With its latest releases, Chianti Classico enters a new era, born of wines that are better than ever.
By Kerin O'Keefe
There’s a 21st-century renaissance sweeping through the central Tuscan hills.
The winemakers of Chianti Classico are now producing polished, terroir-driven wines loaded with personality and finesse. Today’s Chianti Classicos are food friendly and elegant, and the top riservas offer cellaring potential as well as depth and complexity.
Overall, quality across Chianti Classico has never been higher than it is today.
“Two decades of investments and research into Sangiovese and other native varieties, as well as pulling back from trends like aging in all new barriques that can mask the identity of Sangiovese, are now coming together and bearing fruit,” says Roberto Stucchi Prinetti, who has practiced certified organic viticulture since 2000 at his family’s Badia a Coltibuono estate, one of the denomination’s flagship producers.
Improved vineyard management has been key in Chianti Classico’s rebirth, says Domenico Zonin. At his family’s stunning Castello d’Albola in Radda in Chianti, Zonin says, they’ve focused for years on selecting the Sangiovese clones that best express the highest vineyards in the denomination.
Despite the massive improvements, the region still faces challenges that hinder full-blown success—namely, a lingering association with mediocrity.
This poor image stems from the industrial quantities of dilute Chianti Classico that dominated output until the 1980s and was sold in fiascos—those straw-covered bottles that recall checkered tablecloths and inexpensive pizzerias.
And then, of course, there’s that unavoidable name: Chianti.
Spanning the hills between Florence and Siena, Chianti Classico is Italy’s oldest and most internationally recognized denomination. It’s also the least understood. Many consumers don’t realize that Chianti Classico and Chianti are different wines.
Chianti Classico is the original growing zone, delimited in 1716 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany in recognition of the area’s superlative wines.
However, imitators outside the established borders cashed in by making wines they also called Chianti. In 1932, the Italian government officially identified seven distinct areas of Chianti production.
While the decree allowed wines made in the original area to add the adjective “Classico,” the once-illustrious growing area became a subzone of the enormous Chianti region.
An inadequate production code pushed quantity over quality and stipulated mandatory blending with white grapes.
By the 1960s, Chianti contained about 30% white grapes, largely the bland Trebbiano, generating lightly colored, dilute wines unsuitable for aging.
Realizing that a great red wine could not be made with such a high percentage of white grapes, Piero Antinori shook things up in 1971 with Tignanello, made exclusively with red grapes and aged in barriques.
Initially labeled as a Vino da Tavola because it didn’t adhere to the production code, critics and consumers quickly hailed Tignanello’s superiority over weedy, watery Chianti.
After Tignanello’s success, other producers followed suit. By the 1980s, the best offerings from the area were renegade wines—like Isole e Olena’s Cepparello and Felsina’s Fontalloro—that deviated from the rules.
Shamed, Chianti Classico producers began to clean up their act. After a long battle for independence, Chianti Classico split from the Chianti denomination in 1996 and became a separate denomination with its own, more rigorous production code.
Chianti Classico must now contain at least 80% Sangiovese; up to 20% other red grapes are permitted. White grapes, phased out over the years, have been banned since 2006. Maximum yields are lower than in Chianti.
Even though all bottles of Chianti Classico are now adorned with the black rooster symbol to distinguish them from the myriad other Chiantis, consumer confusion abounds.
“The future of Chianti Classico lies in helping consumers understand the denomination, first, that it’s different from Chianti, but also that within the Chianti Classico zone itself, there are marked variations in terrain and wine styles,” says Paolo De -Marchi of Isole e Olena.
Chianti Classico’s minefield of different styles and quality levels is one of the region’s biggest challenges. Resolving the situation won’t be easy, however, given the sheer size of the appellation, which covers nine townships, 17,790 registered acres and a wide range of soils, altitudes and temperatures.
Soils are generally divided into galestro, a crumbly rock or schist that abounds in the area, and alberese, calcareous soil made of larger, solid rocks, although some areas are dominated by calcareous clay instead.
Vineyard altitudes average between 820 and 1,968 feet, generating a multitude of microclimates and temperature variations. Overall, the area has a continental climate, with cold winters and dry, hot summers.
Given the size and diversity of the growing area, most producers are pushing for zoning within Chianti Classico, including Stucchi.
“The area is so large it’s out of focus,” says Stucchi. “Naming the township from where the grapes originated on the label would be a first step towards making the area more readable, and would give Chi-anti Classico hailing from select communes more identity than Chianti Classico made from different vineyards located throughout the denomination.”
Michele Braganti of Monteraponi, one of the denomination’s rising stars, agrees.
“For sure, the wines that come from my vineyards in Radda in Chianti are different than wines originating in vineyards in Gaiole, for example,” says Braganti. “Not better, but different, and this should be made clear on the label.”
Other producers, like Antinori, feel township isn’t a true indicator of quality or style, given the diverse growing conditions found within each commune.
“Another possibility would be a Bordeaux-style estate classification, based on quality recognition over the years and on the annual classifications from wine guides,” says Antinori. “But this would take time, and is something that our children—maybe—will be able to talk about in the future.”
For now, the one thing that’s certain is that the wines of Chianti Classico are better than ever.