The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

How We Got Chianti Classico

Posted on | November 9, 2015 | Written by Janice Cable | No Comments

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All roads lead to Chianti

As much as Chianti Classico is the embodiment of Toscana, it is also a quintessential illustration of how deeply problematic DOC laws can be. The history of Chianti Classico–both its geographical location and its wines–is more or less the story of a restless conflict between the wine producer and the governing body, and how, in the end, though the latter may try to shape the former, the wine producer wins.

In some ways, it all begins and ends in the eighteenth century. In 1716, the Grand Duchy of Toscana Cosimo III de’Medici wrote the first set of laws regulating the cultivation of grapes and vinification of Tuscan wine and designated the hilly region nestled between Siena and Firenze as Chianti. This geographical designation stayed in place until the 1932 Dalmasso Commission (a DOC precursor) expanded the region and added additional sub-zones to the Chianti name; these included San Casciano Val di Pesa to the west, as well as Chiocchio, Strada (in Chianti), and San Polo to the north. This enlarged area became the geographical basis for the 1967 DOC designation, during which time there was no DOC distinction between Chianti and Chianti Classico. It was all just Chianti.

What this rezoning meant was that Chianti Classico, other than gaining in size and going from a relatively tidy zone to a bloated region, also saw its wine tradition become suddenly more diffuse. This diffusion, however, wasn’t exactly anything new. Historically, Chianti had been made of Canaiolo, Sangiovese, and Mammolo and Marzemino. But Chianti also was as much a region as a style of wine, for historical slang called any vermillion or Florentine wine “Chianti.” In an attempt to codify his region’s most famous wine, nineteenth- century nobleman, Baron Bettini Ricasoli advised that the Chianti formula be crafted using Sangiovese for its basis, along with added parts of Canaiolo and white grapes, and in fact he mandated that the region’s vineyards grow specific percentages of these grapes.

Panzano's Fontodi gives a view of the Conca d'Oro

Panzano’s Fontodi gives a view of the Conca d’Oro

Taking the Baron’s somewhat apocryphal recipe as a form of gospel, the DOC officially made it the formula for Chianti in 1967, requiring Chianti to use Sangiovese (from 75-100%), with ample doses of Canaiolo (max. of 10%), and up to 30% of white grapes (Trebbiano Toscano and/or Malvasia Bianca). While the Baron created his Chianti mandates with the best of intentions, he ended up paving the road to bad wine, for those good intentions essentially gave a blank check to the impoverished producers of 1960’s and 70’s Italy to make wine for sheer quantity, not quality.  The cheap, pizza-place, fish-shaped, straw-covered fiasco Chianti was born.

But if it’s true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then it’s equally true that necessity is the mother of invention, and so in 1924 some producers in what had been the original 1716 Chianti region–and what would later become Chianti Classico–staged a revolt. These producers did two things: they banded together to create the Gallo Negro, or Black Rooster, a consortium of like-minded producers, and they made great wine that staunchly refused to fit the DOC paradigm.  Producers like Antinori, Fontodi and Tenuta San Guido rebelled by making wines that were 100% Sangiovese, or Sangiovese mixed with international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, and thereby they gave birth to the so-called Super-Tuscan movement. Sitting outside the DOC paradigm, these wines were called vin da tavola and designated IGT–or table wine–the lowest classification. It didn’t matter. People bought them. And soon the DOC realized they had to change.

In 1984, two DOCG designations, Chianti Classico and Chianti, were created that forever split the region. Chianti Classico’s geographical area essentially replicated the original 1716 Chianti designation. In addition to a smaller, neater region of 17,000 acres, DOCG regulations for Chianti Classico limited the grape production, so while those same 17,000 acres produced 8.5 million gallons of wine in the late 1980s, by 2004, production dropped to about 6.5 million gallons.  In fact, the 1984 DOCG Chianti Classico laws support the Black Rooster’s aim of making Chianti great: in addition to maximum production amounts, DOCG laws set minimum extract amounts (extracts are the solids in wine that provide flavor), longer aging requirements and more flexible varietal requirements.

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Castello dei Rampolla unfolds in biodynamic rows

The Chianti Classico DOCG laws that followed in 1984 decreased the allowable usage of white grape varietals to a maximum of 6%. Conversely, the laws allowed international varietals—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah in a maximum of 10%. Producers responded by making improvements in the cellar like installing temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, replacing older botti with smaller barriques, and implementing longer maceration periods. The end result was Chianti that tasted like Toscana: bold, powerful, earthy, and redolent of fruit and violets.

In 1996, Chianti Classico DOCG once more revised the initial laws established in 1984 to include a maximum of 15% international varietals—making the white grape blessedly optional. In 2006, an additional provision was mandated; starting with the 2006 vintage, wines labeled Chianti Classico DOCG must be comprised of 80-100% Sangiovese and 20% other permitted red grape varietals. Other than geography, this elimination of the white grape requirement delineates the main difference between Chianti Classico DOCG and Chianti DOCG. (Chianti DOCG retains the 1984 laws, which allow for a higher percentage of white grapes and a lower percentage of international varietals.)

For a list of IWM’s fine Chiantis, go here. There are some beautiful Sangiovese wines from them there Tuscan hills. And don’t miss the 2010 La Maialina Chianti Classico featured in today’s eLetter. It’s under $19!

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