300 years young

Chianti Classico has just turned 300. But the appellation’s history is only beginning. Wojciech Bońkowski reports.

Castella di Albola, Chianti Classico
Castella di Albola, Chianti Classico, Photo: Sandro Michahelles

On 24 September 1716, Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo III de’ Medici issued an edict in which he defined the production area of four renowned wines: Carmignano, Pomino, Valdarno di Sopra, and Chianti. The latter was to be grown between Florence and Siena in the hill towns of Castellina, Radda, Gaiole (all three forming the historic Chianti League), and Greve in Chianti. Nineteen years before Tokaj and 51 years before Port, Chianti thus became the world’s first regulated wine. 

On 26 September 1872, united Italy’s second prime minister, Bettino Ricasoli – who was an experienced vintner – proposed a reform of the blend of Chianti wine. The hitherto dominant Canaiolo should not exceed 20%, replaced by the more “perfumed and vigorous” Sangiovese, with a splash of the white Malvasia “to make it lighter and more ready to drink”. That blend remained the standard for over a century.

On 31 July 1932, the Mussolini administration increased the production area of Chianti by a factor of three, including territories that had nothing to do with Chianti: Pisa in the north-west and Arezzo in the south-east. As a consolation, historical Chianti (itself extended to neighbouring towns Tavarnelle and Castelnuovo Berardenga) could call itself Chianti Classico. The confusion continues to this day: Chianti DOCG produces 100m bottles at an average price of €1.00 ($1.11). It can be a good wine but it never has the depth and quality of a Chianti Classico. Yet consumers routinely mix up the two.

The collapse

Every analysis of a winemaking zone opens with a historical overview, but nowhere is it as justified as in the case of Chianti. The Mussolini ‘Chianti’ scam wasn’t the only problem. Unscrupulous producers abused the Ricasoli recipe, adding high-yielding white Trebbiano to red wine to increase production. After World War II, though commercially successful, Chianti was essentially reduced to a thin table wine, sold in ubiquitous wicker fiasco bottles. This overlapped with a social revolution: the century-old agricultural system of mezzadria (50/50 sharecropping) disintegrated as rural workers migrated to cities.

Within a decade, Chianti, as many Italian regions, was nearly deserted. Even today, old stone farmhouses at Isole e Olena or Fèlsina, once bustling with activity, remain vacant.

It took a generation of bold entrepreneurs to raise the Chianti phoenix from the ashes in the late 1960s and 1970s. Estates like Fèlsina, Fontodi, Isole e Olena, Querciabella, Riecine, Montevertine, Cecchi and San Giusto were founded. Grand noble families, hard hit by the rural exodus (the Ricasolis had their properties reduced from a dozen castles to two), developed new ideas: Antinori’s 1971 Tignanello was the first Sangiovese to age in French barriques, blended with Cabernet.

At that time, Chianti Classico DOC rules made white grapes compulsory while prohibiting French varieties. Leading vintners quickly realised this was not the way toward quality. Some opted for 100% Sangiovese, including San Felice’s Vigorello, first made in 1968. Others planted Cabernet and Merlot. But legally those wines were no Chiantis, so they had to be labelled as table wines: the category of super vini da tavola, or Super Tuscans, was born.

The revival

By the early 1990s, such was the extent of secession from the DOCG and enthusiasm for French grapes that it seemed Sangiovese would be phased out. Some wineries abandoned the appellation altogether, such as Montevertine and La Massa, who went as far as putting the image of a roasted black cockerel on its labels. Tuscany’s most important wines, including Antinori’s Tignanello, Isole e Olena’s Cepparello, and Fontodi’s Flaccianello, are to this day labelled IGT Toscana rather than Chianti Classico, even though they could claim the latter name after rules were updated in 1996, scrapping white grapes and authorising Cabernet and Merlot.

Nonetheless, the U-turn in public favour has been nothing short of remarkable. Super Tuscans are attention-grabbers no more; an Italian taster recently described some leading brands as “an Indian Ocean of anachronistic new oak”. Sangiovese and Chianti Classico DOCG have become sexy again, as consumers and producers alike are rediscovering its true character. In an amazing twist of fate, some estates are even reintroducing white grapes and fiasco bottles.

The grape

There is general agreement the way forward for Chianti Classico is the Sangiovese grape. Once criticised for its ‘faults’: high acidity, raspy tannins, and a lack of colour that French grapes were meant to “correct,” it is now embraced for what it is: an acid-driven, occasionally rustic, malleable grape. Authorised up to 75% in the blend until 1996, Sangiovese now makes up 93% of Chianti Classico wines, on average. Federica Stianti Mascheroni of Volpaia says, “Sangiovese is the real essence of Chianti; without white grapes, we have gained a new structure and intensity.”

