Chianti represents an enormous range in quality and style, making wine selection difficult. There are different requirements for Chianti, Chianti Classico, and Chianti Classico Riserva. Chianti can come from a huge geographical area, while the Chianti Classico DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Guarantita) is from Central Chianti, which extends across the province of Siena and Florence, and constitutes the best vineyards, soils, and exposures with more rigorous yield restrictions. Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG wines are aged for an additional year in wood than the Classico and generally represent the best wines.
Sangiovese must represent at least 80% of Chianti Classico, but the balance can be made up of other approved grapes like the traditional Canaiolo, or international varieties like Merlot to soften it, along with Cabernet or even Syrah to add color and body to the wine. In the dark days of Chianti (prior to 1995), 100% percent Sangiovese was not allowed; instead Canaiolo and even white grapes were required as part of the blend. Top producers, including many of my favorites, decided that was a travesty, so (thankfully) they made 100% Sangiovese-based wines classified as Vino Da Tavola, the lowest designation. These wines were often made wholly from grapes from Chianti Classico, but could not be approved as Chianti Classico.
This new breed of wine was created in a time when Chianti Classico did not have a name associated with quality, and producers were limited by bureaucratic regulations. Several rebellious producers were inspired by other early Tuscan pioneers like Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta of Tenuta San Guido. While Tenuta San Guido is not part of Chianti, the estate’s influence on the quality of Italian wine cannot be overstated. Inspired by the similarities in terroir between Bolgheri, Tuscany and Graves, Bordeaux, Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta planted Cabernet Sauvignon at Tenuta San Guido as early as 1920, which eventually became known as Sassicaia. The first vintage in 1968 showed the potential of an area not known for wine, and the awesome potential of a grape that was not part of traditional Italian wine. The Antinori family followed up with Tignanello, a Sangiovese based wine that ignored the requirement to include white varieties. Instead, Antinori added nontraditional grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon to Sangiovese and aged their wine in barrique, rather than the larger “botte.” Because Antinori and Tenuta San Guido ignored Italian rules, their wines legally were considered “table wine”, the lowest designation, but set new standards of quality in the their respective areas and caused a chain reaction in the Italian wine world.
The success of Sassicaia and Tignanello lead to the advent of the term “Super Tuscan” which helped lead the way for pioneering Chianti-based wines like Percarlo, Le Pergole Torte, and Flaccianello, all made from 100% Sangiovese. These wines were created by Chianti’s most passionate (and entrepreneurial) producers who the insisted that the current rules limited the potential to create great wines. The resultant quality and higher prices continued to elevate the aura of Super Tuscans, which became highly sought out by collectors, often fetching higher dollar amounts than their DOCG counterparts. That reality eventually lead to the Consorzio Del Vino Chianti Classico to rethink production guidelines and eventually helped to establish the designation IGT (Indicazione Geographica Tipica) in 1992, as well as the allowance of 100% Sangiovese in Chianti Classico in 1995.
Chianti Classico should no longer be confused with straw bottles and checkered tablecloths, but in many ways Chianti producers still fight that unfortunate association. Many of aforementioned IGT wines have a certain pedigree and brand, so do not expect the wineries to change their names to Chianti Classico even if it is bit confusing for the consumer. Additionally, quality continues to vary, the most important barometer of quality being the producer. In the next few weeks I will post about some of my favorite wines and wineries.