The Chianti Classico climate is of the continental type, with relatively low temperatures in winter – thermometer readings of less than 4′ to 5′ C. (39′-41’F.) – while summers are dry and hot, with the mercury often rising to above 35’C. (95’F.). However, temperatures do not fluctuate much during the course of the day.
That factor is due in part to altitude, which averages 250 to 600 meters (820-1,968 feet) in much of the area and ranges as high as 800 meters (2,625 feet) in the Chianti Mountains. The substantial range of altitudes is matched by an equally wide variety of soils.
It is not possible to link a particular type of terrain with any of the various Chianti Classico administrative districts. It can be said, however, that the San Casciano area has more alberese (a clayey calcareous stone), while a clayey-limestone soil, found in virtually all of the districts at lower altitudes, predominates in the Greve in Chianti district. The Chianti Mountains, which form the rugged “back-bone” of the Chianti Classico area, consist mostly of macigno (a sandstone).Alberese is found in predominant measure in the central and southern stretches of the zone, while tufo (volcanic rock) is the characteristic component of the area around Castelnuovo Berardenga.
The hills consisting in great part of sandstone have a rough and stony appearance, while those formed of limestone feature rounder and softer contours. Those with a prevalence of clay are even gentler in shape. A substantial endowment of fossil material, mainly pebbles and stones and especially galestro limestone, is a common characteristic of nearly the whole Chianti Classico district.
As to meteorological conditions, annual precipitation varies between 800 and 900 millimeters (31-34 inches). Rainfall is usually heaviest in the late fall and spring.
The area’s characteristic climate, terrain and altitude are generally unfavorable for most types of agriculture but, because of them, the zone is ideally suited to the production of wines of fine quality. Rows of vines alternating with olive orchards are a characteristic feature of the Chianti Classico landscape.
The 7,000 hectares (17,290 acres) of vineyards inscribed in the D.O.C.G. Register for the production of Chianti Classico wine make it one of the most important appellations in Italy. The area accounts for nearly a quarter of all Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (D.O.C.G.) wine produced in the country. The D.O.C.G. is the highest category in the Italian classification of premium wines.
Not all of the wine made in the zone is Chianti Classico. It is not sufficient, to qualify for the appellation, for a wine to come from a determined area. It must also be made in accordance with regulations set forth in the production code, which was initially drawn up in 1984.
First of all, the Sangiovese grape must be used, with a ratio raging from 80 to 100%. In addition, other red grapes (only those authorized to be used for Chianti Classico, such as Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet, Colorino, Black Malvasia) can be employed up to a maximum share of 20% .
The minimum alcohol level is 12′ for the regular wine and 12.5′ for the Riserva. There are other important requirements that must be met if a wine is to be described as Chianti Classico:
– When a vineyard is planted or replanted, four vegetative years must pass before its grapes can be used to make wine;
– The yield of grapes per hectare can not exceed 75 quintals (3.34 tons an acre), which is the equivalentof 52.5 hectoliters (559 U.S. gallons an acre);
To allow it sufficient time to achieve the proper balance, the wine can not be released for consumption until October 1st of the year following the harvest. As for the ‘Riserva’ type, the rules state an aging period for at least 24 months, of which at least 2 months in the bottle.
According to law, Chianti Classico must also have certain precise characteristics, including the following:
– Color: bright ruby-red tending to garnet with aging;
– Odor: intensely vinous aroma that is distinctive and marked by scents of violets; it develops great finesse with aging;
– Flavor: balanced, dry, sapid and slightly tannic, although it becomes softer and more velvet as the wine ages;
– Sugar: a maximum of 4 grams per liter of reducing sugars;
– Minimum total dry extract: 2,3%;
– Minimum total acidity: 5 ppt
The reputation of the wine produced in the Chianti Classico district was firmly established long ago and because of its success it has attracted a fair number of imitators. As a result, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III, was forced to issue a decree in 1716 in which he drew the boundaries of Chianti Classico. It was the first legal document in history to define a vinicultural production zone.
