Clarifying Chianti Confusion: Why Chianti Classico is not a sub-zone of Chianti

The wine world can be confusing, Italy is no exception. Even top Masters of Wine say Italy is difficult to navigate. I found this true when digging into Chianti Classico for the Italian Food, Wine and Travel group‘s (#ItalianFWT) upcoming October 7th theme.

In fact, after going in circles I reached out to some people with a goal of making sense of the conflicting information. In particular I want to thank Maurizio Broggi, Educational Director for Italy at the Wine Scholar Guild, who offered his help without a blink and unraveled my confusion. And my friend and veritable wine professional Katarina Andersson of Grapevine Adventures.

I didn’t intend for this to be lengthy, but I hope you enjoy it! And for the wine geeks who like to take informational nose dives, I’ve included “Extra curious” information.

The Original Four Chianti Villages

Viticulture in Tuscany dates to the 8th century Etruscans. Move to the Chianti mountains around Florence and wine was evident back to the 13th century. And back then, the villages of Radda, Castellina, and Gaiole around Florence formed the ‘League of Chianti’. This was about political borders and defending them, not wine, although these villages are where Chianti wine was first produced historically.

Chianti ClassicoWine Merchants Guild

Late in the 13th century, the Arte dei Vinattieri (Wine Merchants Guild) was founded. Its main purpose was the commerce of wine in Florence. A statute regulated the taverns (osterie) who worked with a network of agents to find and purchase wine to satisfy Florentine’s demand for wine- it was sold and commercialized at the Mercato Vecchio, a place many of us have visited.

The Guild established laws around the sale of wine, among other things until it was replaced by a chamber of commerce in the 18th century. An ancestor of the now famous Antinori winemaking family was a member of the Guild, 26 generations ago!

First Ever Wine Production Area

The Grand Duke of Tuscany- Cosimo III de Medici- declared in 1716 the three Chianti villages (Radda, Castellina, and Gaiole), the village of Greve, and the hamlet of Panzano as the official Chianti wine producers. History is made in Italy!

For the extra curious- The declaration was meant to delimit the zone of production for Chianti, as well as Pomino, Carmignano and Val d’Arno di Sopra. Only the wines produced in the delimited territory mentioned in the declaration were allowed to be called Chianti. Sometimes this area is called Chianti Storico (historic Chianti) which differentiates from the rest of the area that today is called Chianti but wasn’t part of the original territory). Chianti Storico is included in Chianti Classico but Classico includes villages and areas that were not originally part of the first Chianti (Chianti Storico). 

This delineation remained in place by the edict of 1716. However over time, the wine produced in the same manner and style of Chianti, but from outside the historic Chianti area (zone), ended up being sold as Chianti. Phylloxera hitting France along with a rise in wine demand late in the 19th century and early 20th century fueled these “extra” sales.

We are “in Chianti”

In 1911, some of the original villages  added Chianti to their names, becoming “Castellina in Chianti”, “Radda in Chianti” and “Gaiole in Chianti”. Greve did this in 1972.

Chianti Classico

 

Here Come the Consortiums!

  • 1924 – Consorzio Chianti Classico was born
  • 1927 – Consorzio del Vino Chianti was established (after WWII renamed Consorzio del Putto)

 

Divide and Change

In 1932 changes were made to Chianti, re-drawing and dividing it into 6 areas outside the historic classic zone: Colli Aretini, Colli Fiorentini, Colli Senesi, Colline Pisane, Montalbano, and Rufina. In 1997, Montespertoli was approved as a seventh sub-zone. (These 6 are not “Classico” areas.)

For the extra curious: “”The Italian government did this to regulate and define boundries of Chianti, expanding the Chianti production zone outside the historic area, including all areas that surrounded the historic Chianti. They included all areas that surrounded historic Chianti. Reasons behind this decision were mainly due to the fact the territory surrounding historic Chianti (what today is Chianti DOCG) were in fact producing for several decades wines made in the same manner, style and from the same grape varieties as historic Chianti. Economic consequences of what would have arisen if all the producers outside the historic Chianti were forbidden to sell their wines as Chianti. To distinguish historic Chianti (as the area where the wines were originally produced) the government awarded this area the Classico designation (in line with other wine zones of Italy). Historic Chianti (Chianti Storico) formally became a sub-zone of Chianti.

The Chianti Blend

Bettino Ricasoli, whose family made wine in Chianti since the 12th century set out as a young lad to learn about winemaking techniques in France and Germany. He returned with vine cuttings and an experimental heart, developing what became known as the Chianti blend, a.k.a. Ricasoli Formula in 1872: 70% Sangiovese, and up to 15% Canaiolo and/or 15% Malvasia del Chianti. This formula was cemented in 1967 when the Italian government established the Chianti DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata).

