How to Find the Best Chianti Wine
When you think of Chianti wine, straw baskets and rustic presentation may come to mind. These straw baskets are called fiascos, and this sort of bottling rose to popularity in the 1970s thanks to Italian sauces using these pictures in their marketing and, of course, Anthony Hopkins’s character in Silence of the Lambs.
Currently, Chianti is the fastest selling Italian red wine in the United States. Affordable Chiantis may cost $10 while premier Chiantis can cost $50 or more. It’s rarely sold in the straw basket anymore, and it’s definitely outgrown the image.
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Some wines derive their name from the grape that makes them and some are named by the region in which they are from. Chianti follows the latter naming structure. It comes from the Chianti region of Tuscany where the sun burns hot, the landscapes are sweeping, and the history of art and food is rich. Michelangelo’s David and olive oil also come from this delicious region.
If Chianti is to be a true Chianti, it has to come from the Chianti region. True Chianti is produced in this region and is made from 80% Sangiovese grapes or more. Most are actually 100% Sangiovese, but some are blends containing other red wines like Merlot, Syrah, or Cabernet. Blending with these varieties helps soften the Chianti.
Chianti Wine History
People have lived in the Chianti region of Tuscany for hundreds of years. The history of these hills is deep and rich. The climate is healthy, the soil is fertile, and the forest is full of game. Humans were attracted to the vibrant area as early as 2000 BC, and perhaps even earlier.
The first group to impact the region were a group called the Etruscans. These people showed up right around the time homo sapiens were making the transition to a settled farmer from herdsman and nomads. They farmed cultivated grapes and introduced the production of Chianti.
Even the names prominent in the area today are evidence of the Etruscan inhabitants. Suffixes like -ne and -na are every present in Adine, Avane, Avene, Nusenna, and Rietine. Other names like Galenda, Vercenni, and Strada also come from Etruscan stock.
However, the name Chianti as some uncertain origins. There are no Etruscan documents or sources of Roman history citing the name of the region or what they called it. We can infer from topographical names that they may have called it Clante or Clanis. A nearby stream, today is known as the Massellone, was called Clanis by the Etruscans.
Clante seems to have been always associated with water by the Etruscans, and it was also the name given to a prominent Etruscan family that is well documented in several inscriptions. It’s hard to say whether the land was named after the family or vice versa, but it’s not unreasonable to think that the name Chianti came from the word Clante.
The earliest record of the name Chianti dates back to the twelfth century on a deed of donation with the date 790. The document donates land to the San Bartolomeo ‘a Recavata’ monastery. Today, the monastery is called San Bartolomeo a Ripoli and it is the oldest Florentine territory nunnery. It was founded by the grandfather of brothers Adopald, Adonald, and Atroald, who is on the deed of donation.
The Romans absorbed the Etruscans and continued to develop Chianti agriculture. They began cultivating olives as a source of food and olive oil production because olive oil was used widely in lamps. When the Roman Empire fell, barbarians invaded the Chianti region, and it was in decline for centuries. Very little trace of the Etruscans was left for archeologists to find.
Between 568 and 774, the Italian peninsula was inhabited largely by the Longboards and Franks, who brought Christianity to the Chianti region. It replaced the previous pagan religion and churches began to appear. These churches were built on existing foundations and Christianity became prominent, but settlements and dwellings were sparse and heavily fortified.
By the thirteenth century, conflicting forces fought to expand into the Chianti area. The Chianti region was surrounded by Siena, who was loyal to the Roman Emperor, and Florence, who was a friend of the Pope. In 1203, a treaty called Lodo di Poggibonsi was signed, declaring Florentine control over Chianti.
Once Florence had control over the Chianti territory, they began creating leagues. One of those leagues was established in the middle of the thirteenth century. It was called Lega del Chianti, and Chianti was finally documented for the first time in 1306.