It proved to be insufficient, since bogus Chianti continued to be produced just about everywhere. To deal with the situation, a group of wine producers in the Chianti Classico zone gathered on May 14, 1924, at Radda in Chianti to form a voluntary association to defend and promote their output. Over the years since then, the Consorzio per la Difesa del Vino Chianti e della sua Marca thus created has changed its name – it is now the Consorzio del Marchio Storico – but it has always maintained the Black Rooster trademark as its emblem and as a badge of quality.
It is the same symbol that has always identified the Chianti Classico district. Its origin is ancient but unknown. However, an explanation of why the Black Rooster was adopted as the emblem of the zone is provided by a legend that grew out of the rivalry between the city-states of Siena and Florence in the medieval period.
In a bid to put an end to their interminable wars, the two Tuscan cities decided to entrust the determination of their common border to an extraordinary contest involving a horseman from each community. Each horseman would set out from his city the moment a rooster crowed to announce the rising of the sun. The border between the two republics would be drawn at the point where the two riders met. The Sienese selected as their feathered “alarm clock” a white rooster that had been generously fed and coddled and had become plump and satiated because of its excessive diet. The Florentines picked a black rooster, which had been fed little and was always hungry. On the day of the contest, it crowed long before the sun rose so that Florence’s champion took to the road before dawn. Only when he reached Fonterutoli, about 10 miles from Siena, did he encounter the Sienese rider. It is for that reason that nearly all of the Chianti Classico zone passed under the jurisdiction of the Florentine Republic.
That account may be nothing more than a legend but it is certainly true that the Black Rooster was the emblem of the historic League of Chianti, which governed the scattered communities of the zone from the beginning of the 14th century. Giorgio Vasari, the painter and art historian, used the Black Rooster to symbolize the Chianti Classico area in the ceiling fresco of the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio at Florence. And the Consortium chose that emblem, which had been in use for more than seven centuries, as a guarantee for its wines.
At its founding in 1924, the Consortium had 33 producer-members. Since then, the organization has grown enormously and it now has more than 600 members – 250 bottle their wine under their own labels – who account for more than 80% of all of the wine made under the Chianti Classico appellation.
The membership is extremely varied and includes small, medium and large producers, cooperative wineries and large-scale bottlers. All are bound by the regulations adopted by the Consortium. The principal requirement is that Chianti Classico Black Rooster wine must be bottled in the production zone. That rule, imposed by Italian law, is unique and is not applied to any other wine in Italy. And it permits effective control over output.
Sangiovese is the most important grape in the mixture used in making Chianti Classico wine with a share ranging from 80 to 100%. It has been dearly established that the variety is of Tuscan origin and it is now used in producing all of the most important D.O.C. and D.O.C.G. red wines of central Italy. This grape is highly sensitive to environmental factors such as soil and climate. It tends to ripen late and irregularly but it is difficult to come up with another variety that so effectively interprets the characteristics of the soil, modifying its odors according to the terrain in which the vine grows. It responds to sandy soils with a floral bouquet, limestone with the scents of wild berries and tufo or volcanic rock with an aroma of fresh tobacco.
But no matter the soil or area in which it is grown, it offers everywhere that perfume of violets that the production code identifies as the principal and specific characteristic of Chianti Classico wine.
The Sangiovese may be accompanied by other red grapes, like the Canaiolo, Malvasia Nera, and others. However, as already noted, Sangiovese is the most important grape, the real soul of Chianti Classico. The new production code provides to increase its minimum percentage, from 75/90% to 80/100%.
For some years now, Chianti Classico has been moving toward greater differentiation in respect to the generic denomination Chianti. Once that distinction has been recognized, it is now possible to produce Chianti Classico with only Sangiovese grapes. The producer are more leeway in selecting varieties and determining their percentages but, at the same time, the use of white grapes, which hasten the wine’s maturation, will be prohibited in making the Chianti Classico. The period of aging required for the Riserva has been reduced, from three to two years, but at the same time a requirement that the wine be fined in the bottle for not less than 3 months has been introduced.
