Why Chianti Is the Most Misunderstood Wine in the World

Earlier this month, Slate featured an article by Mike Steinberger about Chianti. Mike is a good writer and a careful researcher, so the article is well worth reading. What he has to say about the merits of basic Chianti Classico – the normale as opposed to the riserva – and its versatility with all sorts of food chimes perfectly with my experience. (That last point was also made more broadly, about Italian wines generally, by the redoubtable Ed McCarthy in Wine Review Online.) I would disagree with Mike on only one issue: I think more highly of Chianti Classico riserva than he does.

For the moment, however, I would like to elaborate on another point he made, about the great changes in the Chianti formula over the past 20 years or so. Those shifts – and the producers’ honoring of them or refusal to do so – have caused a lot of confusion for consumers. The situation has been further complicated by the occasional “scandal,” all of which has made some consumers wary of Chianti specifically and Italian wines generally.

No one ever said the Italian wine situation was simple. But I’d like to explain just why it’s as complicated as it is, and what most of the so-called scandals amount to.

Emblem of the medieval Chianti League

Basic fact: Italian wine law is a very new creation. Italians had been making wine for almost 3,000 years with only minimal legal guidelines. When the DOC (denominazione d’origine controllata) rules were called into being in the mid-1960s, they were modeled on the French system of AOC (appellation d’origine controllée) – itself in those days a much simpler system covering far fewer wines and regions than it now does. That seemed like a good idea at the time, since French wine stood at the pinnacle of prestige and set the quality standards for the world.

That was precisely the problem. The French legal system covered a wine situation in steady state. Bordeaux winemakers worked with Cabernet and Merlot and Sauvignon blanc. Burgundians vinified Pinot noir and Chardonnay. Alsace had the white varieties – Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, Gewurztraminer, Riesling – and the Rhone had the reds, principally Syrah and Mourvedre. The primary purpose of the AOC laws was to protect those established grands vins against shoddy imitations exploiting the classic names. There was no reason on earth for a winemaker in any of those regions to change a thing.

Italy, on the other hand, was playing catch-up, from a position of antiquated cellar equipment and field conditions dictated by an almost feudal sharecropping system (the mezzadria) and the most stubborn peasant conservatism about farming. There was every incentive for serious winemakers to change the way they vinified, to alter what they did in the fields, to try new grape varieties, new blends, new anything and everything. And at that moment a set of laws came into existence that said “You must make wine this way and no other.” Bada bing.

So from the beginning, the producers most interested in skirting the law, breaking the law, changing the law, were the ones most serious about making better wine. The ones who just wanted to sell a lot didn’t care what the law said: They would make the same wine they always had, and sell it to the same markets they always had. But enterprising winemakers, individuals who wanted to make a great wine, often felt hamstrung by the regulations. Italian winemaking was and is cinema, and the laws were and are a snapshot, a freeze-frame that was to meant to continue forever. It takes no genius to see that laws that are patently inappropriate, that do not reflect reality, are not going to breed great respect or rigorous observance anywhere, and especially not in Italy.

Florence

The Chianti Classico zone was the most intense focus for these tensions. First there was the name itself, for centuries belonging exclusively to a hilly, castellated area lying between Florence and Siena. In the 1920s, the right to use the name Chianti was extended to a cluster of satellite zones – Colli Fiorentini, Colli Senesi, Colline Pisane, Colli Aretini (I deliberately omit Chianti Rufina from this list because that zone, by virtue of its different soils and microclimate, has always maintained itself as a distinct wine). As one former president of the Chianti Classico Consorzio remarked to me, “They hijacked our name, and they diffused our identity.”

Siena

After that initial confusion came the law. The first DOC legislation took a formula from Barone Ricasoli, the great 19th century statesman and agriculturalist, and made it the mandatory blend for Chianti Classico. Unfortunately, what the law set up was what Ricasoli had meant as the lowest common denominator for Chianti – a blend of Sangiovese and Canaiolo, plus some white grapes, to make a wine for ordinary, everyday drinking. Not a good formula for a wine meant to last, like a riserva, and not even a good start for a wine with aspirations. Sure, given the varied topography of the Classico zone, a few producers could make a very nice wine this way, but for most it was the road to mediocrity.

So some winemakers started by reducing or eliminating the white grape component. This of course was completely illegal and very quickly gave rise to whispered allegations of “cheating” and “adulterating” the wine. Most producers who did this did it surreptitiously, so as not to lose their identity as Chianti Classico. Some did it openly, surrendering the Chianti Classico name and going their own way with 100% Sangiovese wines or Sangiovese blended with foreign grapes such as Cabernet and Merlot – and so the Supertuscans were born.

