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What is Chianti Classico wine?

Bottles of Chianti and Brunello wine at a Montalcino Enoteca (wine bar)
Bottles of Chianti and Brunello wine at a Montalcino Enoteca (wine bar)
A trip to Tuscany inevitably means a glass of red Chianti Classico for most visitors. But what makes this wine special? Chianti Classico must come from grapes grown in a strictly defined area of the hills between Florence and Siena, centered around Castellina, Gaiole, Radda and Greve:
Chianti wine regions
Chianti wine regions
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 the original area was just one. Today, the area is roughly 100 square miles. 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 official Chianti definition

The definition is controlled by the DOCG, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. In the past 40 years or so, Chianti's reputation has gone from "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. It didn't fit the DOCG definition, which disallowed Cabernet and required at least 10% white wine grapes, so it wasn't officially Chianti Classico. But Tignanello 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 Chianti Classico. Chianti Classico is what the French would call an appellation: an area where the grapes are grown within a strict geographical boundary. Contrast this with a Napa wine, for example, which is more of a brand. Napa wines might be made within the boundaries of Napa County, but the grapes or grape juice could have been trucked in from the central Californian coast (as they are for Charles Shaw, AKA "2 Buck Chuck"). Today, thanks to vastly improved wine-making techniques and the relaxation of the official DOCG rules to allow better blending, the Chianti region produces some excellent high quality wines. And none of them are served in a straw fiasco 🙂

What is Super Tuscan wine?

For many, Tuscan wine means Chianti -- but Super Tuscan wines have been growing strongly in popularity, and increasingly appear on US wine lists. So what is a Super Tuscan, anyway?

Merlot grapes at Vignamaggio
Merlot grapes at Vignamaggio
Super Tuscans started out as high quality wines from Tuscany that didn't fit into the strict definition of Chianti wine according to the Italian authorities. The first Super Tuscan was Tignanello from Antinori, produced in 1971. It was a “Chianti-style” blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet, but 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). Antinori wanted to maximize the potential of the grapes and wine-making in Tuscany without being constrained to a specific formula. He also broke with tradition in aging the wine in French barriques (oak barrels from Bordeaux) rather than the traditional Slovenian oak or Chestnut used for Chianti. The wine began to win awards and acclaim, prices rose and other producers followed, and so “Super Tuscan” wines as a category were born. The success of Super Tuscans led the Italian authorities to change the rules of grape composition in the 1990s, allowing many Super Tuscans to be classified as true Chianti Classico. Today, Super Tuscans that still don't fit the Chianti rules are classified as IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica), "typical of the geography". Prices for Super Tuscans range from the very reasonably to the stratospheric. Some of the best known include Tignananello (still a major force), Sassacaia from Tenuta San Guido, Solaia from Antinori and Ornellaia from Tenuta della Ornellaia.

Villa Vignamaggio and the Mona Lisa controversy

Villa Vignamaggio is a charming restored renaissance villa just outside the town of Greve in Chianti. It's a beautiful location, is exceptionally photogenic and they make great wine... what more could you ask for? How about also being the birthplace of perhaps the most famous portrait sitter ever: Mona Lisa ? The owners of Vignamaggio crowned the exceptional qualities of their property with the claim that their villa is the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa -- an assertion that I have repeated on this website. The history of that part of the world and the information provided by Vignamaggio on its chain of ownership appears to back up the assertion. However, there's just one problem: it isn't true. In the past few years, Vignamaggio has backed off from their birthplace claim and now says "Legend has it that Lisa Gherardini spent a lot of time at Vignamaggio" So what exactly is going on here?

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Farmhouse at Villa Vignamaggio, Greve in Chianti, Italy