This was also made possible by a focus on clones. Most Sangiovese plantings of the 1960s and 1970s favoured high yield over quality. In 1987, an unprecedented programme named Chianti Classico 2000 was launched, leading to the selection of the eight most qualitative clones of Sangiovese. It also reassessed lesser historical varieties, from the good old Canaiolo (occasionally bottled separately, even in Australia) through the velvety Malvasia Nera, flowery Mammolo, deeply coloured Colorino, fruity Ciliegiolo, up to the ultra-rare Barsaglina, Foglia Tonda (Mannucci Droandi makes varietal examples), and the rich, meaty Pugnitello, the exact opposite of Sangiovese but impressive as a soloist, notably at San Felice. Overall, 4,500 ha have since been replanted.

Changes in the varietal mix as well as vinification techniques – especially replacing new French barriques with classic Italian botti barrels of 2,000 to 5,000 L – have triggered a shift in style. Today’s Chianti Classico wines are lighter in hue, crisper and more drinkable, some even unoaked. While Super Tuscans worked well with trophy foods such as large Fiorentina steaks, ‘reformed’ Chianti is a better match with traditional Tuscan cuisine, which is rich in cereals, tomatoes, and hearty vegetables such as the iconic cavolo nero.

The top tier

Changes in wine styles are driven by the market and producers alike. But the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico, the vintners association that governs production and marketing, has also been particularly active in the last decade. Its symbol, the Gallo Nero – a black cockerel, after a medieval Chianti League legend – displayed on the neck of every bottle of Chianti Classico, has become a strong brand.

The breakthrough came in 2012. Based on a new Italian law, the Consorzio, as the first one in Italy, became the exclusive body for protection and promotion of Chianti Classico. Contributions from producers became compulsory rather than voluntary. (Absenteeism in similar bodies is a true ‘Italian disease’.) Non-members such as Antinori, the largest bottler, had no choice but to join, and the Consorzio’s budget increased significantly. Measures introduced since include tourist centres in Florence and Radda in Chianti; a new traceability project; a motion for Chianti Classico to become a UNESCO World Heritage site; and most importantly, a new wine category, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. The brainchild of the then-president Marco Pallanti of Castello di Ama, Gran Selezione sits above Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva, in an attempt to match Italy’s two most famous appellations, Brunello di Montalcino and Barolo. Grapes must come from propriety vineyards and age for 30 months before approval by a tasting panel. Producers were initially lukewarm about the idea, with only 25 releasing a Gran Selezione. Italian and international critics alike questioned the excessive ageing requirement, the high alcohol of most wines, and the fact it included existing Riservas merely relabelled as Gran Selezione rather than any new qualitative efforts.

Gradually, 100 producers adopted the concept, and Gran Selezione now represents 4% of the appellation’s production (Riserva is 30%). New releases have come from such producers as Isole e Olena (even though owner Paolo De Marchi had initially dismissed Gran Selezione as “an empty box”), Albola (Il Solatio), Ama, Antinori (Badia a Passignano), Bibbiano (Capannino), Cacchiano (Millennio), Casa Emma, Fontodi (Vigna del Sorbo), Fèlsina (Colonia), Fonterutoli, Montegrossi (San Marcellino), Ricasoli (two wines), Rocca delle Macìe (two wines), San Felice (Il Grigio), Vicchiomaggio (La Prima), and Volpaia (Il Puro). More than 60% of these bottlings existed long before the advent of Gran Selezione, so there can’t be talk of special selections: for example, Ruffino’s Ducale Oro produces no fewer than 400,000 bottles, one third of all Gran Selezione made.

But many leading producers, such as Coltibuono, Monsanto, Querciabella, and San Giusto remain out of the system. Some sommeliers are also indifferent: Norbert Dudziński of three-star Geranium in Copenhagen says, “our guests care more about the producer than the category,” while Piotr Pietras of London’s Launceston Place adds, “I only list Riservas. I don’t see Gran Selezione as a relevant category.” Luca Mittica, export manager of Bibbiano, sums it up bluntly: “Commercially, Gran Selezione isn’t working.”

The new opening

Paradoxically, Gran Selezione trails, whereas interest in straight Chianti Classico is at record levels. The ‘new’ (though some call it ‘traditional’) style of wines, with its warm ruby hue, medium body, true elegance, drinkability, and refreshing acidity, is appealing to a new generation of drinkers.

