The iconic Tuscan red is at once arguably the most respected and the most misunderstood wine in Italy's rich vinous tapestry.
In production under the Chianti banner since the Middle Ages, Chianti Classico is the star of that magical land of mountain, hill and valley, of oak, pine, cypress and chestnut, of vineyard and olive grove which separates Florence in the north of Tuscany and Siena towards the south.
The original Chianti
Historically, Chianti reached its zenith between 1716 (when it was officially recognised by the Grand Duke of Tuscany as being of delimited production – one of the first such wines in the world) and the early 20th century, when its ability to sell bottles at premium prices led to the name 'Chianti' being purloined by lesser growing areas on the fringes of the original Chianti zone. To cut a long story short, following various legal manoeuvrings the interlopers were granted permission to retain the name 'Chianti' while the historic 'Chiantigiani' were given exclusivity of the term 'Classico'.
Predictably, the fringe producers with their lower prices and lesser quality drove the value and image of the 'Chianti' name down, some of the mud sticking in the process, as mud will; which is why, despite heroic efforts to improve quality/image, Chianti Classico has never attained to the market-heights that that other top-quality Tuscan-sangiovese wine, Brunello di Montalcino, has been able to achieve; but which, on the other hand, has led to some gratifyingly modest prices at the top of the market. Some would class Chianti Classico as the best value-for-money premium wine in the world today; a judgement increasingly recognised by canny buyers and critics.
The quality pyramid
Today, Chianti Classico comes in three styles based on a pyramid of quality. Underpinning the structure is the 'Annata', which must be aged a minimum of 12 months before commercialisation. These are the wines for everyday drinking, though they can hardly be said to be simple. On the next level up, Chianti Classico Riserva must be aged at least 24 months before being sold, and of course will be subject to more stringent selection criteria.
The relatively recently introduced Chianti Classico Gran Selezione is theoretically top of the pyramid, although the category has as yet to settle fully since its baptism in 2013 (the 2010 vintage). Some early editions of 'Gran Selezione' wines turned out to be mere re-designations or re-labellings, for clearance purposes, of what had come to be styled, completely unofficially, 'Super Tuscans', while some critics of the new DOCG complained that the occasion of a new-category ought really to have been used first to eliminate so-called 'international' grapes like cabernet sauvignon from the blend of what is after all a Tuscan wine. How, these argued, would the Bordelais like it if some bunch of bureaucrats decided to allow 20% sangiovese in claret?
The 'holy trinity' of winemaking: grape, climate, soil…
And what of sangiovese? This is the grape variety of ancient Tuscan lineage which informs Chianti Classico to a minimum of 80%, although increasingly growers will opt for 100%, which has been allowed since the closing years of the 20th century. Other grapes which may be included in the blend are the 3 C's: canaiolo, colorino and ciliegiolo on the indigenous side and (for now) cabernet, merlot and syrah on the so-called 'international'.
Chianti Classico's climate can be described as predominantly continental with Mediterranean influence. Winters tend to be cold and summers can be blisteringly hot. Soils, good for vines and olive trees and not much else from a commercial point of view (except, today, tourism), are schistous and flaky or stony (not to say bouldery) with much 'galestro' (a schistous-clay soil) together with pockets of clay.
Such are the main components of wine quality anywhere: grape variety, climate and soil. And in the case of Chianti Classico, there is one further factor deserving attention: elevation. Most of Chianti Classico is between 250 and 600 metres and climbing. This has considerable influence on wine styles, since wines from higher sites tend towards elegance and perfume with higher acidity and firm tannins; while wines from lower sites tend towards richness and lushness with less defined aromas and firmer backbone.
'… wines from higher sites tend towards elegance and perfume… wines from lower sites tend towards richness and lushness…'
Nor have the implications of global warming escaped the attention of today's new Chiantigiani, be they Italian or foreign, with prices of land farther up-slope becoming ever steeper. Small wonder that investors are increasingly asking whether there might be some correspondence between communes and wine style, à la Bordeaux.
Be that as it may, there has always existed a rivalry between the various communes of Chianti Classico. To get a relatively clear image of the communes of Chianti Classico it might be helpful to imagine Chianti Classico as a kind of wonky clock. Anti-clockwise from north-west round to north-east, the first commune we come to is San Casciano in Val di Pesa. This puts it near to Florence, the commercial centre, and the wine style can be relatively friendly, fruity and gluggable, albeit without the hard edges of elsewhere.
Travelling south and west we come to Tavarnelle Val di Pesa, followed by Barberino Val d'Elsa and Poggibonsi – fringe areas, of which Barberino is the most likely to produce wines of structure and ageability. South of Poggibonsi we encounter the first of the three historic Chianti communes: Castellina-in-Chianti. This is an area of very considerable volume and good value whilst producing also some of unforgettably individual style.
From Castellina we head south, but before arriving in Siena we turn eastward towards Castelnuovo Berardenga, a large area whose soils divide into the potentially high class marl and the excessively heavy clay. Driving west and north we enter the wilds of Gaiole-in-Chianti which itself leads into the third of the historic great Chianti Classico zones, Radda-in-Chianti. Distances between estates may be considerable here; there is a certain wild feel and many outstanding and individual and fascinating wines come from here.
Driving north into the centre of Chianti Classico we have a choice between sub-zones like quirky Monti (veering south) or, veering north, Panzano.
Some would say that the finest wines in Tuscany derive from vineyards of Panzano's 'golden shell' (Conca d'oro), which, together with the attractive wine-town of Greve-in-Chianti, of which Panzano is a frazione (or hamlet), forms the beating heart of Chianti Classico production.
However, there is a lot of difference between a vineyard grown at 600 metres and one grown at 250 metres. These differentials, together with all the others, make Chianti Classico a wine difficult to pin down. As ever, we are thrown back at the end on the ancient bacchanalian solution.
Don't think. Just drink!
An authority on Italian wine, Nick Belfrage MW has written several books on the subject and has done more than most to shed light on this wonderfully diverse and sometimes maddeningly complex country!