Interesting Note: Ricasoli was thinking about softer, earlier drinking wines; this formula was intended for them and not for wines meant to age. The primary grapes for the later were Sangiovese complemented with a portion of Canaiolo; Malvasia was not included. Over time, producers started replacing Malvasia with Trebbiano Toscano. The Ricasoli formula became the norm for early drinking wines to such an extent that when the production rules were formalized in 1967, the Ricasoli formula included Trebbiano Toscano and became officially formalized in the disciplinare of Chianti DOC.

By the way… The high yielding grape Trebbiano Toscano is known as Ugni Blanc in France and the primary grape in Cognac!

Chianti Classico Is Born

The government issued a ministerial decree differentiating Chianti made in the ‘zone of origin’ (the areas originally delineated by Cosmio III in 1716). This ‘zone’ was given the name Chianti Classico, not Chianti.

Oh Chianti, Where Did You Go?

 

After WWII, less expensive, easy drinking wine was sought. Increased quantities were pumped out with more Trebbiano. Chianti was sold all over the world and considered basic mass-market wine by the end of the 20th century. As a child I remember my parents commenting Chianti was a light, easy drinking, affordable wine. And oh how I loved that fiasco bottle wrapped like a basket!

Denominations Come

1967 – The entire Chianti area was granted DOC status

1984 – The Classico areas became a DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita)

1984 – Chianti was promoted to DOCG status

1996 – Classico established as autonomous by decree

Both Chianti and Classico shared the same regulation until 1996. As of that year Chianti Classico is not a sub-zone of Chianti DOCG but a completely autonomous DOCG with its own regulation.

Moving On, Bucking The System

Always one person, there is in the crowd who likes to push the envelope and some did just that. Certain winemakers decided they didn’t like the blend, it didn’t allow them to make the best expression of what their land and vines could offer. They were required by law to include no more than 70% Sangiovese and at least 10% of a local white wine grape. So they did what they wanted and labeled their wines Vino da Tavola (table wine), the lowest wine designation.

Super Tuscans Hit the Scene

Sassicaia was a first Super Tuscan released in 1968, followed by Tiganello from the Antinori brand in 1971, a Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon blend; both were labeled Vino da Tavola. This style wine and the Vino da Tavola labeling brought attention to the situation, resulting in a change to the Chianti DOC blend. A modernization of winemaking surge occurred in the whole of Chianti during this time too.

Lay of the Land TodayA Blend Recap

Chianti DOCG:

  • 70-100% Sangiovese maximum, 10% white varietals and other red varietals grown in the Chianti area. Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc may not exceed 15%.

Chianti Classico DOCG:

  • 80% Sangiovese minimum, the balance consisting of red varietals grown in the area. White varietals are not permitted since 2006.
  • A wine of altitude, grapes are grown in hillsides, not the plains.
  • Soils are a mixture of Alberese, a hard sandstone and Galestro, a chalky marlstone typical of the Classico heartland hills.

 What about that black…whoops, is it red Rooster?!? For an explanation, I’m sending you here.

The Chianti and Chianti Classico areas as a whole are rich with history, politics, and a variety of red, rosé and white wine. I know one thing for sure- I’ll never look at a bottle of Chianti the same!

Sources:

6 thoughts on “Clarifying Chianti Confusion: Why Chianti Classico is not a sub-zone of Chianti

  1. Martha

    I know I like (some) chianti, and like you, my parents purchased the basket wrapped bottles, including ones with very long necks- I loved sticking candles in them once empty and the wax would flow down the sides. Always fun as a kid! I’m a novice drinker but the history here is really interesting. If the topic comes up in my circle of friends, we know where to go for some questions!

    Reply
  2. Diane

    Well you know me, I just drink and enjoy it! I leave being a wine geek up to you.
    I have to say, I didn’t realize wine in that area went so far back. Sounds like the envelope pushers did a great thing. I’ve had a few Super Tuscans that were amazing- now I know they aren’t really a Chianti or Chianti Classico but a wine all by themselves.

    Reply
  3. Lauren Walsh

    What a concise and engaging write-up on one of Italy’s most important (and most confusing!) regions. Thanks for explaining the history of Chianti and Chianti Classico, especially the differences between them. You’ve put it into context, showing how the regions developed as they did, and why. Great read!

    Reply
  4. john

    As the “birth-place” for great wines, Chianti seems to have lost some ground amongst other great wine producing regions in the world. Part of that is due to the complexity of what’s happened there, the perception that Chianti wines are wrapped in straw packaging.

    That may take years to overcome.

    But this essay helped to better understand its history. And like things… it will improve as the region simplifies all the things going on inside it and improves it marketing.

    People like you are needed to make sense of it all. Don’t stop. Wine consumers (like me) are appreciative of the learning process… and drinking great wine.

    Reply
    1. Lynn Post author

      John- It actually seems the “Fiasco” bottle might be trying to make a come back!

      Glad you found the information understandable and helpful. Please do feel free to share with your Italian wine loving friends ;-D

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *