came post-World War II, when manufacturing moved in and jobs shifted to cities. In 1961, Italy outlawed sharecropping, which left many farmers unable to buy land and left them on their own. A new rise of small family-owned farms began to exist, and by the 1960s, a true ‘quality revolution’ was in full swing.
However, consumers, as well as a big part of the industry, weren’t necessarily ready to readjust their view of the region. Rather than looking at Chianti as they do Barolo and Burgundy, the area is still viewed as a region rich in history and value (true), without much regard for specific growing areas and diverse senses of place (wrong!)
For comparison’s sake, we like to think of Chianti Classico as Bourgogne Rouge. These wines come from the largest sub-area of Burgundy, though one would never discount them down to average or homogenous. The same can be said for stricter designations, too. A wine from Gaiole or Casanuova Verdenga presents just as many intricate differences as that of two separate bottles from Nuits-St-Georges versus Pommard. So why do Bourgogne Rouge bottlings and appellation-specific Pinot Noirs from Burgundy receive the renown that they do, yet the same isn’t true for Chianti Classico and designazione-specific wines?
A lot of it comes down to a simple lack of knowledge on the region. The region is marked by drastic topographical and climatic differences between the north and south, as well as the east and west. For example, the most northern region of Chianti, San Casciano Val di Pesa, is actually the warmest region. The region produces wines that are plush, soft, and tend to be more supple than other appellations’ cuvées. On the contrary, in the high-elevation appellation of Lamole (eastern side of the appellation), the wines are nervy, lean, and vibrant. Further south in the region, soils become more clay-dominant, which help create bold, powerhouse reds, which are reminiscent of Chianti’s famous southerly neighbor, Brunello di Montalcino.
And when it comes to grape variety, Sangiovese as a variety is just as ‘noble’ as that of Pinot Noir. Just as Pinot can reflect unique soil differences and the place from which it comes, Sangiovese can equally do the same. In addition, Sangiovese-based wines (similar to Pinot) are highly reflective of the soil types and climatic conditions in which they are grown, have a diverse array of flavor profiles and textures based on region/producer, and many are marked by the capability to withstand the test of time. Although it took the Tuscans some time to catch on, by the mid-1970s, Chianti-based producers were slashing yields across their vineyard sites left and right, fervently focused on the idea of pursuing quality over quantity in their cellars.
In addition to more intricate farming, stronger labelling structures/designations were also put in place. Dry wines produced from lower yields boasting higher alcohol contents can be labeled Chinati Superiore (aside from those hailing from the general ‘Classico’ sub-region). Chiantis aged for 38 months may boast the prestigious Riserva labeling, similar to the Nebbiolo-based stunners of Piemonte. And these designations don’t simply come from nowhere. The reason these designations were drawn up in the first place is due to the sheer vastness, and therefore, differentiations in terroir, amongst this larger overarching zone. In the same way that Burgundy breaks down the Côte d’Or, the Tuscans set to remodel Chianti the same way, all for the goal of emphasizing specific producers and their unique growing sites.
At the end of the day, similar to Burgundy, Barolo, and every other noble wine-producing region across the globe, it comes down to producers. We believe that each of the Chianti producers in our portfolio has a unique story to tell and that each of their wines are unique, compelling, and dramatically different in their own right. This is where bringing a ‘Burgundian’ or ‘Barolo-inspired’ mindset to thinking about the region and its producers/vineyard sites is key.
The biggest takeaway here for both industry and consumers alike is that Chianti is anything but homogenous. The region is home to nearly 600 bottlers, 300 grower-producers and only 7,200 hectares of land devoted to Chianti Classico, and knowing the diversity amongst the crus/appellations is the first step. Although this may sound overwhelming, here are a few key points from our founder Jeff Porter to get you started:
The best way to understand regional terroir on a deeper scale is to taste for yourself. Check out the wines of Cigliano di Sopra (San Casciano Val di Pesa), I Fabbri (Greve), Le Masse (San Donato), as well as Badia a Coltibuono (Greve), Castell’in Villa (Castelnuovo Berardenga), and Tenuta di Bibbiano (Castellina in Chianti) for a deeper dive into Chianti’s revolution for yourself — but don’t even think about calling it a comeback. This is a regional revolution!