& Chianti Classico
A trip to Italy isn’t complete without a visit to Tuscany. The beautiful landscape, the ancient cities of Florence, Siena and San Gimignano (to name a few) are pleasing to all senses. If you get the opportunity to visit Tuscany, I highly recommend it. The food and the wine are magical, and the sightseeing is next to none.
In This Chapter-
- You will learn about the main red grape of Tuscany, Sangiovese.
- There will be an introduction to the main wine laws regarding production of wine.
- You'll discover the different Chianti regions
- We will end with deeper focus into the Chianti Classico region.
Are you ready? Let’s get more clarity about Amazing Italian Vino!
Sangiovese is the main red grape grown in Tuscany. A grape that provides a unique versatility compared to other red grapes. It can be bright, fruity, soft and easy. It can also be big, full-flavored, complex and ageable for decades. It is amazing how oak and time changes the taste and body of the Sangiovese.
Sangiovese’s flavor profile is red fruit, (cherry, strawberry) medium bodied, fun spices, solid acidity, and a long smooth finish. Please remember there are no absolutes in discussing wine. There is always an exception and for our purposes, we will use generalities.
There are other minor red grapes grown in Tuscany such as Canaiolo Nero, and Ciliegiolo as well as popular international varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc.
Sangiovese is THE grape of Tuscany and has been for centuries. The reason is the area is perfect for growing the grape. The climate, the soil, in other words, the terroir makes this an ideal situation for growing great Sangiovese grapes.
Perhaps Italy’s most recognized wine is Chianti. Chianti is a wine region, not a grape. The main grape of all the 9 Chianti regions is Sangiovese.
Remember, (and this will help you understand Italian wine more than anything else) most of the wines of Italy are named after the place or region the grapes are grown in.
There are several Sangiovese clones that are used to make other great wines in Tuscany. My personal favorite- Brunello di Montalcino, prides itself as being one of the best in the world due to the Sangiovese Grosso grape.
A little further down the road is Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, where the Sangiovese clone used to make this tasty wine is Prugnolo Gentile.
More on these wines in the coming weeks.
For our purposes of better and simpler wine appreciation, we are not going to get into a lot of grape genetics. They all are Sangiovese, they all have the similar flavor profile, and they all taste great. But they do react differently to the soil, climate and elevation of the different regions. We will use the French word- terroir to reflect these elements that affect the grape.
Now wait a minute! Did I just say Sangiovese several times? Is this the same Sangiovese I see on wine lists and in retail establishments?
Yep! Same one.
Then why is it sometimes Sangiovese and sometimes it is one of the Chiantis?
Are they not the same thing? Same grape, but not the same wine.
Again, it is a sense of place in Italian wine. I have had people enter my store asking for a Sangiovese and I show them the Chianti’s and there is confusion in their face? The vinos of Italy are mostly labeled by the region or area rather than the grape.
The differences are the wine laws of all the Chianti regions require obeying certain rules of the region before it can have that region printed on the label. If the producer of the wine decides to not abide by all the rules of Chianti, or Chianti Classico, it can simply bottle the wine and label it as Sangiovese IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) no matter where it comes from in Italy.
There are wine laws established in Italy that guarantee the origin of the wine in the bottle comes from the region listed on the label. Basically, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita or from here on be known as DOCG. And Denominazione di Origine Controllata, or DOC from now on, are the 2 main governing wine laws of Italy.
Anything that does not fall into either of the DOC or DOCG requirements can be notated as IGP which still lets the consumer know the wine in that bottle is from Italy even though it doesn’t conform to rules of a DOC or DOCG. You can refer to the foundation section regarding Italian Wine Laws for further clarity.
There are 9 Chianti regions in Tuscany with 7 of them being sub-regions of Chianti. Let’s not get to hung up on regions vs sub-regions here, but know that each of the 9 Chianti regions are unique and the wines do not all taste the same. The primary red grape for all of them is? ……you got it! Sangiovese.
- Chianti Colli Senesi
- Chianti Rufina
- Colli Fiorentini
- Colli Aretini
- Colline Pisane
- Chianti Montalbano
- Chianti Montespertoli
My analogy for clarity is… let’s say the Tuscany region is like a large city. Chianti would be a suburb of the city. Chianti Classico would be another suburb. Chianti Colli Senesi would be another suburb, and so on. Keep thinking geography! It’s all about the place!
We will discuss these sub-regions in more detail in our next posting.
The Chianti Classico region lies between the cities of Florence and Siena. Chianti Classico is the largest producer of wine of the all the Chianti regions. In 2017, there were 36 million bottles of Chianti Classico produced of which 77% were exported. Chianti Classico wines are very appealing to the American palate.
Generally, the wines of Chianti Classico are more expensive than the wines of Chianti. Make no mistake, the wines are different. Classico tends to have more structure & body, more fruit, acidity and usually more age worthy.