Chianti was a military and political power charged with governing a large territory. It was divided into three municipalities that still exist today: Castellina in Chianti, Radda in Chianti, and Gaiole in Chianti. These three municipalities were independent but subordinate to the authority of the Lord Mayor, who lived in Radda. They were required to supply each other with soldiers and funds if necessary.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, these three municipalities were included in the Siena territory, during the French domination of Tuscany, and were re-established as part of the Siena province when Italy unified in the late 1800s.
Much of what remains today is from the medieval period. Before towns were established, most people lived in a hamlet, which was typically situated at the top of a hill and had small homes clustered together around a parish or castle keep. As the need for expansion occurred, these homes were expanded as is characteristic of medieval villages. They ended up looking rather haphazard but suited the needs of the rural village.
These villages were called Borghi, and there are several examples still in existence today, including Tregole, Sonnavilla, and Ricavo in Castellina; Colle Petroso, Capaccia, and Selvole in Radda; Adine, Ama, Vertine, and San Marcellino in Gaiole, and Sugame in Greve.
Moving Beyond the Dark Ages
As the Dark Age came to an end, Chianti villages fortified themselves and built castles to protect themselves, and did this again in the High Middle Ages as protection from the warring Siena and Florence. These villages were heavily fortified with walls and guard towers. The center of the Borghi contained a fortified tower where the feudal lord lived.
Each Borghi housed servants, farmhands, and artisans along with the noble family. Because agriculture at the time was constructed around self-sufficiency, these Borghi were designed to be self-sustaining, but generated no profit, because there was no need.
However, as more sophisticated towns and cities grew, rich bankers, merchants, and other men in upper-class society started to buy the land and churn a profit. This developed a new sort of agriculture, called mezzadria.
This sharecropping happened on a farm that consisted of a large lot of woodland and arable land. It was big enough for the peasant and his entire family to live and work, and it kept them employed through the landowner. The landowner may also build a house for himself on the land to enjoy the country and keep an eye on his workers at harvest time.
The owner of the land would provide seed, equipment, and housing needed to cultivate the land and any earnings they made were divided equally. This system spread rapidly in the year 1000, but a complete transformation from feudalism to sharecropping wasn’t finished until the sixteenth century.
Sharecropping allowed agricultural resources to be used more productively and promoted these rural villages from self-sustaining populations to profitable farm communities. Chianti was once again productive and thriving.
The Middle Ages
Unfortunately, Florence and Siena continued their conflict, and because the Chianti territory was in the middle, much of their military confrontation happened on Chianti land. This continued throughout most of the Middle Ages and didn’t just include armies of Florence and Siena.
Other armies passing through the region included invasions from foreign gangs, masterless men, and mercenaries. When Visconti and Florence were warring in the fourteenth century and when the Aragonese invaded from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the fifteenth century, they destroyed Chianti and left it desolate.
The next one hundred years were filled with turbulence for Chianti and its people. The plague and imperial troops passed through Chianti on their way to Florence in 1529 to restore the Medici. It was only after Montalcino was taken and Siena destroyed that was Chianti was deemed worthy of any investment by the Florentines, despite the fact that it had been a Florentine territory for 800 years.
The sharecropping agricultural system became popular once again and its influence on both the economic structure and the rural landscape lasted. More castles were abandoned and more farmhouses were constructed. The development of terraced fields made large amounts of land tillable, and these dry stone walls characterize the Chianti landscape still today.
They began to practice mixed cultivation with alternating rows of vines and olive trees with intervals of wheat in between and it became the predominant method of agriculture.
Chianti and the Gallo Nero
In the middle of the sixteenth century, a black rooster appeared on a gold background, painted by Vasari on the Salone del Cinquecento ceiling in Florence, and quickly became a symbol of Chianti. In fact, Chianti became so famous that it was even mentioned in pop culture references like Bacco in Toscana by poet Francesco Redi. He characterizes it as a grand and magnificent wine.
It wasn’t long before Chianti was appreciated far beyond its humble beginnings and was gained worldwide recognition. Cosimo III, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, identified the requirements for the production area of Chianti in 1716 and deemed it of the utmost importance that all wines labeled Chianti was produced within these boundaries.
