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The story of Chianti

Landscape in Chianti region, Tuscany, Italy

First things first

Since the Middle Ages, Florence was the most powerful of the city-states, and the epicentre of commercial winemaking. In the 14th century, the Florentine Republic identified the hills between Florence and Siena as Chianti. Chianti was the first real delimited wine zon, when in 1716 Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici created what is believed to be the first legislation governing wine production.

In the 1870s, following extensive research through France and Germany studying every possible way of growing vines, Baron Bettino Ricasoli narrowed down the Chianti formula to three Tuscan grape varieties: Sangioveto (Sangiovese) for its aromas; Canaiolo for its sweetness to balance the acidity of the latter; and Malvasia to give freshness. In Bordeaux terms, Canaiolo is to Sangiovese what Merlot is to Cabernet.

In the 20th century, a series of unfortunate events occurred in Chianti. First, the original zone (now referred to as the classic zone) expanded to include huge parts of central Tuscany; then in 1967, the Ricasoli formula became doctrine allowing for up to 30% white varieties in the blend. Finally, the mass exodus that started in the 1950s from the Tuscan countryside prompted the Italian Government and EU to finance large-scale replanting of the Tuscan vineyards, with a focus on mass production.

The mouth puckering, brown-at-the edge red in a straw-covered fiasco is the cheap image of Chianti that still haunts the industry. Piero Antinori acknowledged that “for so long, our wine culture was based on quantity, not quality”. He also concedes that “in the past, Italy produced mass quantities of wine because we were an agricultural economy and people used wine to quench thirst. After WW2, consumption dropped as we became more industrialised. But our mentality toward winemaking did not change”.

The times they are a changin’

Today, Chianti is not the wine it once was. It has undergone more profound changes in the past 30 years than any other wine in Italy, and now Chianti Classico is a source of world class reds. In 1984, Chianti and Chianti Classico were upgraded to DOCG, adjusting the formula with a minimum of only 2% white varieties, and allowing 105 foreign varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

It changed again in 1996, eliminating the minimum of white grapes and allowing up to 15% foreign varieties. Yields were restricted, and new technologies were implemented in the cellar such as controlled temperature in stainless steel, and ageing in smaller barrels instead of the big chestnut botti. The Classico area was restricted to the original 7000ha, with lower yields and higher minimum Sangiovese (80%).

In 1989, the Chianti Classico Consorzio started a research programme called Chianti Classico 2000. The main aim of the programme was to identify new clones of Sangiovese with thicker skin and sparser grape bunches. Parallel to this, some producers started their own clonal selection, replanting vineyards more densely, producing smaller quantities of fruit per vine. The mini revolution ignited by top estates prompted the change from 2000-5000 vines/ha, producing only one-two kilosper plant. The vintages from 1997 to 2000 were fantastic for Chianti Classico, due not only to the weather, but also to a refinement of the ingredients.

Grape Harvest. Color Image

The grape

Although the variety is anything but easy, Sangiovese is Italy’s most abundant red variety, with over 70,000ha and 11% of all grape varieties in Italy. The origin of the name is debated, with some pointing to the mythological reference to the blood of Jupiter (Sanguis Jovis), and others to that of Saint John (di Giovanni).

Its origins are unclear. It is thought to have originated in the Apennines between Emilia Romagna and Tuscany, with the first written reference dating back to 1590. In 2004, researchers determined through DNA testing that Sangiovese descends from Ciliegiolo.

Sangiovese is very vigorous and has to be closely pruned. It’s sensitive to its environment and difficult to get fully ripe, which can also contribute to its high acidity. The variety tends to contain low levels of anthocyanins in its skin, giving less intense colour. For this reason, Canoiolo and especially Cororino are added to the Chianti blend. This is also the reason why Cabernet and Merlot became important in Tuscany. Clonal selection research efforts led to the development of looser bunches and less productive, early ripening and deeper hued clones of Sangiovese.

The weather

In Chianti the climate is overall very mild hotter in the valleys and cooler with more rainfall in the hillside areas.

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The soil

The best soils for growing Sangiovese are not very fertile, well drained, with minimal water retention. The poor soils of Chianti galestro (friable marl with layers of sandstone/limestone) are probably the best of all. The optimal planting of vines is at a density of 5,000-7,000 plants per ha, with yields of 1.5kg per plant. In the cool Chianti Classico area the best results are in south/southwest facing slopes at 250/500m.

From the heights of Gaiole, Greve, Castellina, Radda and Panzano the wines show perfume and power, with sour red cherries, red berries, liquorice, violet, tea leaf, and leather and tobacco with age. Often the wines have a sheen of new oak and are sweetened with Merlot and Cabernet. They are dense, dark and age-worthy, but still angular compared to the new world styles. The best Chianti Classico has a certain grace that does not fade with age.