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A guide to Chianti Wine (Tuscany, Italy)

The Chianti Wine Region

Located in the central region of Tuscany, the Chianti zone is Tuscany's largest classified wine region and produces over eight million cases a year. In addition to producing the well known red Chianti wine, the Chianti zone also produces white, other Rosso reds and Vin Santo.

The area was first outlined in 1716, lying between the provinces of Florence and Siena and made up of the town of Gaiole, Radda and Castellina. Later Greve and parts of the communes of Castelnuovo Berardenga, Poggibonsi, Barberino Val D'Elsa, Tavarnelle Val di Pesa and SanCasciano in Val di Pesa would be added.

In 1932 Chianti was increased in size further to include vineyards to the north of Florence and west to Pisa, east to Arezzo and south to Siena.

The region is split into two DOCG - Chianti and Chianti Classico. Wine producers in the original Chianti were allowed to use the word "Classico" on their bottles.

Chianti Classico zone covers the area between Florence and Siena, which is the original Chianti region, and where some of the best expressions of Chianti wine are produced. The larger Chianti DOCG zone is further divided in to six DOC sub-zones and areas in the western part of the province of Pisa, the Florentine hills north of Chianti Classico in the province of Florence, the Siena Hills south of the city in the province of Siena, the province of Arezzo and the area around the communes of Rufina and Pistoia.

Sangiovese Grapes

Permitted grapes in Chianti Wine

Chianti has a minimum of 70% Sangiovese, a maximum of 10% Canaiolo, up to 10% of the white wine grapes Malvasia and Trebbiano and up to 15% of any other red wine grape grown in the region, such as Cabernet Sauvignon. In Chianti Classico the wine must be at least 80% Sangiovese. 

The remaining 30% and 20% respectively of the wines can be grown locally or using international grapes. Native grapes Colorino and Canaiolo Nero are regaining their popularity in Tuscany. The latter performs the role that Merlot used to have contributing fruitiness that softens Sangiovese's tannins and acidity. Colorino adds colour to the lighter Sangiovese. 

This variety of grapes and usage is one reason why Chianti can vary widely from producer to producer. The use of white grapes in the blend can alter the style of Chianti by softening the wines with a higher percentage of white grapes, typically indicating that the wine is meant to be drunk younger and not aged for long. 

Chianti Terroir

The terroir of the Classico zone varies throughout the region depending on the vineyards' altitude, soil type and distance from the Arno River. The soils of the northern communes, such as Greve, are richer in clay deposits while those in the southern communes, like Gaiole, are harder and stonier. Chianti is fairly mountainous with hills rising dramatically in certain communes. The altitude ranges from 260 metres at Vicchiomaggio to 450 metres in Fontodi.

Decoding Chianti (Stylistic differences between different regions of Chianti)

In general, Chianti Classico's are described as medium-bodied wines with firm, dry tannins. The characteristic aroma is cherry but it can also carry nutty and floral notes as well.

The Chianti Superiore designation refers to wines produced in the provinces of Florence and Siena but not in the Classico zone. 

If the wine label reads just Chianti then it is a blend of grapes from vineyards within the larger area than Classico. This area is divided into seven sub-zones and if the grapes are grown and made in one of these then the name can be added to the label.

The wines made in Colline Pisani (hilly area around Pisa), Colli Aretini (hills around Arezzo), Colli Senesi, Colli Florentini, Chianti Montalbano and Chianti Montespertoli tend to be lighter in style than Chianti Classico.

Chianti Rufina is north east of Florence is the smallest but probably the most famous sub region outside the Classico area. The wines combine the elegance of Radda in Chianti Classico with the intense, concentrated style of the lower part of Greve. 

The wines produced in Radda, Gaiole, Castellina and Castelnuovo Berardenga are robust and muscular in stye with very good ageing potential. The red wine from Radda is very perfumed and Gaiole Chianti is seen as the region's most elegant wine. 

Chianti Style Guide

In Chianti Classico different styles of wine can be made:

  • Annata
  • Riserva
  • Gran Riserva
  • Gran selezione

Annata is the early release wine, one year after harvest and arguably the estate's most important wine and usually typifies the quality of the producer. Within this category there are oaked and unoaked varieties with no legal need to barrel age. The best Annata wines are medium bodied, have good fruit structure, refreshing acidity and go very well with meats in particular.