Along with the important efforts of Cosimo III, the Iron Baron Bettino Ricasoli made Chianti what it is today. Ricasoli was a politician and an agronomist who used his estate to perform enological experiments in which he defined the exact combination of grapes that should be used to formulate the wine.
Ricasoli’s formula created a more flavorful and longer-lasting wine and was followed for 100 years. It has contributed greatly to the fame of Chianti wine. Chianti wine was presented at the World Exhibition of Paris in 1878 and its popularity grew year after year until the phylloxera wine parasite and the Great Wars destroyed the crop.
With demand continuing and production slowing, production areas continued to be enlarged, and in 1924 an attempt to expand the official production area of Chianti was unsuccessful. However, the establishing of the Consorzio del Vino Chianti Classico, while unsuccessful at expanding Chianti production, resulted in the black rooster, or Gallo Nero, being chosen as the official symbol of Chianti.
After World War II, cities in the north were industrialized, and people began to depopulate the countryside. The sharecropping system of agriculture that was once so popular fell into a desolate state. Landowners grew absent, educated rural residents fled, and peasant families were impoverished.
There were bad roads leading out to the Borghi, motorized transport was almost nonexistent, and there was no electricity or clean drinking water. Most farmhouses need major restoration due to the destruction of the war. Even if the village population wanted to reverse the years of neglect, they had no funds to do it. The crisis was prevalent, and Chianti fell into decay.
Chianti wine production was revitalized in the 1970s, despite the depopulation of the region in the 1950s. After people flocked to the cities, agriculturalists lost hope in Chianti production and advocated tearing up the vines and planting grass instead.
It took a select few radical winemakers to realized that Chianti was an important piece of Tuscany’s heritage. They encouraged replanting the vineyards and designing them for more mechanical maintenance. Among these winemakers was Piero Antinori, who introduced the idea of grape varietals into the indigenous grape population of Chianti, which resulted in the super Tuscan wine phenomenon and revitalized the Chianti region with Chianti Classico.
At this point, wine quality drastically improved at the exact moment demand recovered worldwide. Replacing agricoltura promiscua with modern vineyards transformed the landscape into neat rows of vines aplenty. The fields were no longer shared with olive trees or wheat.
It wouldn’t be long before Chianti would be rediscovered as a wonderful place to live by the English and the Germans. They restored villas, improved roads, and elevated the appearance of the entire landscape. They even stimulated the economy. The rejuvenated wine production and the arrival of these foreign residents put Chianti on the map as a popular tourist destination.
Today, visitors worldwide flock to the region to enjoy local traditions, cuisine, climate, and of course, wine. Residents restore their old houses with fervor now and there is an abundance of tourist accommodations for those who enjoy what is now commonly referred to as agritourism.
The future of Chianti is once again positive, and many oenophiles worldwide are forever thankful that they can enjoy this rich piece of wine history and contribute to the economic growth and revitalization of what was once lost.
How to Make Chianti Wine
The main grape varietal used in Chianti is Sangiovese. Every Chianti must contain at least 70%, or 80% for Chianti Classico, of this grape variety. This type of grape can be fickle, which is why some vineyards have replanted with clones and other varietals, resulting in better maturation rates.
Chianti is commonly mixed with Cabernet or Merlot, which started several decades ago, but more and more vineyards are returning to adding native varieties like Canaiolo or Colorino to their Chianti blends. Still, others are returning to 100% Sangiovese Chianti.
While white grapes are allowed in Chianti blends, they’re only allowed up to 10%, and this started when it was thought to be essential for softening the tannins and making the wine more appealing to a broader range of taste preferences. These white grapes have been mostly phased out, but some producers still use them.
These producers do it as a throwback to tradition, making the wine light and drinkable, as well as uniquely aromatic. These can be fruity, making them enjoyable by the pool, and even more delicious when chilled slightly.
