Ten Things You Need to Know About Chianti Classico

Chianti Classico Roster

What kind of wine is Chianti Classico? And where does it come from?

Chianti Classico is a Sangiovese-based red wine made in the historical Chianti region of Tuscany.

Also known as “Chianti Storico“, this subregion corresponds to one of Tuscany’s most ancient wine-growing areas: its boundaries were established by Cosimo III De Medici in 1716 yet the viticultural tradition of the area dates back to Etruscan times. You can find more on information on the exact boundaries of the Chianti Classico DOCG at this link.

Chianti Classico vs. Chianti: what are the main differences?

The “classico” term was invented by producers based in the “Chianti Storico” district to distinguish their wines from those of other areas of Tuscany producing Chianti DOCG. So Chianti Classico only comes from the above-mentioned area, which covers eight townships in the provinces of Florence and Siena. The broader Chianti production area, instead, comprises the entire surface of six out of ten Tuscan provinces.

That explains why Chianti Classico is generally more expensive than Chianti DOCG: the total volumes are considerably lower, and the demand often exceeds supply. Furthermore, stricter regulations than those of the Chianti DOCG result in Chianti Classico being qualitatively more consistent.

Chianti Classico rooster against a Tuscan landscape, Italy
Chianti Classico rooster against a Tuscan landscape, Italy

Why does Chianti Classico have a rooster symbol on the neck of the bottle?

The black rooster symbol hints at the medieval legend behind the subdivision of the Chianti Classico area between the provinces of Florence and Siena, which used to be two independent republics. According to this legend, the Republics of Florence and Siena were involved in longstanding disputes over the territories between the two cities, including the historical Chianti region, a land prized for its fertile soils and strategic location. To settle these disputes and establish a definitive boundary, they decided that two knights would ride from their respective cities at the break of dawn, and the point where they would meet would then become the new border between the two republics. In preparation for this event, each city chose a rooster to ensure their knight would depart as early as possible. Siena chose a white rooster, while Florence selected a black one.

The Florentines, however, decided not to feed their rooster with food during the night before the departure, hoping that he would start crowing earlier. The rooster crowed before dawn, and the Florentine knight managed to departier earlier and cover more ground than his rival. The two met approximately 12 kilometers away from the walls of Siena, and that would explain why the largest portion of the region still falls in the province of Florence.

Is Chianti Classico retailed in a straw-covered flask or in a regular wine bottle?

Starting from 1980s, producers promoted a shift towards glass bottles in an effort to erase memories of poorly-made wines packaged in straw-covered flasks that sold for very cheap.

Technically, both containers are still allowed but wine retailed in straw-covered flasks have become increasingly rare.

What are the main grapes of Chianti Classico?

Chianti Classico must contain at least 80% Sangiovese, and a large number of the wines currently on the market are single-varietal expressions of this grape. Dollops of other varieties like Canaiolo and Colorino and international ones like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot may complete the blend.

In the past, however, Chianti Classico used to include different grapes – until 1996 producers were forced to stick to the “Ricasoli rule”, which included up to 20% white grapes like Malvasia del Chianti and Trebbiano Toscano. Presumably deriving from the necessity to tame aggressive tannins in times when reaching full maturity was more challenging and growers lacked proper winemaking expertise, this rule was deemed counterproductive by the pioneers of quality Tuscan wine, who decided to exit the denomination and declassify their top wines from Chianti Classico to simple “vino da tavola”. It took these producers almost twenty years of lobbying to obtain a revision of the regulation, allowing them to replace white grapes with the above-mentioned varieties or produce single-varietal wines. White grapes were finally banned from use in 2005.

You may also ask yourself why did regulators allow the use of non-traditional grapes like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon– which are native to Bordeaux -as complementing varieties. The reason lies in the urge to give Chianti Classico a more international appeal: Sangiovese is an especially tannic and high-acid grape, and a small percentage of the above-mentioned varieties can smoothen the wines, making them easier to appreciate for consumers accustomed to richer and velvetier wines (such as those from Bordeaux or California).

In recent times, however, many producers realized that these grapes can deprive the wine of its terroir-driven identity. For this reason, the consorzio Chianti Classico recently decided to rule them out of the new regulations for Gran Selezione, the top-shelf Chianti Classico category.

