Chianti – what’s in a name?

Over the last twenty years, this vast area of central Tuscany has begun to emerge from a vinous confusion, partly of its own making. There are cultural as well as wine factors at play. The Chianti region – basically the hilly area between Florence and Siena – has an enormous cultural draw. It is close enough to borrow the artistic and architectural glow of the two magnificent cities, their art and their place in the history of European culture. The gently hilly landscape is very beautiful and of humane scale – densely wooded areas give on to vineyards and fields and are dotted with castles, abbeys and hill towns. The climate is mild if with cold spells in winter, which led the English and other north Europeans to buy derelict properties after the second world war and turn them into idyllic residences. The result of all this is that the simple name ‘Chianti’ appeared to confer a high value on any product with which it was related, above all wine. Unfortunately the wine often did not live up to the name.

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The second major factor was the way that the Chiantigiani decided to market their wine. The original political unit, the Lega del Chianti, had included only the communes of Gaiole, Radda and Castellina, to which Greve was added for the wine zone in 1716. This was expanded by the Italian government in 1932 and then fixed by the wine appellation system in 1966-7. The result was that ‘Chianti’ came to mean red wine from a vast area of 450,000 hectares loosely related to the historical Chianti zone. The creation of Chianti Classico of just 7,000 hectares was a step in the right direction but even this is twice the size of the historical designation.   The point is well made by the map on the much maligned Wikipedia: click here. Obviously the idea was to give a hand to those who were selling Sangiovese based wines in central Tuscany (and to offer some protection against those selling any red wine from Italy as Chianti) but the result was a fairly disastrous dilution of the brand name. A better development was the addition of place names to the Chianti tag also in the 1930s: Chianti Colli Aretini, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Colline Pisane etc. The problem here is that you need a smidgen of Italian to realise that this means: Chianti from the Arezzo hills, the Florentine hills, the Pisan hills etc.

As with Burgundy, the solution to all this complexity lies in the names of the producers. As in whole of Italy, the general quality of wine making has risen markedly in the past thirty years as science and comparison with wines from other regions and countries have replaced (and in places complemented) tradition and instinct. The market has changed from quantity towards quality. There is still a great deal of very average wine sold in supermarkets under the Chianti name which, in comparison with wines from around the world, is not very good. To buy Chianti with some character you need to be prepared to spend a bit more – £7 minimum in the UK (eg Sainsburys Taste the Difference), with the real quality beginning around the £12 mark. And then the only reliable way to distinguish the good and the excellent from the ordinary is by the names of producers/companies. The names Fonterutoli, Montevertine and Vecchie Terre di Montifili might not trip easily off the tongue of the average English speaker, but the pleasure of drinking these wines – and many others – will make it all worth it!

 

IMG_9878Sangioveto 1999

A couple of wines to show what the area is capable.  We visited Badia a Coltibuono back in 2006.  It was early autumn and I can remember it was pretty cold if with bright sunshine.  After the tour of the fine Abbey, long turned into a genteel residence, we tasted the wines.  I can vividly recall the sharp, edginess of the basic Chianti Classico, an excellent expression of a particular style.  In 2011, we returned for a lunch on its beautiful terrace and were delighted to find that they sell some old vintages by the glass – how civilised is that?  We chose the following pair from 1999:

Chianti Classico riserva 1999– 80% Sangiovese, 20% Canaiolo, showing some signs of orange/brown but the redder of the two, red berry notes, balsam and leather, medium intensity palate, good acidity, medium length; an interesting example rather than a completely compelling one

Sangioveto 1999 – a wine of riserva quality but made from 100% Sangiovese; distinctly browning (see picture), quite a powerful nose of old wood, figgy, like Vin Santo but without the sweetness said Janet, almost treacly, some fruit in there, remaining acidity.  An interesting wine rather than an immediately attractive one.  This pair showed the contribution of Canaiolo to the traditional Chianti blend.

It is worth adding that the estate has since gone organic and is on an upward quality curve – but was fascinating to taste the traditional wines too.

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One Response to “Chianti the name”

  • Mary armstrong:

    I am a student studing the different kind wine for a class assignment, and I found the this was vey helpful in doing my paper for school. Thank you for all the great info.

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