A trip to Tuscany inevitably means a glass of red Chianti Classico for most visitors. But what makes a Chianti wine special?
Chianti Classico must come from grapes grown in a strictly defined area of the Chianti hills between Florence and Siena, centered around Castellina, Gaiole, Radda and Greve (see map below). There are also rules on the grape content that have changed over the years. Since the 1990s, Chianti Classico has to contain at least 75% Sangiovese grapes, a maximum of 10% Canaiolo, at most 6% white wine grapes and up to 15% Cabernet, Merlot or Syrah.
The definition of Chianti is controlled by the DOCG, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. In the past 30 years or so, Chianti’s reputation has gone from fairly low grade red to a region producing some world-class wines. In the 1970s-90s, it was common to see low-grade Chianti in its traditional straw bottle jacket or fiasco. In 1971, the Antinori family broke with tradition in releasing a “Chianti-style” blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet called Tignanello. Because it didn’t fit the DOCG definition of Chianti at the time (which didn’t allow Cabernet and required at least 10% white wine grapes), it wasn’t officially Chianti Classico. Very quickly, however, the wine began to win awards and acclaim, prices rose and other producers followed. Thus the “Super Tuscan” wines were born. The success of Super Tuscans led the DOCG to change the rules of grape composition in the 1990s, allowing many Super Tuscans to be reclassified as true Chianti Classico.
Chianti Classico is what the French would call an “Appellation” — in other words, the grapes must be grown within a strict geographical boundary. Contrast this with a Napa wine, for example, which is more of a brand: the wine might be made within the boundaries of Napa, but the grapes could have been trucked in from the central Californian coast.
The original boundaries were laid down in 1716 by Cosimo III di Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and covered the Tuscan villages of Castellina, Gaiole and Radda. In 1932, Chianti was vastly expanded to cover seven different regions, of which Chianti Classico, the original, was just one. Today, the area of Chianti Classico is roughly 100 square miles.