What is Chianti? There is hardly any other question as fiercely debated in the wine world as the question of the origin of Chianti. For a long time, Chianti was considered a wine made mainly from grapes grown in the three river valleys between Florence and Siena. The three river valleys of Val di Pesa, Val di Greve and Val d’Arbia are located in the heart of Tuscany. According to wine connoisseurs, the location of the vines along the river valleys provide the special aroma of Chianti wines.
However, the question of the origin of Chianti was far from settled: at the beginning of the 20th century, the conflict surrounding the origin of Chianti escalated.
If there were a province called Chianti, things would be much easier: Chianti is a wine-growing region that gives its name to the wine. For decades, people in Tuscany argued about what belongs to the Chianti wine-growing region and what does not.
Today, nine sub-areas belong to Chianti – the best known sub-area is called Chianti Classico. This is the core area of Chianti cultivation – it is said that Chianti viticulture originated there many centuries ago.
Origins in the Middle Ages
A Chianti consists mainly of Sangiovese grapes: a wine called Chianti must be made from at least 70 percent Sangiovese grapes. The name first appears in the documents of a Tuscan merchant in 1398 – at that time, however, Chianti was the name for a white wine.
In the Middle Ages, the name Chianti did not only stand for a wine: at that time, there was the Lega del Chianti (engl. “Chianti League”), a political alliance for the defense of the Chianti region. The heraldic animal of the Chianti League was a black rooster: this black rooster can still be found on the labels of Chianti Classico bottles. The territory of the medieval Chianti League corresponds roughly to the southern part of today’s Chianti Classico area.
The Chianti Recipe
Tuscan Baron Bettino Ricasoli developed the so-called Chianti recipe in the 19th century after more than 20 years of work in the wine cellar: a Chianti should be made from 70 percent Sangiovese grapes, 20 percent Canaiolo grapes and 10 percent white Malvasia variety. All three grape varieties are native to Tuscany. This recipe has long been considered a safe way to make an aromatic Chianti. However, it has been controversial to use white grape varieties to make Chianti: Since 2006, white grape varieties are no longer allowed to be used for a Chianti Classico. For a Chianti DOCG produced outside the historic area of origin, 10 percent white grapes can be added – as was the case in the 19th century.
The hilly landscape between the Tuscan cities of Florence and Siena was decisive for the taste of Chianti wines for many centuries: Today, only a few Chianti wines come from this historic region. On the one hand, it is argued that this alienation from the region of origin has robbed Chianti of its character. On the other hand, it is claimed that the expansion of the Chianti growing area has helped to make the taste picture more diverse and to represent virtually all of Tuscany’s vineyards instead of just a selection of them.
Only Tuscan wine varieties?
Bettino Ricasoli, whose Chianti recipe used only Tuscan grape varieties, made an educational trip in 1851. His trip took him to the most classic of French wine regions: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Beaujolais and the Languedoc. Although he gained a lot from this trip and was delighted by the aromatics of the French varieties, he stuck to his recipe: he believed his Chianti recipe thrived on the fact that only Tuscan varieties were used. This principle held for a long time.
Over the decades, people deviated from using only grape varieties native to Tuscany for Chianti wines. Today, French varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot are originally grown for various Chianti Classico wines. However, these may be included in a Chianti to a maximum of 20%.
Wines from Tuscany
Although other wines from Tuscany, such as Vino Nobile di Montepulciano or Super Tuscan, have different characteristics, there is a certain similarity in taste: for example, the southernmost Chianti zone on the hill around Siena, Chianti Colli Senesi DOCG, shares part of its growing area with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Red wines from Tuscany are largely determined by the Sangiovese grape variety.
Traditionally, Chianti is sold in Fiasco bottles: This is a bottle wrapped in straw. The straw wrapping comes from a time when bottle glass was still very thin and threatened to burst quickly.
When it comes to Tuscan wine, Chianti plays a crucial role: sometimes Chianti is even synonymous with Tuscan red wine.
However, the historical Chianti growing area is very different from today’s growing area. The roots of Chianti live on – to this day, Sangiovese grapes are grown in the area where Chianti originated.
Cover picture: A Chianti Fiasco bottle, © Simon von Ludwig