How, then, is Chianti Classico wine produced? To begin at the beginning, pruning is carried out once the vine is in hibernation or from the end of November to the end of January. One or two young shoots are left on the vine to yield the new crop of grapes – the so-called fruiting canes. Pruning reshapes the vine and the systems that are customarily used in the Chianti Classico area are the “spurred cordon”, the “Tuscan arched cane” and the Guyot. The vine’s productivity and its exposure to the sun’s rays are determined by the way the plant is trained. Pruning, training and tying the shoots are carried out in winter for vines shaped in the Guyot and Tuscan arched cane patterns. During the year, the vineyard is repeatedly plowed by those who hold to the traditional methods of cultivating vines. However, the practice of allowing grass and other plants to grow freely among the rows is steadily gaining adherents. This approach can help in controlling runoff of rainwater in vineyards on relatively steep slopes.
Toward the middle of April, the vine comes back to life, with the appearance of buds from which shoots and flowers will sprout. The grower must wait until June 10 or 20 for the flowering, when the vine puts forth tiny, highly odorous white flowers that are similar to microscopic snowflakes. Setting, the moment when the flower is transformed into fruit, occurs at the end of the month.
Initially, the little Sangiovese grape is green in color. With the heat of July or early August, the tint of the skins progressively darkens and the grapes develop the substances, like sugars and polyphenols, that are essential for the production of a great wine. At the same time, the level of acidity drops.
September is, perhaps, the most important and decisive month, because it is the period when the grapes really ripen. It is a lengthy process that depends greatly upon the effects of variations in temperatures, from the high readings of the sunny days to the lower levels of the cool nights.
Harvesting occurs in October, although the exact period of the operation varies from one area to the next on the basis of the types of grapes and their degree of ripeness. In lower areas – at San Casciano and the lower hills around Greve, Castellina and Castelnuovo Berardenga – the harvest can begin at the end of September, while the grapes at Radda, Gaiole, Panzano and the upper hills around Castellina are slower to ripen.
When the grapes reach the winery, they are removed from the stalks and crushed. The must is drained off into tanks where, after a few hours, alcoholic fermentation begins. The initial phase is tumultuous, with temperature readings of as much as 30’C. (86’F.), and it lasts for about 15 days. In the course of fermentation, the must is transformed into wine and the grapes’ sugar into alcohol.
To extract the most valuable elements from the skins, the polyphenols, which give the wine its color and enable it to be aged at length, and the aromatic substances that are responsible for the complexity of its bouquet, the must is constantly pumped over the cap, which is also broken up frequently.
Racking follows, with the wine being pumped off the skins and into tanks where a second fermentation occurs with the arrival of the spring. This malolactic fermentation transforms the wine’s aggressive malic acid into the much softer lactic acid.
To make the wine as limpid as possible, it is repeatedly racked in March and April and the last racking is carried out, as tradition has it, at the time the flowering of the vines announces the arrival of the summer heat. Afterward, the wine that is to be sold in its youth remains in the tank or is briefly matured in casks, while the Chianti Classico that will become a Riserva begins its lengthy stay in wood.
Chianti Classico was once considered and treated as a wine to be consumed in its youth, which meant within the year following the harvest. Tastes were different in those days and so were the grapes used in making the wine. It was precisely with the intention of making the wine more drinkable sooner that its producers had recourse to the governo method, which was applied in the spring when previously dried grapes were added to the wine, provoking a second alcoholic fermentation that made it more immediately appealing.
This expensive technique is now seldom used, partly because it is rare for a regular version of Chianti Classico to be consumed within the year following the harvest. The Black Rooster Consortium has even put back the date for release onto the market of the wine intended to be consumed in its youth from June to November.