Chianti tends to be slightly lighter bodied, easy drinking, not as structured- a good daily red. The acids of the grape make a perfect match with the acids of tomato sauce and pasta. There is a reason spaghetti and meatballs and Chianti, any Chianti, are a great food and wine pairing. The acid of the tomato and of the wine counteract each other. This brings out the fruit flavors of both food and wine. YUM!
I think it is human nature to compare things and it is quite natural to compare Chianti to Chianti Classico. One or the other doesn’t have to be better than the other. It’s not really a competition. They have similarities and differences, but what might appeal to you may not appeal to another.
To say one is better than the other is an individual thing.
That is the beauty of wine! It is a personal appreciation.
Depending on your age, you might have memories of Chianti being lighter in color and more acidic to bitter. Up to 1979, Chianti Classico wine law dictated 2/3 red grapes and 1/3 white grapes.
The white grapes were Trebbiano & Malvesia and it was mandated to be part of the mix in Chianti since the mid 1930’s. In 1979, they changed the law to allow 100% red grapes (Sangiovese being the main one) and permitted the optional use of only 0-10% of the white grapes in the mix.
We will talk about the white grapes of Tuscany another time.
There can be different levels of wine within the classification of the region. In discussing the Chianti Classico DOCG wine, they are –
Chianti Classico- Minimum 1 year of aging
Chianti Classico Riserva – Minimum 2 yrs aging & minimum alc. 12.5%
Chianti Classico Gran Selezione- Aged 30 months, minimum alc 13% and all the grapes used must be estate grown.
Unlike other parts of the world that use the “reserve” word liberally, in Italy it means something. In this case it means there is some extra time aging in either a barrel or in the bottle before release. Each region has certain requirements to be met before they can give it the “Riserva” designation.
“Selezione” is a newer level (2014) that allows the producers another tier of excellence. The primary difference is the longer aging and estate grown Sangiovese grapes. (80% minimum)
There are producers in Chianti Classico that also produce excellent wines that don’t fall within the DOCG laws for one reason or another. We will not delve deep into the laws of each individual DOCG or DOC but I did touch on the importance of these laws in the Foundation Chapter which you can go back and review at any time.
Chianti Classico region has several excellent wines, and mostly on the high end of the price spectrum, that are amazing and delicious. One example is Marchesi Antinori produces the famous Tignanello wine from the winery in Chianti Classico. The base of the wine is Sangiovese but they add Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in amounts not allowed by the DOCG. However, this wine is highly sought after by many in the international wine marketplace.
Another example is Felsina. They have vineyards that lie in Chianti Classico & Chianti Colli Senesi, two different Chianti regions and they produce a wine that is equal parts of grapes from within both regions. DOCG laws will not allow Felsina to put both regions on the label, so they name the wine after the name of the vineyard- Fontalloro and it has the IGP designation to note the origin of this wine is from Tuscany, Italy. Another delicious Sangiovese based wine from an exceptional vineyard that doesn't abide by the DOCG laws of the region.
I feel many wines get overlooked by consumers of good Italian wine because they are not DOC or DOCG compliant. Sometimes if you find a wine you like from a good producer, you can explore their other wines and find another gem that isn’t so mass produced or popular.
If you have purchased Chianti Classico DOCG in the past, you might notice a black rooster on the neck of the bottle. This producer is a member of the Chianti Classico Consortium.
Here is the story of the Black Rooster (Gallo Nero).
In medieval times the cities of Siena and Florence were constantly at war over boundaries of land. This was a time of local rulers and not governments as we know them now. One day the two sides agreed to stop the fighting and establish borders once and for all. The plan was a knight from each city would start riding toward each other when the rooster crowed. The Siena people had a white rooster that was fed and content, so he had no urgency to wake up the knight. The Florentines on the other hand, kept their black rooster hungry so he was crowing well before dawn and before the white rooster of Siena. The knight from Florence got a big head start. When the two knights met, that established a border for what is now Chianti Classico. To honor the black rooster (Gallo Nero) members of the consortium put the rooster on the bottle.
Chianti Classico is a well-known area that produces great wines from some of the most prestigious wine makers in the world. The overall quality of wines is excellent and would be a great accompaniment to most foods. It doesn’t have to be only noodles and red sauce to make your meal fabulous.
The real secret to enjoying the amazing flavors of Chianti Classico wines- Drink with Food!
Does that mean the wine will not be good with no food? NO! It just means the wine is best with food!
FOOD PAIRINGS- Tomato sauced pastas, grilled meats, roasted vegetables, roasts, pizza, oily fish such as salmon, game and roasted poultry are all things to enjoy with a Chianti Classico. The balanced acidity of the wine enhances the flavors of the food. If you are splurging on a Riserva, (tasty upgrade I must say) I recommend more heartier food flavors like beef or game with a Riserva wine.
Whether you want to sit with friends and sip and chat with a Chianti Classico, or plan a great meal around it, those are some of the great moments in a life.
Take your time, enjoy the wine!