Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ten Things You Should Know About Chianti Classico (Part 1)

Vale un podere nel Chianti.

This phrase, widely used prior to World War 2, translates as "As good as a farm in Chianti." It refers to the fact that land in the Chianti region was once highly prized in Tuscany. So, when a person wanted to indicate that something was a good and solid deal, they would use this phrase, comparing it to a valuable farm in Chianti. Though it was not used much after World War 2, it might be due for a comeback, especially considering the quality vineyards that now exist in the Chianti region.

Since my return from the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany, I have had some time to reflect upon my experiences, to consider the region, its wines, its food, its people, and more. This media trip was sponsored by the Consorzio del Vino Chianti and Balzac Communications. I and four other writers, including Christian of Vintuba, Ward of Vinopanion, Doug of Sante magazine, and Manos of Luxury Web, explored Chianti Classico during the Chianti Classico è, a ten day festival celebrating the wines and foods of this area. We visited a number of wineries and restaurants as well as participated in several official festival events. In addition, I have done some additional independent research and reading into Chianti Classico, including its history.

My time in the Chianti Classico region was amazing, both informative and educational, enjoyable and exciting, as well as satisfyingly delicious. I now understand why people rave about the beauty of Tuscany as the landscape is stunning, an aesthetically pleasing melange of hills, forests, vineyards, monasteries, farm houses, castles, towers, and much more. As you drive through Tuscany, there are so many spots where you want to stop and enjoy the panoramic view. It is fairly serene as well, creating a peaceful tranquility, perfect for a meditative diversion. Photos really are insufficient to properly depict the beauty and majesty of the scenery.

My understanding of this wine region has been expanded and enhanced. I have already written a few Chianti Classico related posts and you can look for even more in the near future. At this time, I want to present a list of Ten Things You Should Know About Chianti Classico, to give you a foundation of some important items so that you can better understand this region and its wine. Some people may still hold antiquated ideas about Chianti Classico, thinking that Chianti comes mainly in straw covered bottles, fiascos, which later can be used as candle holders. Yes, you can still find a few of those around, but they are the exception not the norm. Chianti Classico produces plenty of excellent wine which you should seek out.

The Chianti wine region of Tuscany was first delineated in 1716 by Cosimo II de' Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany,who established the borders for the production area of Chianti wine. Those borders would not change until 1930, when they were expanded. In 1932, the Chianti region was broken down into seven subzones, including Chianti Classico, Colli Arentini, Colli Fiorentini, Colli Pisane, Colli Sensei, Montalbano, and Rufina. The subzone Chianti Classico covered the original and oldest section of the region, and has since become the most prestigious of all the subzones. In 2002, an eighth subzone was added, Montespertoli, which was originally part of Colli Fiorentini. So it is important to note that Chianti Classico is from a specific region and not all Chianti can be Classico.

In 1984, the entire region of Chianti was granted DOCG ("Denomination of Origin Controlled and Guaranteed") status, the highest level for Italian wines. In 1996, the Chianti Classico subzone received its own independent DOCG status. As such, Chianti Classico wines are subject to numerous rules and regulations. For example, Chianti Classico wines must have a minimum alcohol level of at least 12% and spend at least 7 months in oak barrels while the Riserva level must have a minimum alcohol level of at least 12.5% and spend at least 27 months in oak barrels. In addition, prior to bottling, the wine must undergo testing before it can be certified as acceptable for the DOCG.

Today, the Chianti Classico region occupies about 173,000 acres with 18,000 acres of vineyards and 25,000 acres of olive trees. Olive oil is still a significant industry, and Tuscan olive oil was even venerated as far back as the Roman era. It is intriguing that it once was traditional to seal Chianti bottles with a tablespoon of olive oil instead of a cork, though sometimes they used oil and a cork. The olive oil would prevent oxygen from getting at the wine, though the bottles would need to be stood up rather than laid on their side. When they wanted to open a bottle, they would use a special siphon to extract the olive oil from the bottle.

In 2011, the Chianti Classico region produced about 7.4 million gallons of wine, about 400,000 more than the prior year. During the last couple years, sales of Chianti Classico have been increasing, mostly due to exports. For example, 2010 saw a 24% increase in sales over 2009 while 2011 saw a 4% rise in sales over 2010. About 78% of their production is currently exported and the U.S. is the primary market, purchasing about 28% of their production. Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom and Switzerland occupy the next export spots. Curiously, Italy itself has been drinking less Chianti Classico, from 26% in 2009 down to 22% in 2011.

So now onto the Ten Things You Should Know About Chianti Classico...

1) Chianti Classico has a fascinating history.
Even before the ancient Romans arrived in the Chianti region, the Etruscans, who called themselves the Rasenna, inhabited the area, growing vines and producing wine. The term "Chianti" might derive from the Etruscan word "clante" which may mean "water" and also was the name of a noble Etruscan family. After the Romans seized control of the region, there was a great demand for Italian wine though the Romans generally preferred the sweet southern wines over the drier wines of Tuscany. The Romans controlled this area for about 700 years, leaving their impact upon this region. Wine making continued throughout the centuries, despite wars, plagues and other disasters.

