300-years -Chianti-Classico

Posted June 21st, 2016 by Vineyard in Travel


This year Chianti celebrates its 300th birthday. But why only 300 years? Surely Chianti wine is as old as the region’s hills? After, all viticulture in Tuscany can be dated back to Etruscan settlements in the 8th century B.C. However, as regards what we now know as Chianti Classico, it all started 300 years ago.


1716 – 2016 – the 300th Anniversary of Chianti Classico

Italians have always been pretty creative so it should be no surprise to learn that counterfeit wine production was in full swing by the early 18th century. To combat this and to put a ‘mark’ on the local wine trade, in 1716 (on 7th July to be precise) the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III of the Medici Family, established a ‘Congregation (Association) of Wines and followed this on 25th September with a document setting the boundaries of production areas and very strict standards for the trade of all types of wine.
This didn’t solve counterfeiting definitively, however…by the early 20th century demand for Chianti outstripped supply and wine fraud was on a roll once more (we’re not only creative, we’re determined!) So, in order to tighten up controls and safeguard their beloved product, wine makers founded a Consortium for the protection of Chianti wine and its trademark. This trademark was the famous black rooster.
The Black Rooster
This feathery little fellow was the symbol found on the shield of soldiers in the Chianti League when they went into battle and to find out why he’s there we have to go back to the Middle Ages, when the area was a theatre of bitter conflict between the republics of Siena and Florence. After much bloodshed, the warring factions decided on a novel way to put an end to the strife. Each city would choose its best rider and fastest horse and, at dawn, when the rooster crowed, each would ride from their respective cities to cover as much ground as they could. Territorial boundaries would be established once and for all where the two riders met. So far so good. This sounds pretty fair, but if we tell the story from a Sienese perspective, things didn’t quite go according to plan. To fulfil the important role of chief rooster, the people of Siena chose a beautiful specimen, a white one. They fed it, petted it and generally spoilt it rotten. The Florentines, on the other hand, chose a manky old black rooster and treated it accordingly. They half starved it, sleep deprived it and generally neglected it. On the much-awaited day of the race, still a long time before dawn, someone in Florence deliberately passed the rooster’s coop with a candle. The poor, half-crazed bird on seeing a glimmer of light began to crow like a thing possessed.  The Florentine rider duly departed. Meanwhile back in Siena, the lovely white rooster, who’d probably had a heavy night and a big dinner, opened his eyes lazily several hours later to the light of dawn with a languid “cock a doodle doo’”. The Sienese rider mounted his horse and set out…only to meet his Florentine rival shortly afterwards, not far from his own city gates, near Fonterutoli. 
Thus almost all of Chianti fell into the hands of the Florentines long before the fall of Siena in 1555. Evidently when seeking a symbol that represented Chianti, the Florentines chose the black rooster to prove to the rest of the world how smart they were (or in the opinion of the Siennese, what a bunch of cheats they were). To this day he reigns supreme on the neck of Chianti Classico bottles.
Chianti Classico (e Moderno)
But back to Chianti in 2016, to the charming medieval town of Radda, at the heart of the Chianti Classico wine region. Fabrizio Ferrucci runs the town’s Bar Dante and is the owner of Enoteca Toscana. A local with a passion for wine, motorbikes and fast cars, he offers fascinating wine tastings with a difference. “I don’t do the classic wine tasting with a focus on the wine’s organoleptic properties, although of course that’s a part of it, I encourage people to start drinking right away and enjoy the wines I present while I talk about the rules and regulations of wine making in Chianti”. Rules and regulations might sound dry, but Fabrizio makes them anything but. Over the next hour and a half he offers engaging insights into why Chianti Classico is now so widely appreciated worldwide. It wasn’t always like this, he tells us. If you’re from outside Italy you’ll probably remember Chianti in its classic ‘fiasco’, the squat, straw covered bottle, on the chequered table cloth of Toni’s Pizzeria somewhere, possibly flaunting a candle dripping lurid multi-coloured wax. Chianti was cheap and cheerful and had a certain folkloristic appeal, but was not something you’d associate with high quality.
Poverty and the “Iron Baron”