Riserva wines age for a minimum of 2 years and are usually more concentrated, complex and are better suited for cellaring than Annata's and benefit from at least 5 years additional ageing. They are considerably more expensive on average than the former category and tend to have pronounced tannins, with robust & concentrated fruits similar in style to right bank Bordeaux's. 

Gran Selezione is the newest classification and the new top category of wine, introduced in 2014. There is a requirement for a minimum 80% Sangiovese and the grapes must be grown only in the winery estate itself and must be from its top selection or a single vineyard. It must also have the capacity to age at least 30 months before it is released. 

Chianti vintages

  • 2014 - The summer was cooler and wetter than usual, meaning low volumes and few wines of outstanding quality.
  • 2013 - Rainy start to the growing season and a relatively cool summer but September rescued the vintage with near perfect weather. Balanced and fragrant. An unusually slow ripening period thanks to cool spring conditions and below-average August temperatures.
  • 2012 - A tricky year for Chianti growers with plenty of cool weather. Annatas after three years are fresh, riservas should start opening from 2017 with a long lifespan in the cellar expected.
  • 2011 - Another challenging year for producers with an early harvest on the whole. Aromas and flavours are ripe, drinking well in 2015 and riservas are approachable in style and enjoyable. Not the most sophisticated vintage
  • 2010 - Wines have higher acidity, complex aromas and smooth tannins because of difficult maturation. Cellar until 2018-2020.
  • 2009 -  A very good vintage, almost comparable to 2004, with a long, hot, rain free summer and cool nights and rain in September. Record rainfall at winter followed by lots of heat in the summer, with cool nights to retain aromatic qualities. Some producers suffered dehydration due to the heat but on the whole quality was excellent. . Excellent balance, purity from the top producers. 
  • 2008 - The grapes were picked late meaning that the wines are very aromatic and despite changeable weather the style for this year is even and rounded. Riservas are structured, sturdy and complex. An impressive vintage. 
  • 2007 -  Very good vintage with good acidity, high alcohol and smooth tannins with consistent ripening. Riservas will age well into the 2020's. 
  • 2006 - A fine vintage with near perfect grape growing conditions with very balanced wines. Perfect to open in 2016

Recommended Chianti Wines

If you're feeling wealthy some Gran Selezione's worth considering are:

  • Rocca di Montegrossi, San Marcellino, Gran Selezione, Gaiole, Chianti Classico 2010
  • Il Molino di Grace, Il Margone, Gran Selezione, Greve, Chianti Classico 2011
  • Castello di Monsanto, Il Poggio, Gran Selezione, Barberino Val d'Elsa, Chianti Classico 2010

Reserva's:

  • Poggiotondo, Vigna delle Conchiglie, Riserva, Chianti, 2009
  • Casal Reserva, Chianti 2005
  • Querciabella, Riserva, Greve, Chianti Classico 2011
  • Selvapiana, Bucerchiale, Riserva, Rufina, Chianti 2013
  • Bibbiano, Montornello, Riserva Castellina, Chianti Classico 2012
  • La Porta di Vertine, Riserva, Gaiole, Chianti Classico 2010
  • Castell di Volpaia, Chianti Classico Riserva 2011 and Coltassala, Chianti Classico Riserva 2010

Annata:

  • Castell'in Villa, Castelnuovo Berardenga, Chianti Classico 2010
  • Castello di Ama, Vigneto Bellavista Gaiole, Chianti Classico 2011
  • Badia a Coltibuono, Gaiole, Chianti Classico 2012
  • Riecine, Gaiole, Chianti Classico 2012
  • Poggerino, Radda, Chianti Classico 2012
  • Castello Vicchiomaggio, Greve, Chianti Classico 2013
  • Isole e Olena, Barberina Val d'Elsa, Chianti Classico 2012
  • La Porta di Vertine, Riserva, Gaiole, Chianti Classico 2010
  • Riecene, Gaiole, Chianti Classico 2012