The word Chianti conjures up red table wine perfect for sauce-heavy Italian-American cuisine. It’s the portly bottle known to wear a fiasco, or straw basket, for extra Old World kitsch.
That is one kind of Chianti, sure, and a perfectly serviceable one at that. But you can’t put this world famous wine in a small, decidedly Americanized box. The world of Chianti is one of the most recognizable around, yet most know very little about what ends up in the bottle and how truly diverse those flavors can be.
Let’s start with the basics. Chianti hails from Tuscany, in the breathtaking Italian countryside in and around cities like Florence and Siena. These are the postcard images that many associate with wine in general, fit with neat rows of vines, verdant hills diced up by pointy cypress trees, and ancient villages. While the regulations vary a bit depending on where exactly the wine is produced, the focus is very much on Sangiovese, the main grape in the Chianti picture.
Oddly enough, the first documented version of Chianti wine was a white, made from grapes grown near the Chianti Mountains. The makeup of the wines is a bit of a mystery and a long one at that. Ultimately, though, a man by the name of Bettino Ricasoli settled on a recipe of sorts in the mid-1800s. He proclaimed Chianti to be a mix of Sangiovese (70%), Canailo (15%), Malvasia (10%) and the 5% balance composed of some native red varieties.
Italy’s famed wine body, the DOC, would essentially immortalize the blend a century later, making it official in the 1960s. By then, the world had become used to the red blend, thirsting for the food-friendly wine especially after the Second World War. As mass production took over, the wine quality was lessened and imbibers lost interest. Thankfully, a Super Tuscan movement, focused on additional native varieties, along with some experimentation and new rules years later, reinvigorated the Chianti movement.
Here’s the jest: Chianti is made up of eight sub-regions within its expansive Tuscan boundaries. Chianti Classico is the best-known, built around four communes and originally set in stone way back by the Medici family. Wines made from here, located in the core of Tuscany, wear it proudly on their bottles, designated by the quintessential black rooster. Here, the Arno River winds through a mix of chalky and clay-dominated soils. To the northeast is another pretty iconic Chianti region in Rufina, a name red wine drinkers might already know.
So, if you want the traditional stuff, look for the black rooster on the label. Otherwise, simply look for the Chianti name as it’s tied to both Tuscany and Sangiovese-driven blends. Part of the fun is the flexibility — the blending regulations allow for a certain amount of freedom and new styles, like what the fruit is fermented in and how it’s aged, broadening the flavor possibilities.
Know this: Chianti is much more than a dry red suitable for spaghetti. It can be anything from light and fruity to bold and lower-toned, showing earth and leather. It can even offer some tobacco and spice and juicy red fruit flavors that beg for some balsamic or fresh tomatoes (or both). I’m constantly in awe of the sizable style spectrum at play via Tuscany’s most celebrated wine.
As one of the largest Italian exports, there’s a lot of Chianti to choose from. Even better, it tends to be a value with many of the best options falling within the $20-$35 range. Here are some to look out for that will elevate your appreciation of the famed Old World red:
Made from grapes grown in the small subregion of Rufina, this take on Chianti reflects the resident high-elevation vineyards in the form of glowing flavors and food-friendly acidity. It’s also a tremendous value.
A well-distributed wine that sums up classic Chianti in a nutshell, this offering mixes savory elements with tart cherry pie flavors. Sporting the “riserva” name, the wine was aged two years in the barrel, the minimum requirement for the title.
Made entirely of biodynamically farmed Sangiovese, this wine is fermented in a mix of stainless steel and concrete. It’s got a lot going on, from baking spices and dried herbs to plum and citrus.
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