Some say that understanding the complexities of Chianti is understanding Italian red wine. Chianti is, after all, a complex region with a main geographical area, multiple sub zones plus a classic zone to consider.
Tuscany, perhaps Italy's most popular tourist destination, is where to find Chianti, although wine tourists mostly go to Tuscany for the red wine. The meaning of Tuscany today is not only centered around wine, but also a long history of culture and art that includes the magnificent frescoes of Giotto and the sculptures of Michelangelo.
Tuscany is the most important wine region in central Italy, with a number of famous wines -- Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Bolgheri, Brunello di Montalcino. Grand and noble wines, but Chianti outshines them all in value, variety and according to some discerning palates, quality.
The Chianti region, located between Florence and Siena, has a colorful history dating back to the 13th century. Chianti consists of seven sub zones, of which, thanks to Frescolbaldi, the best known to American wine consumers is Chianti Rufina (not to be confused with the Chianti producer Ruffino).
Sangiovese is the main grape for all Chianti. Percentages vary, but the requirement calls for 70% in Chianti and 80% in Chianti Classico. That leaves a substantial percentage to be filled with other red grapes like Canaiolo and Colorino. White varieties Trebbiano and Malvasia are also permitted although they are rarely used in Chianti Classico.
Credit for the allowance of white grapes in the Chianti blend goes to Baron Ricasoli who in 1872 suggested that the blend be based on Sangiovese for bouquet, with a little Canaiolo to soften the wine and Malvasia to lighten the wine for early drinking. The baron's formula, more or less, is used to this day for standard Chianti.
The taste of Sangiovese is savory with hints of cherry and herbs, braced with good acidity and tannins. Add any of the other grapes and you have a different wine, one with more structure and texture. Some Chiantis have Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot in the blend and they alter the taste of Sangiovese.
The bottom line is, while there are some good quality Chiantis, most of it is ordinary fruity red wine, ready to drink. And that's why the discerning buyer turns to Chianti Classico and Chianti Rufina.
At the heart of the Chianti region is the Chianti Classico zone, consisting of wineries grouped under the Chianti Classico Consorzio, identified by the Gallo Nero (black cockerel) neck label. Since its founding in 1924, the Consorzio has set a standard for its wines that are more particular than standard Chianti.
Chianti Classico has three levels: Anatta (meaning "vintage" or the base level), Riserva, required by the Consorzio to be aged a minimum of 24 months, and Gran Selezione, aged a minimum of 30 months. Gran Selezione represents only 5% of Chianti Classico. The classic zone was elevated to DOCG in 1987.
In 2021, the Consorzio approved 11 new UGAs or Additional Geographical Units (Unita Geografiche Aggiuntive). UGA are sub regions or special growing zones, such as Greve, Castelnuovo and Radda, but they are not a single vineyard designation. For now, UGAs will be allowed only on Gran Selezione wines.
As far back as the early 18th century, Chianti Rufina was producing quality wine, based on Sangiovese. The smallest of the seven sub zones, Chianti Rufina is best represented in the export market by Frescobaldi.
One of the most noteworthy estates in Rufina is Pomino, owned by Frescobaldi. Pomino is primarily a Chardonnay, with its own DOC, although there is also a Chardonnay/Pinot Blanc blend. A rarity for Tuscany is Pomino Pinot Nero.
Prices for a bottle of current vintage Chianti or Chianti Classico range from $20 to $41. Chianti is the least expensive and Chianti Classico, especially Gran Selezione are generally more expensive and can cost $40 or more.
Here are a few reliable Chianti producers: Fontodi, Castello di Volpaia, Villa Antinori, Ruffino, Isole e Olena, Frescobaldi, Baron Ricasoli.
An aside. There is a trattoria in the Classic Zone (the town escapes) with an unusual "wine list." In place of a printed list, or a cumbersome book, "Everest" had a side table with a few dozen bottles of Chianti Classico. Select one or more bottles, carry the wine to your table and someone will come by and pull the cork(s). All wines were the same price and someone on the staff could fill you in on the particulars of your chosen wine. What could be simpler and less intimidating and why do we not see this kind of non-pretentious wine program at restaurants in this country?
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