What are the production regulations for Chianti Classico?

You can find a full explanation of the production regulations for Chianti Classico at the following link.

What does Chianti Classico smell and taste like?

Generally speaking, Chianti Classico expresses the racier and brighter side of Sangiovese, displaying fresh and fragrant aromas of crunchy red fruits mixed with Mediterranean herbs, violets, and irony or earthy nuances that veer towards leather and animal musk with aging.

Usually possessing a medium to full structure, crisp acidity and mouthwatering tannins are the main features on the palate, allowing the wines to stand out for their food-friendliness. In fact, a textbook Chianti Classico is all you want to pair with savory and meaty Tuscan cuisine.

How does Chianti Classico compare to Brunello di Montalcino?

Sangiovese is the key grape of both wines yet the small township of Montalcino in the province of Siena offers totally different growing conditions than Chianti Classico. Whereas Brunello di Montalcino owes its aromatic breadth and bold structure to the warmer climate and greater proximity to the coast of Montalcino, Chianti Classico benefits from a generally cooler climate, so the wines are brighter and lighter, emphasizing finesse and energy rather than power.

Regulations and aging requirements also differ substantially: Brunello has to be a single-varietal Sangiovese wine. Furthermore, the richer structure and slightly dustier tannins resulted in five-year-long aging before release becoming mandatory for Brunello di Montalcino.

By contrast, Chianti Classico undergoes shorter aging in oak and bottle, as it tends to be more approachable in its youth. Consumers who are fond of it because of its youthfully exuberant acidity prefer to drink it straight after release but that doesn’t mean Chianti Classico cannot age well.

How long will a Chianti Classico last?

The only reason why Chianti Classico isn’t commonly considered an “age-worthy” wine is because it tends to be too delicious in the early stages of its life. The truth, however, is even the most affordable and unpretentious examples drink well for three to five years after release, and the best ones age well for at least a decade. Top-notch versions of Riserva and Gran Selezione go even beyond that, ranking among Italy’s best wines for the long haul.

Does the Chianti Classico area only produce Chianti Classico?

No, the Chianti Classico / Chianti Storico area actually proved a fertile ground for a number of different grapes. While only wines fitting into the above-mentioned requirements can sport the “Chianti Classico” denomination, examples from the area made with other grapes and fitting in the broader Toscana IGT are just as meaningful from a qualitative standpoint. Just to make a few examples, L’ Apparita by Castello di Ama, a leading estate in Chianti Classico, is commonly considered one of Italy’s finest versions of single-varietal Merlot, and Solaia, a Bordeaux blend made in Chianti Classico, ranks among the world’s most coveted international-style fine wines.

On the other hand, some wines that could technically fit into the Chianti Classico category are labeled as IGT Toscana because of specific commercial strategies. Some of them – most notably Le Pergole Torte, Flaccianello della Pieve and Percarlo – fit into the pioneering Supertuscans category, and their producers decided to stick to the IGT to emphasize their essence as game-changing wines belonging to an age when the average quality across the denomination was miserable, regulations were problematic, and exiting to denomination was the only option for those willing to compete with the world’s most critically-acclaimed wine producers.

Other wines are declassified because producers want to break away from local tradition and push the boundaries of winemaking in the area – perhaps experimenting with unusual techniques and/or aging containers.

Map UGA Chianti Classico
Map UGA Chianti Classico

What are the Unità Geografiche Aggiuntive (U.G.A.) of Chianti Classico?

Introduced in 2021, the Unità Geografiche Aggiuntive (Additional Geographic Mentions) allow to specify the subzone of origin on the label of Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. Some of these subzones correspond to entire townships within the region, while others are considerably small, comprising a portion of a township that is especially relevant within the context of the denomination because of its peculiar features and/or noteworthy concentration of vineyards and producers.

The idea of the U.G.A.s had been in the air for many years, and although they were only approved for Gran Selezione, it is very likely that they will be extended to all the categories of Chianti Classico in the future.

Here you find the list of the twelve Unità Geografiche Aggiuntive:

  • San Casciano
  • San Donato in Poggio
  • Montefioralle
  • Panzano
  • Greve
  • Lamole
  • Castellina
  • Vagliagli
  • Castelnuovo Berardenga
  • Radda
  • Gaiole