Now the Chianti hills have 5-star hotels, charming bed and breakfasts, superb wineries and amazing restaurants, but once they were desperately poor. As an 80-year-old regular at Fabrizio’s bar succinctly puts it, “We didn’t have a pot to piss in”. The land subsisted on a system of mezzadria, quite literally share cropping, with peasant tenant farmers and powerful landowners. Amazingly, this system survived up to middle of the 20th century. Wine had long been a part of locals’ lives. It had calories and was basic sustenance. Kids were given bread sprinkled with wine and sugar as a snack and everyone who worked the fields was entitled to a LITRE of wine a day. This might sound an attractive prospect, because if you drank a litre of Chianti Classico today you’d probably be more likely to sleep out the rest of the afternoon under a tree in a field than do any work. The Chianti of the past, however, was rather different: it contained the local grape Sangiovese (from the Latin sanguis Jovis, “the blood of Jove”), but also Canaiolo and a white grape, Trebbiano or Malvasia, to lower the alcohol content and make it more easily drinkable. The ‘recipe’ had been established in 1872 after decades of research into the “perfect wine” by Baron Bettino Ricasoli an Italian statesman. This stern, intransigent landowner was known as the “Iron Baron”. So many legends have grown up around the figure of the Baron – he was so mean that he counted every bunch of grapes on his estate to make sure that no one stole from him, he drank milk from the breasts of his peasant workers to remain young and, finally, that he died without extreme unction and so continues to haunt the imposing, monumental bulk of 1000-year-old Brolio Castle, his home – that he seems more like a character from an Edgar Allen Poe story. However, the Ricasoli Winery is the largest in Italy and possibly the second oldest in the world, and there is no doubt that Italian winemaking owes the ill-favoured and ill-tempered Baron a massive debt.   
The 1960s to the present day: Chianti Classico and not so Classico
The 1960s were a time of social and political upheaval in many European countries and Italy was no exception. Suddenly the prospect of working the land, as their parents had done, seemed less attractive to the youth of Chianti. In Italy there is a saying, “La terra è bassa”, the ground is low, i.e. it’s back-breaking work. The charms of a rural stone cottage with views over the sweet Chianti hills and grapes ripening to a luxuriant purple in the sun were exchanged for those of an indoor toilet in social housing in industrial towns along the River Arno. Toiling on the land and depending on the whims of the seasons was swapped for the security of a union contract, a steady wage and regular working hours.  Chianti fell into decline. However, the land of the Renaissance experienced its own rebirth a couple of decades later. By the 1980s things were looking up. Chianti Classico was promoted from DOC to DOCG status and even earlier than this producers who felt hidebound by the rules and regulations of Chianti production had begun experimenting with different varietals. These innovative and often superlative wines were gaining attention outside Italy.  Initially, their blends meant that they could not comply with DOCG status and had to be sold with the appellation V.D.T, vino da tavola or table wine…the same as the cheapest everyday wine sold in Italy and thus a marketing disaster. Luckily, by the mid-1990s EU regulations meant that vino da tavola was dropped in favour of IGT (Indicazione Geografica Typica) and by now Super Tuscans had achieved international recognition as some of the area’s finest wines. Wines that are nowadays household names like Ornellaia, Tignanello and Sassicaia commanded high prices and producers were (virtually) free to do as they pleased, blending typical Sangiovese with Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Nero or Cabernet Sauvignon with superb results.
This increase in quality and international attention had a knock-on effect on more traditional producers of Chianti Classico, who were anxious to up their game and compete with the new comers, to show the world that tradition could also result in fine quality.  Nowadays, in the words of Wine Spectator, “The winemakers of Chianti Classico are now producing polished, terroir-driven wines loaded with personality and finesse. Today’s Chianti Classicos are food friendly and elegant, and the top riservas offer cellaring potential as well as depth and complexity. Overall, quality across Chianti Classico has never been higher than it is today”. 
On tasting the produce of the Riecine, Fontodi, Querciabella and the wonderful Renzo Marinai wineries, amongst others, you’ll find this is certainly the case and Chianti Classico is more than ready for it’s next 300 years of glory.

Submitted by Clair Rogers

Contact Clair To learn more about our trips in Chianti Classico and the rest of Italy

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