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What is Chianti?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 16, 2024
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Chianti is a wine-growing area within Italy that produces some exceptional red wines. Most wines are based around the Sangiovese grape, usually with a bit of white grape added as well. Until recently, wines from this region could not be entirely Sangiovese, but this has changed, allowing some high-end winemakers to produce extraordinary examples of Chianti.

Within the area are seven sub-regions, established in 1932. These regions are Rufina, Colline Pisane, Montalbano, Classico, Colli Aretini, Colli Fiorentini, and Colli Senesi. The differences in style of Chianti between these regions are immense, and even within a region, the wine can vary greatly from one vinyard to the next. It is often said that there are nearly as many styles as there are growers of grapes.

The best Chianti wines are widely recognized as coming from the Classico region, with many of these wines being aged substantially before release and having incredibly nuanced and powerful flavors and aromas. Chianti Classico is not only a sub-region, but also its own designated area within the Italian wine-controlling body, the DOCG. This means that in addition to the requirements to be designated as a Chianti, wines from the region must also have a slightly higher alcohol content and come from vines with a lower yield, giving the wine a fuller, stronger body.

Within the Classico designation is a further assurance of quality: Chianti Classico Riserva. Riserva wines must be aged more than 27 months, with at least 3 months of this being in the bottle before release. These are often the best examples of the variety, with some truly amazing vintages available.

Of course, not all Chianti is good wine, and the image of the wine has suffered greatly in the United States from an influx of low-end, cheap bottles. This style is often associated with the wicker basket and rounded bottle it is stored in, and for many people, the name will forever be wedded to a slightly sour, far too robust and undeveloped wine.

In the mid-1970s, a number of wine producers in this region decided to try to improve upon the classic formula, while still utilizing the core grape of Sangiovese and the unique Tuscan climate and soil. A number of these winemakers began to blend Cabernet Sauvignon in with their wines because of its versatility and robustness. Since Cabernet Sauvignon is not an accepted grape variety for the region, these wines cannot receive the designation Chianti — even though they are often grown within that region. Rather than allowing themselves to be simply swept under the rug, these producers created their own name for their wines: Super Tuscans. Super Tuscans from the region share many characteristics with more classic Chianti, but in general, they come across as somewhere between the more typical wines of the area and some of the stronger wines from Bordeaux.

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Discussion Comments
By gowayfarm — On Oct 21, 2007

I understand that to be true Chianti, the wine must come from the region. I am starting to build a vineyard and love Chianti. I am trying to find out what the grape blend is that makes up Chianti. Is it all Sangiovese?

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