To make Chianti wine, you must be in the Chianti region of Italy. The Chianti region has eight subzones: Montespertoli, Rufina, Montalbano, Colli Senesi, Colline Pisane, Colli Fiorentini, Colli Aretini, and Classico. Each subzone has its own strict rules for production. For instance, since 2006, the use of white grapes in Chianti Classico has been prohibited.
Chianti is sliced into these eight subzones like a pie. Of the eight subzones designated by the denomination of controlled origin, the Classico is the most well-known for its wine. The Chianti region includes land throughout the Florence and Siena provinces, and you may hear terms like Florentine Chianti or Sienese Chianti. However, Classico is set between the two cities and is known for having the best vineyards.
Aging for Chianti wine varies by the subzone. Colli Senesi, Colline Pisane, Colli Aretini, and Montalbano age for six months; Montespertoli ages for nine months; and Classico, Rufina, and Colli Fiorentini age for one year.
Types of Chianti Wine
The types of Chianti wines are surprisingly diverse, given that they all come from the same region, albeit different subzones. Let’s take a look at the different types.
The Chianti Classico must contain at least 80% Sangiovese grapes and has to be aged for at least one year before it can be bottled and released. Chianti Classico is a red wine that usually has a medium body and soft tannins.
Chianti Classico Riserva
In addition to Chianti Classico, there are two other quality levels that designate more aging and better quality. The Chianti Classico Riserva is aged for two years in a barrel and an additional three months in the bottle before it can be released. It makes an excellent companion to the food of all kinds and is very impressive.
Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
These wines were only decreed in 2014, but they denote a superior quality wine. It must be made with 100% estate fruit and aged for at least three years in an oak barrel. Most wineries source their grapes from only one vineyard, but even then, these wines must pass an Italian tasting board and be confirmed to deserve the Gran Selezione designation.
Not every vintage qualifies, which means this type of wine is rare and more expensive, but it’s perfect for a special occasion.
You may also see some Super Tuscan wines labeled as Chianti. These varieties are made by the renegades of the wine industry. The vintners who produce Super Tuscans deviated from the formula and structure of traditional Chianti and experimented with different grape varieties. This all started in the 1970s but continues today.
While these can’t really be called Chianti wines, they do use some of the same grapes. And although some would say they defile and degrade the quality and prestige of Chianti, they can be very delicious in their own right.
Our Favorite Chianti Wines
There are plenty of classy Chianti varieties worth a try. Here are some of our favorites.
2015 Fattoria il Colle
A 2015 Fattoria il Colle from Donatella Cinelli Colombini is a rather affordable Chianti Superiore. It contains aromas of tilled earth, ripe blackberry, and violet. It is juicy and savory with soft tannins and a smooth raspberry jam, star anise, and black cherry taste. It can be enjoyed through the rest of this year and is available for purchase through Banville Wine Merchants.
We love this one because the blackberry and violet scents coupled with the juicy taste of raspberry makes this dry wine feel soft and fruity.
2013 Vigneto Bucerchiale Riserva
The 2013 Vigneto Bucerchiale Riserva is made by Selvapiana and is of the Chianti Rufina subzone. The blue flower, new leather, vanilla, sandalwood, and dark-skinned barry scents are enticing.
This full-bodied wine is elegant and presents wild cherry, crushed raspberry, chopped herb, and licorice on the palate. It lingers with a long finish, bright acidity, and excellent balance. Drinkable through 2025, this wine is available from Dalla Terra Winery Direct.
This is a favorite because of the impeccable balance. It’s dry and incredibly flavorful. The intense flavors and very rich and exciting, making it an interesting sip for anyone who likes to explore new wines.
2016 Al Canapo
This 2016 Al Canapo from Bindi Sergardi is refreshing. You can enjoy the hint of mint with underbrush and red-skinned berries. Its juicy flavors include raspberry jam, red cherry, and eucalyptus. It’s available from Vinovia Wine Group.
I love this one because the tannins are pliable, which makes it an easy sipper. Mint and eucalyptus are some of my favorite palate cleansers, and I enjoy the strong juicy flavor with the refreshing finish.