There followed over the next 20 years a series of changes in the legal formula, itself playing catch-up. These accreted alterations reduced and finally eliminated the white grapes, allowing more and more Sangiovese (now, a 100% Sangiovese can call itself Chianti Classico, and many do) and up to 20% of a host of other red varieties, including Cabernet and Merlot.

The remaining problem – and it is a big one – has been the perception of these changes. As one legal formula has succeeded another, and as whispered or shouted allegations of illegality continued, the press – both the specialized wine press and the general news organizations – conspicuously failed to provide any sort of background or analysis that might help readers understand the situation. Instead, the sensational aspects – corruption, crime, allegations of pervasive fraud – were what was emphasized to the public. It’s no wonder consumers were and still are confused: We in the press let them down, even in some cases actively misled them.

The simple fact is that almost all the changes, whether legal or otherwise, have been tending to allow better winemakers to produce better wines. That’s true of both the normale bottles and the more costly (to my palate, more impressive) riserva bottles – of which more next post.

6 Responses to “Why Chianti Is the Most Misunderstood Wine in the World”

  1. Frank de Falco Says:

    Why no mention of Antinori’s pivotal role in the evolution of the modern Chianti Classico? Surely Antinori deserves the same name check that you give to Barone Ricasoli. Truly, FdF

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Lots of reasons, Frank.

      Primarily, that my focus was on the evolution of Chianti Classico, and the Antinori firm’s role in that has been very ambiguous. It played a very major role in the introduction and promotion of the Supertuscans (a term that every day becomes more inaccurate and outmoded) through the distribution of Sassicaia and, subsequently, its own Tignanello — and, of course, the soi-disant Supertuscans, for a long while before they converged with Chianti Classico, really cast the traditional appellation into the shade.

      On the more or less positive side, even though Antinori withdrew from the Chianti Classico Consorzio in the 1920s (the same time that Ricasoli did), it continued to produce good Chianti Classico right up to the present moment — but, on the negative side, the firm’s public relations made it emphatically clear that Ch Cl was a second wine to Tignanello. Also, Antinori inflicted on its consumers a bewildering series of label and denomination changes of its more traditional Tuscan wines, to the extent that now, I believe, what used to be its banner Ch Cl, the white label Riserva Marchese, is no longer even a Chianti Classico at all. (I could be wrong about that: the situation got so complicated that I gave up tracking it.)

      This hardly reflects consistent or strong support of the Ch Cl appellation. Very significant in this regard is the fact that the Ricasoli brought Brolio back into the Consorzio ten years ago, while Antinori still remains outside. So my conclusion is that if Antinori contributed to the advancement and/or evolution of Chianti Classico, it was only inadvertantly, as a by-blow from their promulgation of Sassicaia and Tignanello. ‘Nuff said?

  2. winefriend Says:

    Thanks, Tom, very good and informative post. Surely there is also a problem in the current law in allowing up to 20% Merlot or Cabernet into what is supposed to be a Tuscan classic ‘Chianti’. Not that there is anything wrong with these French grape varieties in themselves or even as additions to Sangiovese, the basic variety in the blend. But it doesn’t help the consumer to call the resulting wine ‘Chianti’ as even 10% of these powerful grapes changes the character of the wine, nevermind 20%. It would have been much better to only allow other Tuscan grape varieties into the Chianti blend and call Sangiovese + French grape something else. So while the law tries to help, it also confuses and doesn’t protect a distinctive Chianti profile … can we raise a glass to that?

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Indeed we can. I have long thought that — not just in Chianti, but in all the appellations — the DOC/DOCG should be reserved for wines that contain only native grapes, and that all other non-traditional blends (or monovarietals) should be IGT. That would be a remarkable simplification and clarification for the consumer — but I’m afraid that for a whole variety of reasons, from economics to egos, it is simply not going to happen. I would like to be wrong about that; in fact, I strongly hope I’m wrong….

  3. uberVU - social comments Says:

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by drvino: Why Chianti Is the Most Misunderstood Wine in the World – Tom Maresca

  4. tom hyland Says:

    Tom:

    Well explained look at Chianti Classico and its ever-changing laws. While breaking the mold by producing a wine that does not fall within the technical requirements can have both short term and long-term benefits, it’s clear to me that by having laws, the category of Riserva Chianti Classico can shine. Too many Super Tuscans are experiements and we as consumers wind up paying for them. I find it interesting that many producers are eschwing the Super Tuscan route and producing excellent bottlings of Chianti Classico Riserva. Not only are these wines notable, but consumers also know what to expect from these wines, while Super Tuscans too often remain a mystery.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s