Chianti Classico

chianti history

By: Paul Wagner

For the ancients, the heavens were a symbol of perfection, a never-changing firmament that contrasted with the daily dramas of everyday life on earth. Wine, of course, falls somewhere in between heaven and earth. On the one hand, every vintage is a new reflection of the weather, the drama of everyday life on earth. And on the other hand, the elements of terroir are immutable — basic components that Mother Nature provides to give unique and distinctive character to the wines from each region. No region in the world is a better place to explore those ideas than the legendary land of Chianti Classico. This is the heart of Tuscany, nestled in the hills between the power of the Medici in Florence and the ancient glories of Siena. It has given us magnificent artists and authors, attracted by fabulously wealthy and appreciative patrons. It gave birth to the Renaissance and its culture has roots much older than that.

The region around Chianti Classico is filled with relics of both the Etruscans (who gave their name to Tuscany) and Romans (who built the roads!). But it was in medieval times that the area began to acquire the architectural and cultural landscape that still distinguishes it today. In the Middle Ages, this was the scene of fierce battles between Florence and Siena.

To settle the conflict between Florence and Siena, it was agreed that one knight from each city would depart at dawn and the border would be drawn where the two knights met. For the official start time, Siena called on an impressively fat white rooster, a symbol of elegance and power. Florence, on the other hand, called on a hungry black fowl that had fought its way to the top of the barnyard. On the fateful day, the black rooster launched into his cries long before dawn. The Sienese knight, with his much later start, only rode 12 kilometers before encountering his Florentine counterpart. Florence has venerated the black rooster ever since.

chianti classico region

By the late Middle Ages, in the 1400s, the wine made in these lands was already identified as “Chianti.” And by 1716, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo II de’ Medici, issued the first legal document in history to geographically define a winemaking area — Chianti.

Over the intervening years, Chianti found its way onto the tables of popes and dukes, princes and gourmets. But it was also possible to find a wide range of wine styles and qualities, all under the regional name of Chianti. And so in 1924, to protect the image and quality of their region, 33 Tuscan vintners got together to create a consortium to defend Chianti wine and its mark of origin. The black rooster was immediately chosen as the Chianti symbol.

By 1932, the larger zone of Chianti had been divided into six smaller, more tightly defined regions. Only one of them, Chianti Classico, was allowed to use the full name. While officially a sub-region of Chianti, Chianti Classico is the heart of the region and is the region that produced the wines that created the demand for Chianti throughout the world. By 1984, the entire Chianti region was recognized and certified as the highest level of quality in Italian wines, a DOCG (Denomination of Origin Controlled and Guaranteed). But this was not enough for the vintners in Chianti Classico. In 1996 they finally won recognition, not as a sub-zone of Chianti, but as the independent DOCG, Chianti Classico.

As such, the rules for making Chianti Classico are more stringent than those for the larger Chianti region; consequently the wines have more distinctive character. Because the two regions are completely independent DOCGs, the wines of one cannot be made in another. Even the grapes used in the two wines are different. In Chianti Classico, it is no longer permissible to use the white grapes of Trebbiano and Malvasia, which are still allowed in Chianti DOCG. And the composition of red varieties must be at least 80 percent Sangiovese, the signature red grape of Tuscany, which results in wines from Chianti Classico being more intense and evocative.

And the rules continue to change. They changed in 1924, 1932, 1984 and 1996. And they are changing again in 2013. True, the geographic area itself is the same as it was in 1932. The total area planted to vines is very similar to the total acreage of vines in the Napa Valley. But the wines? Over the past 20 years, they have been transformed, perhaps more than in any other Old World wine region. And this happened thanks to the remarkable Project 2000, funded by the growers of Chianti Classico.

Project 2000 studied every possible element of grape-growing and winemaking in Chianti Classico. It began with the clones of Sangiovese that were to be permitted.

chianti region

An initial study indicated there might be as many as 300 different clones being used. Following a massive study, the number was reduced to eight offically-approved clones, of which only four see significant production. The final clones were not selected for yield or ease of growing; they were selected because the resulting wines simply tasted better.

A second level of Project 2000 addressed how these grapes should be grown. The Consorzio adopted strict rules for such delicate matters as the trellising system that could be used, the number of vines planted in any given acre, the orientation of the rows to the sun, and even soil treatments and cover crops. In every case, the regulations adopted were those that would create perfectly ripe grapes from these superior clones. The latest of these new regulations were only put into place in 2006 and we are now seeing the impact of the changes. It is the same terroir, but the hand of man is learning to manage that terroir more effectively and in so doing, is changing the very nature of the wines it produces.

Here’s the basic lineup: For many years, there have been two wines produced under the Chianti Classico label, each identified by that famous black rooster. Starting in 2013, there will also be a third wine that explores the stratosphere of wine quality.

Annata (Vintage) Chianti Classico is the mainstay of the region. It is made with grapes grown within the strict regulations of the Project 2000 and must be aged for 12 months before release. Practically every producer in Chianti Classico produces a wine under this designation, and they are often the best values of the region.

Chianti Classico Riserva is the next step up the ladder. Traditionally, this has been the best wine of the region. Aged for at least 24 months and made from riper, more concentrated fruit, it is indicative of the best grapes the winery makes into wine. Chianti Classico Riservas are excellent examples of great Sangiovese.

And now with full approval from the DOCG, there is an even higher level of quality, Gran Selezione. This new wine can only be made by producers who control a single vineyard, and it must be designated as such during the growing season. It must be aged for at least 30 months and the tasting standards from the DOCG are even more stringent.

In the words of the Consorzio, “No grapes grown by, or wines made by, any other entity can be used for wines in this category. This in essence disallows purchased fruit and bulk wine. The producers will grow and intimately know their own grapes and wine, thus making a product that speaks of their land in Chianti Classico.” From the few wines that have been produced in this way, it is clear this is a major new commitment to quality and the wines are simply wonderful. They will also be more expensive.

A short note about DOCG: To be approved for this designation, any wine from Chianti Classico must not only document that it has been made within the regulations of the Consorzio, it must also pass a blind taste test by a panel of experts. Of course, within the region of Chianti Classico, there is a range of styles and winemaking philosophies. But it is not enough that the wine be good, it must also be a good example of what these new laws have created in terms of Chianti Classico in each of the three respective categories. All Chianti Classico wines must pass this test.

But it wouldn’t be Italy if there weren’t a design angle. The country that has brought us Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Ferrari and Lamborghini demands design excellence from all of its products, and Chianti Classico has responded with a new logo of its own. While the black rooster has been Chianti Classico’s trademark since 2005, it has been present on the state neckband for all producers of Chianti Classico, whether belonging to the consortium or not. No longer. The black rooster emblem has been graphically restyled to make it stand out more prominently on every bottle of Chianti Classico and it will be moved from the state/government seal onto the neck of the bottle. What was once a nice rooster on parade has become a proud cock of the walk, crowing in delight. It’s a clear symbol that a new day has dawned in the oldest defined winegrowing region of the world. And that’s good news for us all.

An enthusiastic supporter of education for wine professionals, Paul Wagner is an instructor for Napa Valley College and the Culinary Institute of America, and a member of the board of directors of the Society of Wine Educators. He is president of Balzac Communications and was inducted into the Spadarini della Castellania di Soave in 2005 and honored with a “Life Dedicated to Wine” award at the Feria Nacional del Vino (FENAVIN) in Spain in 2009.