The first known references to "vinadri", or "wine retailers," in Florence occurred in 1079 and they would eventually be organized into a guild, the l'Arte dei Vinattieri, around 1282. The guild's crest was a red goblet on a white background. Everyone involved in the wine trade, from merchants to innkeepers, had to join the guild and it promulgated numerous rules and regulations, including which measurements, pitchers and glasses had to be used to sell wine. The guild originally met in the church of San Martino Vescovo so it is interesting that one of their regulations decreed that wine could not be sold within 100 yards of a church.

In addition, their regulations stated that wine could not be sold to children under 15 years old, prostitutes, ruffians or thieves. Wine shops could not rent our rooms, allow wine to be drunk on the premises, or sell food. Gambling and prostitution were also prohibited at wine inns. It is interesting to see how some of these rules still are used today. By the early 1300s, it has been calculated that the average resident of Florence drank a gallon of wine per week, and by 1336, there were 92 retail wine sellers in the guild. The Black Death struck Tuscany in 1348, and it is thought that about half the population died within six months. Yet it didn't seem to stop people from drinking wine, as by 1353, the number of wine sellers had increased to 105, which could mean that everyone was drinking more wine than ever.

Tuscany is a historically rich area, and many famous personages lived in, passed through and/or enjoyed the Chianti region. The famed poet Dante Aligheri, creator of the Divine Comedy, was born in Florence. Amerigo Vespucci, an explorer and the origin of the term "America," may have been born in Florence or Greve while Giovanni da Verrazzano, another explorer and the discoverer of Manhattan (pictured above), is likely to have been born in Greve. The extraordinary Leonardo da Vinci was born in the Tuscan town of Vinci, and spent many years working in Florence. The renowned Michaelangelo was born in Tuscany and was especially fond of Chianti, even presenting some of their wines to the Pope as a gift. Even Pinocchio is Tuscan! Carlo Collodi, the pen-name of Carlo Lorenzini, was born in Florence, and in 1881 published his first Pinocchio story in a local newspaper.

Ever sip of Chianti is a sip of many centuries of fascinating history.

2) Chianti Classico is a large and diverse region.
As I mentioned earlier, the Chianti Classio region occupies about 173,000 acres, which makes for quite a large region. As such, it includes a wide variety of microclimates, altitudes, soils and terroir. There are two primary types of soil, galestro and albarese. Galestro is schist based, with elements of clay and marl, and is considered the best soil type for Sangiovese. It provides excellent drainage and keeps the vines under a bit of stress all the time, which is a good thing. Albarese is more a limestone soil, also with excellent drainage. You will also find some sandstone soils in this region, which can provide some nice aromatics but at a cost of less complexity and length. The soil to the north is generally considered more fertile, with more galestro, and to the south, you will find more albarese.

Altitudes can range from about 250 meters to 610 meters, while year to year, the climate can swing to extremes. The key to remember is that you cannot generalize about this region because of its diversity. In addition, wineries are still learning about their terroir, still trying to understand which areas will best grow their Sangiovese and other grapes. As an example, Barone Ricasoli hired a company to assess their vineyards, soils and grapes and that analysis took three years. They have not formally announced their results but there is a possibility they will share those findings with other wineries. Francesco Ricasoli stated that modern viticulture needs more answers and that knowledge is the key to success.

3) Sangiovese is King.
The origins of Sangiovese are cloudy though it seems to be an ancient grape, especially as it's name seem to reflect the ancient Romans. In Latin, it was known as sanguis Jovis, which translates as the "blood of Jove." Jove, also known as Jupiter, was the Roman king of the gods, the god of sky and thunder. It is unsure why that name was chosen for this grape. The first known historical mention of "sangiovese" was in 1590, and it now is known by other names too, such as Sangiveto, Niellucio, Prugnolo Gentile, Brunello, and Morellino. It once was eaten as a table grape though that practice has greatly diminished. Sangiovese is the most widely planted red grape in Italy, constituting about 10% of all vineyard plantings with over 100,000 hectares.

Sangiovese is considered a difficult grape, a late ripening grape with high acidity, though it is also a very food-friendly wine, especially due to that high acidity. Though grown outside of Italy, it is difficult to find superb Sangiovese wines outside of Italy. Chianti Classico must comprise at least 80% Sangiovese and the other 20% can include several different red grapes. Though once you found only blends in Chianti Classico, you now can find plenty of 100% Sangiovese wines, both as Chianti Classico or as Super Tuscans. There are currently over 70 officially recognized Sangiovese clones, and more are being created all the time, in an attempt to improve the quality of the grape.

To Be Continued...

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