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Culinary Arts

Learn About Chianti: Grapes, Wine, Region, and Pairings

Written by MasterClass

Jan 25, 2019 • 6 min read

Chianti is an Italian export as famous as pasta and espresso. For many years, Chianti was known as a sub-par wine, thanks to overproduction and dilution. Traditionally, Chianti bottles were surrounded by a straw basket known as a ‘fiasco’—an ironic, if appropriate name that came to represent its reputation. But in recent years, local producers have ditched the fiasco straw baskets in favor of traditional bottles and are producing Chianti of notably higher quality.

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What Is Chianti?

Chianti is a medium-bodied, highly acidic, tartly-juicy ruby red wine with flavors of cherry and earth, produced primarily of the sangiovese grape in the Chianti region of Tuscany, Italy. Chianti features a high level of tannin, which contributes to its dry flavor. It has a floral scent and is deeply savory.

Is Chianti a Grape or a Region?

As with Bordeaux, Champagne, and many historic wines dating from pre-twentieth century Western and Southern Europe, Chianti’s name derives from its place of origin, rather than from its primary grape.

Map of the chianti region in tuscan italy

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What Is the Geography of the Chianti Region?

Chianti is a hilly region in in Tuscany in Central Italy, near Florence. It’s also the home of olive oil and Michelangelo’s world-famous David painting, a region synonymous with quality, class, and Renaissance-era culture. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the most popular tourist locations in Italy.

Chianti has maintained much of its distinctive Italian character. It looks nearly as it did a century ago, with rolling hills cultivating vineyards stretching along the horizon.

Chianti is a vast area divided into seven sub-zones, each one producing its own Chianti wine with a distinctive name and label.

  • Chianti Montalbano – west of Florence
  • Chianti Rufina – east of Florence
  • Chianti Colli Fiorentini – south of Florence
  • Chianti Colli Aretini – southeast of Florence
  • Chianti Colli Senesi – an area that includes Montepulciano and Montalcino
  • Chianti Montespertoli – southwest of Florence
  • Chianti Colli Pisane – the westernmost Chianti zone

What Grapes Make Chianti Wine?

The primary grape used to make Chianti is sangiovese. Most Chiantis are 100% sangiovese, but some winemakers in the region enjoy innovating and defying stereotypes by blending the traditional local grape with the following:

  • Cabernet, a thick, hearty grape that grows well around the world.
  • Syrah, a rich, dark-skinned grape that originated in France.
  • Merlot, a blue-tinged grape that works well in blends and on its own.
  • Trebbiano, a widely-cultivated Italian white grape that yields a lighter-bodied Chianti.

There are multiple types of Chianti:

  • Standard Chianti, made of a blend of at least 70% sangiovese and aged four to seven years.
  • Chianti Classico, a premium Chianti made with at least 80% sangiovese grapes; the bottle features a famous black rooster seal.
  • Chianti Riservas, which are aged beyond standard Chianti—38 months—and feature softened tannins.
  • Chianti Superiore, a type of Chianti that gets its designation not from a region, but strict production and aging requirements.

What Is Chianti Classico?

Chianti Classico is a specific type of premium Chianti, considered a more refined option than standard Chianti. It is produced in small quantities with the finest grapes on the oldest, best estates in the tiny, warm-climate Chianti Classico region, which runs from Florence to Siena and is completely distinct from the other seven sub-regions.

  • Blend. Its blend is 80% of sangiovese—the thin-skinned red grape typical of this area—and 20% of other grapes, such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Other Chiantis besides Classico may be comprised of just 70% Sangiovese. But since other grapes can be so powerful, they can overwhelm the Sangiovese, despite being a minority in the grape blend. Since 2006, white grape varieties are banned in the production of Chianti Classico.
  • Aromas. A top-quality Chianti Classico is characterized by the aromas and textures nurtured by its impressive sangiovese grapes.
  • Region. In addition to denoting a type of wine, Chianti Classico is a subregion within Chianti, often considered the heart of Chianti. It covers around 17,000 acres of vineyards between Florence and Siena.

What Are Italian Wine Classifications?

If you look closely at the seals of a bottle of Italian wine—most certainly including a bottle of Chianti—you’ll notice some small but important words and numbers. These are the categories of Italian wine, revealing how they were made and where they originate. They are also quality assurance guarantees. (If you’re looking at a bottle of Chianti but can’t find government-issue numbers on the top, you’ve got a counterfeit on your hands.)

The following differences between the classifications are significant and impact the distinction among bottles of Italian wine.

  • DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) is the top classification for Italian wines. It’s a seal of approval that signifies the highest quality and strict production methods. Strict rules mandate specific grape varieties, ripeness, winemaking processes, and age. T
  • DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) is the primary category of Italian wines. More than 8 million cases of wines classified as DOC level or above are produced each year. Chianti Rufina is frequently described as the next best DOC.
  • Montepulciano is a popular Italian appellation also made from Sangiovese grapes. It is most prominent in Abruzzo and more powerful than Chianti, less fruit-driven and rich.
  • IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) is a newer level, created because to allow a certain level of freedom to Italy's winemakers. Prior to 1992, many wines were unable to be classified as DOC or DOCG despite being of high-quality. They were just made from grape varieties (or blends) not permitted under DOC/G rules. The IGT classifies wines according to region rather than to grape types or blends.
  • Super Tuscans aren‘t technically a classification, but they denote a high-quality Tuscany Chianti wine that doesn’t fit into one of the other classifications because they departed from traditional standards. If, for example, a wine uses foreign grapes, it wouldn’t be eligible for a DOC symbol. But these wines still proved super popular, sometimes outselling traditional Chiantis.

What Is Chianti’s Flavor Profile?

Chianti is characterized by a strong, fruity flavor, often associated with cherries or violets.

Frequent descriptions of the flavor include:

  • Red fruits
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Bitter herbs
  • Smoke
  • Game

How to Taste Chianti

Organize your own horizontal tasting to get to know certain grapes or understand the effects of a certain vintage. Try, for instance, three or four Chiantis from the same vintage but different producers side by side and compare their similarities and differences. Ask your friends to each bring a bottle of a specific vintage and type of wine: this will guarantee that you get a variety of wines without having to make the trip to many different wine shops!

What Are Popular Chianti Wine Pairings?

As you might expect from a wine associated with the finest Italian traditions, Chianti is often enjoyed best with Italian food. But because it is a particularly dry wine with a high level of acidity, Chianti pairs well with a variety of flavors and textures, and can cut through nearly any food for a pleasant pairing experience.

Popular options inside and outside Italy include:

The Best Chianti Brands

The best (and most fun) way to get to know about Chianti is to drink it! The wide range of Chiantis offers a veritable education in subtle taste-differences for discerning consumers. Sampling the different brands and identifying the distinctions between them will provide the drinker with an exquisite experience and a comprehensive understanding of Chianti at the same time.

Chianti Classicos:

  • Rocca delle Macìe
  • Tenuta Santa Alfonso
  • Rocca delle Macìe Chianti Classico Riserva
  • Riserva di Fizzano

Other Chianti:

  • Frescobaldi Nipozzano Chianti Rufina
  • Cecchi Chianti
  • Bolla Chianti
  • Spalletti Chianti