In the initial years of its life, Chianti Classico has a bright ruby-red color, an intensely fruity aroma and a well-rounded flavor. However, Sangiovese is a variety adapted to moderate to extended aging. If it is used alone or in substantial measure, it can yield a wine with a big body and considerable complexity, one that is capable of withstanding prolonged aging. But the finest vintages, when the grapes ripen perfectly and regularly, and the best grapes, selected during the harvest, are required for the production of these imposing wines.
Almost 20% of the entire Chianti Classico production is used in making the Riserva, a wine that has a dark red color tending toward garnet, an aroma of spices and wild berries, an impressive structure and an elegant and velvety flavor. The best grapes are set aside at the harvest for the production of Riserva and the properties of the wines are further enriched through exposure to wood. Large casks of chestnut or oak were once used but winemakers now prefer to employ barrels of smaller size, which more easily and quickly cede their aromas to the wine. These smaller containers are the French barriques or slightly larger barrels of oak.
The wine remains in the wood for a period that varies according to the size of the cask and is then fined in the bottle for an additional period before it is released on the market.
The label provides information about what the bottle contains. In the first place, the denomination Chianti Classico alone is sufficient to indicate that the Sangiovese variety is the predominant grape used and the term “Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita” shows that the wine belongs to the highest category of premium Italian production.
In general, the name of the producing estate or house can appear on the label along with that of the wine or a “fantasy” name can be used as well as the name of the vineyard that produced the grapes. Everything that appears on the label is stipulated in complete detail by law. That includes the alcohol level and the indication of the vintage. A Black Rooster trademark must be present on the neck of the bottle or included in the back label.
The law also provides that the varieties used and their percentages can not be mentioned on the label and that the name of the commune in which the wine is made can be followed only by the term “Italy”, not by the name of the region.
Expressions like “bottled at origin”, “produced and bottled by” and “bottled by the vineyard owner” indicate that the Chianti Classico in question was made with grapes from the estate’s own vineyards. When a Black Rooster wine is released by a wine house or commerçant, the term “bottled by” must be used.
Once the bottle of Chianti Classico wine has arrived in the consumer’s home, it should be kept in proper conditions.
A cellar that is not damp and where the temperature is constant is ideal. However, the wine can be kept in a normal room provided that it is shielded from direct sunlight, noises and vibrations and isolated from sources of heat. Like man, wine must rest in a tranquil setting. Above all, it should not be forgotten that, even in the bottle, the wine is going though a slow evolution that is essential if it is to develop greater finesse.
Nor should it be forgotten that the bottle must be laid down horizontally so that the cork, kept moist by the wine, will remain swollen, sealing out air that causes oxidation.
The length of time that a wine can be kept in the cellar depends upon its character. The bigger the structure, that of a great Riserva, for example, the longer the period in which the wine can be left undisturbed to await the most appropriate moment for its consumption.
The younger version of Chianti Classico can be consumed with a wide variety of culinary preparations. While Tuscan culinary specialties almost seem to have been concocted with it in mind, the wine makes a fine accompaniment for the most diverse dishes.
In particular, wines with medium bodies and relatively moderate tannins are an ideal companion for grilled red meats, while more complex wines are a better match for red meats cooked in a more elaborate fashion. The great Riservas should be kept until they can be served with game dishes or aged cheeses.
A wine that has been kept in the bottle for months or even years and, therefore, has had almost no contact with the air can have a slightly musty odor that is unappealing to the sensory organs. Because of that factor, and especially in the case of a Riserva, the bottle should be opened several hours before the wine is to be served. If that is not possible, it is a good idea to decant the wine, pouring it slowly into a carafe so that it oxygenates fairly rapidly.
The ideal serving temperature is 16 to 18 degrees C. (61-64’F.). If the temperature is too high, the bouquet may be overpowered by the scent of alcohol. If it is too low, the wine may seem overly acidic.
No matter what dish the wine is to accompany, it is important to select the proper goblet. To bring out the best in a Black Rooster wine, a tulip-shaped goblet should be chosen. It should taper inward at the top of the glass to capture and exalt the wine’s bouquet. A somewhat smaller goblet is best for younger wines, while Riservas require a larger glass.