For Paolo De Marchi, the turning point was 2002 – considered a poor vintage – in which he nonetheless decided to bottle his flagship Cepparello in an outrageously light style. “It is my Volnay,” De Marchi rebuked dismayed critics. For others, it was the hot 2007 vintage when some Classicos topped 15.5% abv and they realised it was time to rethink the style.

Over the years, Chianti Classico has been blessed with great winemakers, from Giulio Gambelli to Carlo Ferrini, Franco Bernabei, and Riccardo Cotarella. But there is now an awareness of the homogenising effect of consultants. The young generation of winemakers, such as Diego Finocchi of L’Erta di Radda, is embracing new ideas of individualism and terroir. A growing number of female winemakers also contribute. Meanwhile, established estates are diversifying the offer: Fattoria Poggerino introduced a sparkling rosé while Castello dei Rampolla’s Santa Lucia is a Sangiovese made in amphorae with no SO2 added. Giuseppe Mazzocolin of Fèlsina has championed super-premium olive oil, adopting the Olio Secondo Veronelli protocol; he is confident in a revival of olive cultivation, the only crop to challenge Chianti’s grapevine monoculture.

Large producers, such as Antinori, GIV, and Zonin, are also working on quality; Castello di Albola, owned by Veneto giant Zonin, is currently one of the top-scoring estates, and another over-performer is the large cooperative Agricoltori del Chianti Geografico. The result is exhilarating diversity replacing former rigid hierarchy.

The challenge

Strikingly, the current focus on terroir is a novelty for Chianti. The bucolic beauty of its landscape notwithstanding, the region has never really gone in-depth into its geology and microclimates. A few estates succeeded at translating their sub-zones into distinctive flavour profiles, such as Lamole di Lamole or the cluster of producers in the southern town of Castelnuovo Berardenga. Fèlsina’s twin wines Rancia and Fontalloro (the latter not labelled as Chianti) was an early study of subtle terroir differences, but generally speaking, single vineyard in Chianti has simply meant higher positioning. Cru wines enjoyed a more manicured vinification, more oak, and sometimes the addition of French grapes, so that relating them to a specific terroir became difficult. It is striking that the newly released Panzano and Lamole pair from Castelli del Grevepesa and a similar series planned by Querciabella are the first attempt at clearly distinguishing village-class wines. 

What’s really needed for Chianti Classico is a zonazione – a subdivision of the large appellation into smaller units, intelligible for the consumer. As Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni of Querciabella says, “Chianti Classico needs to take a more Burgundian approach and focus on the idiosyncrasies that make each subzone unique.” Giuseppe Mazzocolin goes even further, postulating “mapping single vineyards”. Long overdue, this is nonetheless a project far more ambitious than Gran Selezione.

The problem, as always in Italy, is local politics. Smaller producers are in favour of such a Burgundian approach, but larger bottlers, who invariably blend their basic wines across the region, are reluctant to see a new class of wines surge above their main brands. Saluting the appellation’s tricentenary, Consorzio President Sergio Zingarelli says, “We can celebrate the foresight of Cosimo III in identifying a territory as fundamental to the wine’s quality.” If so, the zonazione becomes the most stringent task for the Consorzio.

Other challenges lie ahead. One is getting the message across about how Chianti Classico differs from Chianti. Since the Chianti DOCG denomination, as an acquired right, cannot conceivably be abolished, it means explaining to consumers why some Chianti is not real Chianti. This won’t be helped by the amount of mediocre Classico sitting on supermarket shelves at €5.00 or less per bottle. The other challenge is sustainability. Chianti is a beautiful, rural, isolated area, but chemicals-driven monoculture is a problem. A number of estates have converted to organics, and there are biodynamic producers including Le Montanine, Montesecondo, Rampolla, and Riecine. Cossia Castiglioni notes, “Enormous strides have been made in terms of responsible farming. When we undertook our conversion to organic viticulture at Querciabella in the late 1980s, doing away with pesticides seemed like a radical idea.”

Nonetheless, there has never been a better time to drink Chianti Classico. Quality has risen across the board, and the Sangiovese revival is generating a truly distinctive style of wine. 2,500 years after the Etruscans domesticated the vine on the hills between Florence and Siena, 300 years after the zone received its first appellation, the Chianti adventure is really just beginning. It will be a long, exciting journey.


Chianti Classico facts

Location: Central Tuscany, Italy
Hectares under vine: 7,200
Dominant grape: Sangiovese (80% to 100%)
Producers (bottlers): 376
Average yearly production: 38m bottles
Total sales value: €400m
Exports: 82%
Main markets: USA, Italy, Germany, Canada, UK

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