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Chianti vineyards

From good Chianti, an aged wine, majestic and imperious, that passes through my heart and chases away without trouble every worry and grief… Francesco Redi, Bacchus in Tuscany

In the 17th century, naturalist and poet Francesco Redi was the first to note the virtues of ‘Florentine red’ from Chianti, but since then the Italians have invested a lot of worry and grief into defining exactly what ‘Chianti’ means.

The name apparently derives from an Etruscan family named Clanti; geographically it refers, roughly, to the hilly region between Florence and Siena, bordered by the Florence–Siena Superstrada del Palio and the A1 from Florence to Arezzo. The part within Siena province is known as Chianti Storico or Chianti Geografico, once the territories of the Lega del Chianti, a consortium of barons formed in 1385 to protect their interests (and their wine), who adopted a black cockerel as their emblem.

But Chianti is an oenological name as well as a geographical one, and as such first became official in 1716, when Grand Duke Cosimo III defined which parts of Tuscany could call their vintage Chianti, in effect making wine history – it was the first time that a wine had its production area delimited. The Lorraine grand dukes promoted advances in wine-making techniques and the export of Chianti.

Yet the Chianti as we know it had yet to be developed, and it was largely the creation of one man – the ‘Iron Baron’ Bettino Ricasoli, at the Castello di Brolio who came up with the winning formula: 70% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo and 15% Malvasia bianca.

Chianti bottles

The end product took the Paris Exhibition of 1878 by storm; imitators soon appeared and, in 1924, the boundaries of Chianti Storico were more than doubled to create Chianti Classico, drawn by local producers to protect the wine’s name, adopting the now familiar black cockerel as its symbol.

In 1967 Chianti Classico, along with Tuscany’s six other Chianti vinicultural zones, was given its denominazione di origine status, and production soared, but quality and sales declined. To improve it, the Chianti Classico Consortium was upscaled to a DOCG rating to guarantee that all wines bearing the black cockerel would be tested and approved by a panel of judges.

But it was tales of Elizabeth Barrett Browning quaffing Chianti and finding her inspiration in its ruby splendour, as well as the sunny rural elegance of the region, that attracted first the English and Dutch, then the Swiss, Americans, French and Germans, especially in the 1960s and 1970s; they form one of Italy’s densest foreign colonies, wryly nicknamed ‘Chianti-shire’.

The newcomers brought more money than Chianti’s mouldering barons and contessas had seen since the Renaissance; property prices shot to the moon. But the presence of so much money has begun to cast a shadow over the heart of this ancient, enchanting region; snobbery and pretensions threaten to poison the pleasurable plonk of yesteryear. Some vintners offer limited-edition numbered bottles; designer-label Chianti is upon us.

The old vines, following the contours of the hills, are being pulled out to make room for specialized vines in geometric straight lines. And as any old-timer will tell you, the modern DOCG Chianti Classico sniffed and gurgled by wine professionals isn’t anything like the joyous, spontaneous wine that made Chianti famous in the first place.

Some 800 farms and estates produce wine in the 70,000 hectares of the Chianti Classico zone, and one of the chief pleasures is trying as many as possible – with the different mixtures of grapes, different soils and bottling methods, each should be, or at least strives to be, individual.

Nor do estates limit themselves to Chianti; many produce vinsanto, a white wine called Bianca della Lega, and other red wines, as well as Chianti’s other speciality, a delicate extra-vergine olive oil.

The Rise of the Super Tuscans

In the 1970s, a new kind of Tuscan wine was unleashed in the markets, breaking all the rules of Chianti's classification system by blending the region's iconic Sangiovese grapes with non-traditional varietals from Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Merlot) rather than the white Malvasia bianca specified in the appellation's guidelines, and ageing the wine in non-traditional oak barrels.

Wine critic Robert Parker was the first to call time Supertuscans: among the first to hit the market were the Marchesi Antinori's Tiganello and Tenuta San Guido's Sassicaia—fabulous wines that soon commanded some of the regions's highest prices, but because of the rules had to be be labelled as humble vino da tavola.

To accommodate these new wines, a new legal appellation was invented, IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica), and they remain among the priciest Tuscan wines.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: H. Hoffmeister, Steven Depolo