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The Renaissance of Chianti Classico

No longer generic Tuscan reds sold in straw-covered bottles, today’s Chianti Classicos are vibrant, aromatic, and food-friendly, too.

Fine Cooking Issue 113
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Mention tuscany and images of verdant hills, stone villas, and sunflowers may come to mind. Speak of Tuscan food and you can almost smell fresh fava beans, chestnuts, porcini mushrooms, and sausages. But suggest serving the iconic Tuscan wine, Chianti Classico, and you may meet some resistance.

Although they’re delicious and food-friendly, with medium body and lively acidity, the wines of the Chianti Classico region still struggle to shed their outdated reputation as generic wines sold in straw-covered bottles, for which the Italian name is, appropriately, fiasco. It’s a shame, really, because today, high-quality Chianti Classico, easily recognized by the black rooster on the neck of the bottles, is available at every price level and is the best it’s ever been.

Chianti Classico rises and falls

Chianti Classico didn’t always suffer from a bad reputation. In 1872, after thirty years of experimentation, Barone Bettino Ricasoli, a renowned wine entrepreneur and Italy’s second prime minister, created what he believed to be the optimal formula for the region’s namesake wine. Ricasoli said Chianti Classico should be made primarily from Sangiovese (the noble grape of Tuscany), with some Canaiolo (another local red variety, similar to Merlot) and a very small amount of Malvasia (an aromatic white grape) to temper and smooth the wine. The formula set a high benchmark for quality, but it also set a precedent for blending red and white grapes that would lead to trouble for Chianti Classico.

The following century was a tumultuous time in Tuscany. Phylloxera (a parasitic insect) and poor maintenance devastated the vineyards, while political upheaval, mass emmigration, and two world wars did no favors for the region. The nail in the coffin came in 1967, when the Italian wine authorities issued new regulations intended to keep wine production costs down in the vineyard and the cellar: They permitted excessively high yields, which led to lower-quality grapes, and ruled that Chianti Classico would contain no more than 70 percent Sangiovese and 10 to 30 percent white grape varieties. Unfortunately, most producers were using the inexpensive and relatively flavorless white varietal Trebbiano instead of the fragrant Malvasia. These rules did more than just keep costs down; they made it impossible to produce great wine and call it Chianti Classico. Wine drinkers noticed, and Chianti Classico’s reputation plummeted.

Super Tuscans take the stage

Four years later, the Antinori family, Tuscan winemakers since the 14th century, created a wine called Tignanello. It was made entirely from Sangiovese grapes and aged in small barrels of new French oak, instead of the large, old barrels (called botti) that had been traditionally used. Produced to prove that world-class Sangiovese-based wine could still be made in the Chianti Classico region, it was as much a provocation as it was a wine.

Since Tignanello flew in the face of the 1967 regulations, it couldn’t bear the region’s trademark name. Instead, the Antinoris sold it under the humble classification of vino da tavola, or table wine, and in a genius marketing move, called it “Super Tuscan.” This wine and subsequent others like it were lavishly praised by critics and soon became some of the most highly rated and expensive red wines on the world market.

Chianti Classico makes a comeback

By the 1990s, the success of the Super Tuscans and the high prices they commanded shook the vintners of the Chianti Classico region out of their malaise, and an era of experimentation, investment, and high-quality winemaking began.

Eventually, the Italian wine authorities caught on and tightened the regulations governing how Chianti Classico should be made. Better farming practices were put into place, and broader discretion was given to winemakers in choosing their blends, whether from native varieties like Canaiolo and Colorino or New World varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. Today, Chianti Classico must contain at least 80 percent Sangiovese and no more than 20 percent other red grapes. No white grapes are permitted. Among the current generation of winemakers, the conversation in Chianti Classico has shifted from regulations and recipes to finding the optimal expression of Sangiovese in the region’s hillsides.

Even with Chianti Classico’s quality and reputation soaring, many top winehouses still call their finest Sangiovese-based wines Super Tuscan to guarantee media attention and high prices. But there are a few producers, zealously committed to Chianti Classico’s resurrection, who have begun labeling their premium Sangiovese-based wines as Chianti Classico. These wines possess the power and finesse to convince even hard-core skeptics that the days of the fiasco are ancient history.

A food lover’s wine

If there’s only one thing to remember about the wines of Chianti Classico, it’s this: They’re meant to be enjoyed with food. Aromatic and vibrant, they boast a lush bouquet of herbs, red fruits, violets, and sometimes tobacco and earth. Rarely too heavy or overpowering with a meal, they’ve come a long way over the last four decades and are an outstanding value, too. Even better, they’re the perfect choice for cool autumn nights when Tuscan specialties like butternut squash ravioli, pork ragù, and ripe figs with Gorgonzola dolce slip effortlessly onto the menu.
Explore what this region has to offer through these seven bottles:

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