Trying to understand Chianti vs Chianti Classico is a little like driving in Italy – maddening, frightening, and strangely exhilarating. Also rewarding. Good Chianti wines abound – unraveling the region starts with a swipe through its noble yet tangled past.
Black Rooster, Red Wine
Chianti resides within Italy’s famed Tuscany region. Etruscans introduced grape growing to the region in the 6th century. Florence and Siena fought over its bounty during the Middle Ages.
Ruled by the powerful Medici family for centuries, Grand Duke Cosimo d’Medici III delineated Chianti’s first wine production zones in 1716. These vineyards spanned Florence in the north, Siena in the south, Arezzo in the east, Pisa in the west, and Pistoia and Prato in the upper northwest. Over the centuries, Chianti’s reputation and stature grew.
Consequently, to protect its flourishing vineyard and wines, the region founded Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico in 1924. The group chose Chianti’s ancient military emblem as its symbol, the black rooster (“Gallo Nero”).
Unfortunately, Italy’s notoriously dysfunctional government delayed approval of Chianti as an official wine region until 1932. Post-war Italy finally awarded Chianti Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) status in 1967.
Moreover, thanks to successive farming and production improvements, Chianti earned Italy’s highest level of wine classification, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (D.O.C.G.), in 1984. However, in a typically Italian twist of fate, Chianti Classico separated from Chianti D.O.C.G. in 1996. Consequently, Chianti Classico D.O.C.G. maintained the original growing regions in the heart of Tuscany, while Chianti D.O.C.G. vineyards generally flank around it. One of the oldest sub-zones, Chianti Rùfina, captured the attention, and protection, of Cosimo III in his famous 1716 Medicean Notice.
Confusing, but Fun
Teasing out the differences between these two adjacent wine regions may prove confusing at first. But fun always prevails in this land of hilltop vines, oaks and olive trees, punctuated by rivers and valleys.
Chianti D.O.C.G. comprises 3,000 wineries dotted across 38,301 acres within the territories of Florence, Siena, Arezzo, Pisa, Pistoia and Prato. These six growing regions contain seven sub-zones and produce approximately one million bottles of wine annually.
Vineyards average 656 to 1,312 feet above sea level, planted to mostly marl-limestone and sandy soils. A continental climate brings cold winters and hot summers. Chianti’s seven sub-zones include Chianti Colli Aretini, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Colli Senesi, Chianti Colline Pisane, Chianti Montalbano, Chianti Montespertoli, and Chianti Rufina. (The word “colli” means “hills” in Italian.)
Conversely, Chianti Classico D.O.C.G. encompasses 177,640 acres between Florence and Siena. In 2005, Chianti Classico D.O.C.G adopted the historic black rooster as its symbol. Friable, marly ‘galestro’ and hard, clay-limestone ‘albarese’ soils predominate.
Typically, Chianti Classico D.O.C.G. vineyards perch higher than those of Chianti D.O.C.G., up to 2,150 feet. Vineyards hug the municipalities of Castellina, Gaiole, Greve and Radda in Chianti, and parts of Barberino Tavarnelle, Castelnuovo Berardenga, Poggibonsi, and San Casciano Val di Pesa.
Sangiovese and Super Tuscans
Chianti’s signature variety, Sangiovese, means “blood of Jupiter. ” The native thin-skinned, late-ripening grape yields bright, medium-to-full-bodied wines redolent of red and black fruits, dried florals, savory herbs, and earth.
Light ruby-hued Sangiovese blends well with other grapes, adding color and structure. For Chianti D.O.C.G. wines, Sangiovese must comprise 70% to 100%. Other red native blending grapes like Canaiola, Colorino, Ciliegiolo, and Mammolo may not exceed 30%. Non-indigenous Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon may not exceed 15%. Finally, white grapes Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia Bianca lunga del Chianti may not surpass 10%.
By contrast, Chianti Classico wines must contain a minimum of 80% Sangiovese, with the remaining 20% from authorized native or international varieties. Native grapes include obscure Foglia Tonda, Malvasia Nera, and Pugnitello. Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah comprise approved international varieties. Additionally, since 2006, Chianti Classico D.O.C.G. forbids the use of white grapes.
Nuances and Overlaps of Chianti vs Chianti Classico
Sibling rivalry also carries over to quality levels and production requirements between the two wine regions. Nuances abound, as do a few overlaps. Here’s the rundown:
Chianti D.O.C.G. Annata: “Annata” means ‘year’ in Italians. Thus, winemakers may only release Annata wines in March, following the previous year’s harvest. Usually vinified in concrete or stainless steel, some sub-zones like Chianti Rufina and Chianti Colli Fiorentini require wood aging. Villa Travignoli offers a fresh, vibrant, versatile take on this young wine.
Chianti Superiore D.O.C.G.: Superiore wines require lower yields, higher alcohol content, and 12 months of minimum aging. Fattoria Fibbiano Casalini Chianti Superiore showcases this fuller, more robust style.
Chianti D.O.C.G. Riserva: Meticulous fruit sourcing, longer fermentation, deeper maceration, and 24-month minimum aging in oak barrels add depth and complexity. Fattoria di Fiano – Ugo Bing produces an elegant, perfumed iteration.
Vin Santo del Chianti D.O.C.: A sweet wine traditionally paired with biscotti or strong cheeses. It’s typically produced from Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes dried on mats, then aged in small wooden barrels, or “caratelli” for a minimum of three years.
Chianti Classico D.O.C.G.
While some nomenclatures resemble those of Chianti, Chianti Classico regulations prove more demanding:
Chianti Classico D.O.G.C. Gran Selezione: Wines must derive from estate-owned single-vineyard or premium grapes. Aging requires 30 months in barrel and three in the bottle. Historic Ricasoli, famous for its historic Brolio castle within the town of Gaiole, crafts a refined example.
Chianti Classico D.O.G.C. Riserva: Mid-tier Riserva wines must age at least 24 months, three in the bottle. The Frescobaldi family, renowned Tuscan winemakers for over 700 years, presents a graceful, supple version.
Chianti Classico D.O.G.C. Annata: Early-drinking Annata wines must age a minimum of 12 months. Montefioralle, located in Greve in Chianti, proffers an easy-drinking style.
Ultimately, both Chianti D.O.C.G. and Chianti Classico D.O.C.G. serve up affordable, approachable tastes of Tuscany, sure to please any palate or pocketbook.