2016 Mario Primo
Piccini’s new 2016 Mario Primo is a throwback to some ancient traditions. It mixes white grapes with the required reds to create a savory but delightfully fruity wine. The subtle fragrance of dark spice with bright red berries provides a nice balance. Its succulent flavors include raspberry and red cherry with just a touch of clove. Foley Family Wines sells this one at a bargain price.
What we love about this particular Chinati are its affordability and wonderful flavor. If you want something that appeals to a variety of tastes and you don’t want to spend a fortune, you can definitely spring for a couple of bottles here.
Leading your nose to this wine from Cecchi are scents like star anise, ripe berry, forest floor, and toast. Its lush flavors include raspberry compote, black cherry, and dark baking spice that really livens the experience. Get it from Terlato Wines International and drink it throughout 2020.
If we were to suggest the best wine on this list, we would choose this one, hands down. It falls into the mid-range price point when it comes to Chianti, but it’s a juicy, flavorful variety that is surprising and delightful.
2014 Nipozzano Vecchie Viti Riserva
This Chianti Rufina is from Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi. It’s a Chianti Rufina with an elegant palate that offers blue flower, red berry, tilled soil, and dark spice aromas with strawberry, wild cherry, dried herbs, and star anise flavors.
We like this Chianti Rufina because of it’s bright, balanced acidity and sophisticated tannins. It can be enjoyed until 2024 from Shaw-Ross International Importers and sits right in the middle of our Chianti low-end and high-end price points. Share it, or keep it all to yourself.
2014 Castello di Poppiano Riserva
This Chianti from the Colli Fiorentini subzone comes from Conte Ferdinando Guicciardini and has aromas much like many of the others we’ve already recommended. It presents wild berry, blue flower, underbrush, and tilled earth right away, followed by unique flavors we haven’t seen yet including green peppercorn, clove, and black cherry.
I’m partial to the bright acidity, full body, and sophisticated tannins. This wine is unique in it’s bright and strong aromas with interesting herbaceous flavors. You can find it through Franco Wine Imports.
Chianti Food Pairing
It’s common to think of such a traditional Italian wine as being a great companion to foods like pasta with red sauce, but there’s a lot more to Chianti than just the Italian roots. It can compliment spiced lamb, lean beef, or strong poultry. It goes especially well with pizza, which makes it a wine for the masses.
Lasagna is a hearty dish full of delicious lean beef, creamy ricotta cheese, and rich tomato sauce. Chianti has strong flavors that stand up well to something so complex, even if you choose to put spicy sausage in your lasagna instead of beef.
If you plan to make spaghetti bolognese, be sure to saute your mushrooms and cook your meat sauce in the same Chianti you serve to drink. Don’t mix and match, or the flavors won’t compliment each other. The tomato and wine base of the sauce goes great with any of your favorite Chianti wines.
You can roast your leg of lamb with choice herbs and spices, or you can opt for a spicy rub that gives it a little kick. Either way, Chianti will pair well with the spices and give your meal the acidity it needs to remain balanced.
Cioppino doesn’t originate from Italy. This may surprise you, but it actually comes from right here in the United States. Fishermen in San Francisco would consume a diet of fish they caught but couldn’t sell. This leftover variety brought about one of the world’s most favorite stews. The brine in the seafood with the tomato flavor is great to compliment your Chianti.
Pizza Margherita and Chianti make an easy, casual meal for your family or friends. Your pizza flavors are simple, but choosing a light Chianti won’t overwhelm it, and if you roast the pizza on a charcoal grill, it adds depth and smoky flavor.
Chianti Wine Recipes
Not only does wine pair well with food, but it’s also fun and easy to cook with. There are plenty of recipes you can find online, or you can experiment with your own. Here are some of the best recipes we have found.
Beef Braised in Chianti
This recipe from the Thyme for Cooking blog is easy, but it takes some time. The longer you braise the meat, the more the alcohol cooks out and leaves the lovely flavors behind. This is a great cold weather recipe to warm you up.
