A Wine Lover's Guide to Chianti Classico, the Most Iconic Italian Red
The central Italian region of Tuscany is filled with rolling hills covered with rustic villas, olive groves, the occasional castle, and, of course, grapevines. The main grape planted in the region is sangiovese, and it's the base of famous Tuscan wines including Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, and Chianti. The most emblematic wine of the region is Chianti (KEY-ahn-tee) Classico.
Chianti Classico Versus Chianti
Though they are often confused, it's important to know that "Chianti" and "Chianti Classico" are two different wines with two distinct production zones and sets of production regulations. For this article, we'll be focusing on Chianti Classico. Essentially, Chianti Classico is the original, iconic area between Florence and Siena that became famous for its aromatic red wines. It used to be simply called Chianti, until the early 20th century when the demand for these wines shot through the roof, and the surrounding areas began selling their wines as "Chianti-style." In 1924, they created an official way to differentiate the two: the original Chianti area was re-named Chianti Classico (the original classic region), and the wine from outside that zone became known as simply Chianti.
An easy way to tell the difference when you're in the wine aisle? Look for the black rooster—it's the symbol of Chianti Classico, and you'll see it either on the bottle's neck or the back label. The legend of the black rooster comes from medieval times when Florence and Siena were fighting over ownership of the Chianti territory. To settle this, two knights would race from their respective cities when the rooster crowed at dawn, and the border would be set where they met. Siena chose a white rooster, and Florence chose a black rooster that they kept in a dark room and starved for days. The black rooster got so confused and desperate that the moment he was freed from the coop that day, he crowed well before dawn! Florence got a huge head start, and nearly all of Chianti was brought under their power. The area delineated by this famous race is still the way the wine region is defined today, so the next time you see the black rooster on Chianti Classico bottle, you now know why.
What's the Flavor Profile of Chianti Classico?
The rules for Chianti Classico require a minimum of 80 percent of the grape blend to be made of the sangiovese grape; other red grapes like canaiolo, colorino, cabernet sauvignon and merlot can be included up to 20 percent. Chianti Classico is a fruity wine: red cherry, red currant, blood orange, and red raspberry are dominant flavors in the younger wines. More mature vines can give more concentrated, darker flavors like blueberry and plum. Chianti Classico wines are balanced between tannins, alcohol, and acidity, and they're usually juicy and fresh. One distinctive factor is a floral aroma: fresh-picked violets in young wines evolve into dried flowers as the wines age. Herbal aromas like dried thyme, sage, bay leaf, and oregano may be present, and with oak aging aromas of vanilla, tobacco and coffee can emerge. When the wines are fully developed, savory flavors of mushroom, balsamic, and truffle sing from the glass.
The Three Categories of Chianti Classico
There are three tiers of Chianti Classico, which tier a wine is will be indicated on the label. The most basic is annata, which must be aged for twelve months; the next tier up is riserva, where the wines must be aged a minimum of 24 months. Finally, a new category was introduced in 2014: gran selezione, which features wines from a single vineyard site and must be aged for thirty months (including at least three months in the bottle), and have a richer character. Leonardo Bellaccini, the winemaker of San Felice in Castelnuovo di Berardenga, believes this was an important step: "The Gran Selezione project represents an important opportunity for Chianti Classico to present itself on the international market with wines that can go head-to-head with the greatest wines from the most famous regions in the world."
Sustainability and Climate Change in Chianti Classico
The Chianti Classico region has experienced some of the effects of climate change; however—they haven't all been negative. Says Bellaccini: "Chianti Classico was always a late-harvest area, and with global warming, the ripening of both sugars and polyphenols happens earlier and more easily than in years past. Of course, the situation is extremely precarious, and if temperatures continue to rise, the equilibrium we have seen in the past few years could easily change."
Laura Bianchi, the owner of Castello di Monsanto, explains that "climate change has created a higher risk of hail in spring and summer and frost at the beginning of April. When it rains, it's usually harder than years before." Understanding that climate change's effects are unpredictable, the region has put many sustainable measures in place to manage the coming challenges: more than a third of the vineyards are already certified organic (or converted). A third of the estates are using renewable and alternative energy sources like solar panels. Planting legumes like fava beans in between rows of the vineyard helps soil erosion. Biodiversity is important: Only ten percent of the region is planted to grapevines: wheat, olives, and vegetables are all essential crops.
How to Pair Chianti Classico
The classic wine and food pairing mantra "what grows together, goes together" is so very true with Chianti Classico and typical Tuscan dishes. Chianti Classico pairs naturally with anything featuring tomatoes—the acidity in the fruit and the wine's structure sing together. Try San Felice Il Grigio Chianti Classico Riserva 2016 ($23.99, wine.com) with Tuscan Papa al Pomodoro. Grilled vegetables are a Tuscan staple at most meals, so pair Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva 2016 ($26.99, wine.com) with Grilled Vegetables and Tomato Bread. Rosemary grows plentifully in the Tuscan countryside, and you can play up the herbal notes in Castello di Bossi Chianti Classico 2016 ($23.99, wine.com) by serving it with Grilled Tuscan Chicken with Rosemary. If you're just in the mood for a snack, Parmesan cheese is always a perfect accompaniment to Chianti Classico: We recommend Tenuta di Arceno Chianti Classico 2017 ($16.99, wine.com) with Parmigiano-Reggiano Crisps. Finally, no comforting night would be complete without a glass of Chianti Classico with a big bowl of pasta: Pair Castellare Chianti Classico 2018 ($23.99, wine.com) with Linguine with Zucchini and Tomato.