Chianti, My Wayward Old Friend

If one can have a “best friend” in wine, mine would be Chianti. My acquaintance dates back some sixty years to my college days in Minnesota when the cheerful red wine in straw-covered flasks gratified my eager palate and meager budget.
Since moving to Italy and eventually settling in Tuscany, Chianti is the wine I’ve consumed most of and written more about than any other. Living in its homeland, I’ve come to feel an almost patriotic zeal for Chianti, for the rugged splendor of its vineyards and wines that embody the soul of Sangiovese.
And yet, for all the esteem and affection I’ve brought to it, my friendship with Chianti has been riddled by doubts and disappointments. The wine, in the full context of its complex range of personalities, has rarely lived up to its eternal promise. As long as I’ve known it, Chianti has kept me wondering about what it might be if its patrons ever managed to get their variegated acts (and interests) together and let the wine affirm its authentic personality.

When I settled in Rome in 1962 and began to explore the world of Italian wines, I focused above all on Chianti. Envisioning medieval villages and Renaissance landscapes, I piloted my Fiat 500 up the ancient Via Cassia to Siena and Florence and began exploring the rugged hill country in between. What fascinated me about the Chianti served in unlabeled flasks was its rustic goodness and the idiosyncratic nature of wines from each farm or estate.
The old-style Chianti was usually subjected to governo, a secondary fermentation induced by adding the dense musts of grapes dried on racks after the harvest. In some wines, the governo set off malolactic fermentation, making them suitable for aging. But the usual aim of governo was to make the young wine rounder and fruitier with a lively disposition—a rustic vitality that made Chianti among the most quaffable of wines.

Not that such delights were easy to come by. You needed to know the right cellars and the better vintages and it was best to drink them within months, since they could not hold that youthful vibrancy for long. But when governo worked, whether by accident or design, Chianti emitted a spontaneous rapture that not even the most astute of today’s cellar technicians would be equipped materially or spiritually to attain.
Thinking back, that wine invariably vouched for as “genuino” by contadini and local hosts might well have been the Chianti truest to type. But it was a far cry from the “Chianti” the world had come to know.
Markets in Italy and abroad were overwhelmed by “Chianti” of questionable origin carrying labels that were often invented brands and sold at low prices in line with the quality and reliability of the wines.
In 1924, producers of Chianti Classico formed a consortium to protect their wines against imitation and fraud, adopting as a trademark the gallo nero of the ancient Chianti League. Producers in other areas grouped under a consortium symbolized by the Putto, or cherub. But only after 1967, when Italy introduced DOC for Chianti Classico and Chianti, did controls begin to take effect.

In 1971, I wrote an article on Chianti for the American magazine Vintage, describing the new era opened up by DOC and the trend to improve quality and restore Chianti’s reputation after decades of fraud and corruption. As I worked on a book on Italian wines in the 1970s I continued to keep a close eye on Chianti but what I was witnessing was more confusing than reassuring.
Despite investments in vineyards and cellars and modern winemaking techniques, leading to a steady increase in production, the market for Chianti remained static. Decades of excess had so damaged Chianti’s reputation that by the mid-1970s leaders in the region had largely abandoned traditional ways of producing wine while agreeing that the flask, the fiasco, the eternal symbol of Chianti, had to go.
Yet, as the flask gave way to standard bottles, making a convivial wine into something more formal, Chianti’s decline continued. One problem was excessive growth, an effect of the conversion of vineyards from mixed crops to monoculture. When the record harvest of 1980 peaked with enough Chianti to fill about 200 million bottles, supply had so far exceeded demand that market prices slipped below production costs, leaving wineries, large and small, struggling for survival.

Producers, seeking alternatives, created upscale wines, often modeled after Tignanello, Antinori’s blend of Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon seasoned in barriques for an “international style.” Those wines, despite lack of official credentials, came to be known as “Super Tuscans,” overshadowing Chianti in prestige and price.
Only in the 1980s, with the advent of DOCG, was Sangiovese permitted to stand alone in Chianti Classico and Riserva, though eventually other varieties at up to 20 percent were permitted in the blend. Nothing has done more to compromise the character of Sangiovese in Chianti than those intruders, mainly Cabernet and Merlot.
Many winemakers have persisted with pure Sangiovese, knowing that wines produced in ideal conditions can reach the same noble heights as the best of Cabernet, Merlot or Nebbiolo, with the advantage of being distinctly Tuscan.
A couple of decades ago, the Chianti Classico consortium commissioned me to do a study of the conditions of terrain and microclimate in the nine communes of the zone and the typology of wines in each. When I presented my findings, many producers of estate Chianti commended my work as a base for distinguishing vineyard areas and individual plots on the basis of crus. But the project was mysteriously dropped. I learned later that commercial bottlers and cooperative wineries vetoed any further study as detrimental to their interests.

Chronic conflicts between divergent elements of production and commerce have prevented Chianti Classico from realizing its full potential and asserting a clear and credible personality. Other major wines, such as Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino, have established reputations on the strength of wines of clear-cut typology recognized for quality from individual estates or vineyards. Chianti, with its contrasts and contradictions, has been suffering for decades from a crisis of identity.
An exception could be made for Chianti Rufina, where producers have managed to attain a coherent concept of what Chianti should be in wines that respect the nature of the territory, the Mugello. In my experience, the wines of Rufina have shown the most consistent quality of any of the Chianti zones.
Chianti Classico has an abundance of estates noted for quality wines, but more often than not the top wines are not called Chianti, whether or not they could qualify. Producers prefer individual status for their special wines, resulting in the “Super Tuscans” that have relegated Chianti to second-class status.

In a move to restore luster to the image of Chianti Classico, the consortium created a category called Gran Selezione to recognize superior wines as what might be described as “Super Chiantis.” Though certain producers have embraced Gran Selezione, overall the move seems to have generated doubts and confusion. It seems that after decades in which producers themselves snubbed and belittled it, that critics and consumers could never be convinced that Chianti Classico had returned to the top. If I could offer a bit of friendly advice to my wayward friend Chianti and the people dedicated to its well-being, I’d suggest recalling its historic role as an appealing and affordable wine that was above all a pleasure to drink with food. I’d forget any notion of Super Chianti and concentrate instead on Chianti Classico Riserva that expresses the uniqueness of vineyards where Sangiovese excels. And it would seem opportune to cite the names of those terroirs or crus on labels.
Now, I’m not suggesting a sudden return to the past. I know governo wouldn’t make sense to a modern-minded winemaker. And my lingering dream of reviving the fiasco would simply be too good to come true. It would be enough to be able to sit down at the table with a bottle of Chianti and enjoy the company of an old friend whose dignity is proudly intact. 

Burton Anderson