You can use an affordable bottle of Chianti for this one, or if you have more sophisticated tastes, you can use your favorite. However, you may not notice much of a difference. If you like stew, you’ll love this savory meal.
Chianti Classico Sauce
No pasta recipe is complete without delicious sauce. This is a seasonal sauce from The International Kitchen and can be adapted to include the flavors you want. It calls for sage, rosemary, bay leaves, and garlic, but you can substitute something with more spice like red pepper flakes or add sweetness with brown sugar.
Duck with Cherries
This recipe may be more complex, but it is heavenly. It’s worth the extra time and preparation. If you use Italian cherries in season, you’ll end up with a juicy, savory, delicious meal that’s both sweet and sticky. It doesn’t get much better than local duck and bright, beautiful cherries.
Fun Facts About Chianti Wine
We’ve already covered a lot of ground, but there are still some things you may not know about Chianti. Here are some fun facts.
It Is One of the Oldest Wines in the World
Historians have had a hard time tracing any other wine, or grape variety for that matter, back as far as they’ve been able to trace Chianti. There’s no documentation as far back as they suspect it goes, but there have been archeological clues the point to Chianti’s origins prior to the year 1000 BC.
The recipes for modern Chianti we drink today are not that old, but wine has been around for thousands of years in Italy, and Chianti’s ancestors are made from the same Sangiovese grapes. The oldest traces of wine have been found in a 6000-year-old jug, found in Sicily.
There is evidence to suggest that Chianti used to be made primarily of white grapes and didn’t become a red wine until rather late in its life. Early records point to Chianti being a white wine as late as the fourteenth century.
This may or may not be entirely true, depending on where you find your facts, but as we know, there are varying amounts of white wine allowed in Chianti, and those mixtures may, in fact, come from a time when it was primarily white instead of red.
Super Tuscans are Responsible for Chianti’s Worldwide Popularity
Not everyone has the same taste for strong wine and unique flavors. Some renegade winemakers in the 1970s decided that in order to appeal to international markets, they would make unique blends that didn’t follow the original Chianti recipe.
Traditionalists bemoaned and turned up their noses at these Super Tuscan blends, but they did make the wine much more popular overseas. They were softer, had more palatable flavors, and were thought to be excellent by those who didn’t necessarily care which recipe the wine followed, as long as it tasted good.
If nothing else, it raised awareness of this ancient wine and encouraged people to try some variation of it.
Hannibal Lecter Preferred Amarone
We all remember the scene in Silence of the Lambs when Anthony Hopkins delivers the chilling line about eating his victim’s liver with a glass of Chianti. However, that wasn’t what was in the script. In the novel, Hannibal Lecter remembers his savory meal with a bottle of Amarone.
It doesn’t really matter, because after the movie came out, the rest, as they say, was history. It elevated Chianti’s status in pop culture and sales boomed. The wine was instantly more popular and lauded as something rather sophisticated, albeit a little creepy.
Drinking Chianti Wine
Your favorite Chianti wine is closer than you think. While it dates back to before recorded human history, it is still very much alive today. There are many varieties to choose from so it’s versatile, and appeals to a lot of people.
From cooking and casual drinking to pairing with elegant food and sharing with the social elite, there’s a bottle of Chianti for every purpose. Knowing more about a wine’s history can enhance your feelings toward its wonderful flavor, and because Chianti has one of the most interesting pasts, we think you’ll like it all the more now.
FAQs About Chianti Wine
Chianti is a medium-bodied wine with high tannins levels and fruity notes like cherries, so this type of wine is best to serve with pasta and red sauces, crackers, red sauces, cheese, and cured meats.
Well, this depends on your personal preference, but the best way to drink it is about 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit like most reds.
The best combination for a red wine like Chianti is aged Parmigiano which is hard and has a nutty flavor, or you can also opt for Pecorino, Gouda, or Taleggio cheese.
Chianti wine is not as expensive like other wine sorts, so the bottles start at around $10 and the most expensive bottles reach $50 or so.
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