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with medium body and lively acidity, the wines of the Chianti Classico region still struggle to shed their outdated reputation as generic wines sold in straw-covered bottles, for which the Italian name is, appropriately, fiasco.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.