As defined by the Dalmasso Commission in 1932, the seven zones of Chianti have enjoyed more ups-and-downs among the fickle American public than Newt Gingrich—although unlike Newt, the Touchstone of Tuscany actually has something of value to offer.
First gaining recognition here inside the straw-bound fiasci that graced every checkered tablecloth of every entry-level ristorante from Queens to the Quinault, such wines were quaffable, credible quenchers, but of course, no great shakes in the Chianti hierarchy. Those are the (often) black rooster-festooned wines from the hundred square miles between Florence and Siena known as Chianti Classico. And also, the 1996-authorized Chianti Superiore, made under even stricter production laws, including precise percentages of varietals that are not only allowed, but required; this in contrast to Classico, which may be 100% sangiovese.
Note that since 2007, neither Superiore nor Classico Chianti allow the addition of white wine grapes (trebbiano and malvasia)—a former Chianti standard dating from the mid-19th century.
Speaking Of History…
The above referenced stricture against white grapes is the more ironic because, by all accounts, Chianti’s initial incarnation was white. Born somewhere near the end of the 13th century in the Florentine villages of Gaiole, Castellina and Radda (today within the demarcated Classico region), the Chianti League began producing a wine so flavorful and well-received that all the neighbors wanted in on the act. This kick-started a zoning clusterbleep of subdivisions and expansions that continues to this day, and has led inevitably to a wide variety of microclimates, soil structures, vineyard altitudes and agricultural systems—thus, historically, Chianti falls into virtually every conceivable quality level.
In an attempt to consolidate the brand, a 1716 edict from the Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany legislated a specific (and presumably final) area where wines could call themselves Chianti, and the pronouncement held until 1932, when the Italian government—that bastion of bureaucracy—pulled in five outlying regions, at least one of which (Colli Fiorentini) made wines which were of markedly less character than the rest.
Another name that’s instrumental to understanding the precinct’s potables is Bettino Ricasoli, who in 1872 created a Chianti ‘recipe’ that was officially adopted by the Denominazione di Origine Controllata a century later. Ricasoli, a winemaker from Siena, took the initiative to travel and taste, learning about technique and cultivars from French and German vintners, eventually settling on a grape blend that he considered ideal for his cool, sunny zone: Sangiovese for its unique aromatics (when fully ripened, these range from mulberries to cinnamon to tobacco), canaiolo for its velvety texture and plummy fruit flavors and malvasia to soften up its big red brothers. In Italy, these were days prior to malolactic fermentation, when entire grape clusters—stalks and seeds included—were crushed to produce a somewhat harsh wine that screamed for a little malvasia moderation.
Ricasoli’s wine became popular, and he translated his prestige into politics, moving on to become the Prime Minister of Italy—a lesson for our voting public, who would better off if they stopped electing lawyers and started electing winemakers.
Antinori’s Role in the Story…
The name ‘Rinuccio di Antinoro’ pops up in the annals of Italian winemaking as early as 1180, but the family’s real stage entrance is better dated to 1385 when Giovanni di Piero Antinori joined Tuscany’s Guild of Winemakers. As noted above, this was around the time that Chianti began to come into its own, so it is fair to say that the Antinori clan has been a prime player since the giddy up. As it’s equally fair to say that the family has not defaulted on quality Tuscan wine through 26 generations.
The nobility came about in 1861 when the title of Marchese was bestowed upon Niccolò Antinori as a gesture of gratitude for his efforts in reuniting Italy. It is a title that the family retains to this day, with Marchese Piero Antinori currently riding point for the business. And it has been, under his leadership, a business with roots comfortably anchored in traditions even as it spreads branches into the future, willing—even eager—to embrace innovation and what was, at one time, considered something close to heresy. That would be the formerly-known-as ‘Super Tuscans’, wherein Antinori realized that a high percentage of white wine grapes did not allow Chianti to reach the quality heights of which it was capable. In fact, in this he was actually drawing as much from yesterday as from tomorrow: In 1924, his father Niccolò had scandalized Chianti by making a wine containing Bordeaux varietals.
So, in 1971, under certain new labels, Piero began to eschew the Chianti recipe in favor of a more experimental series of blends, readily foregoing the legal ability to wear the designation ‘Chianti Classico’ in favor of making concentrated, age-worthy wines. His Tignanello, for example, contains 20% cabernet sauvignon and 80% sangiovese while Solaia mirrors it with an 80/20 split.
A miffed DOCG warned him that such wines would bear the lowly and ignominious tag ‘vino da tavola’ rather than the esteemed black rooster of the Classico single-growers consorzio, perhaps in the hope that Antinori would blink.
Instead, Antinori shrugged, and a few years later, the unparalleled success of these wines—Tignanello, Sassicaia by Tenuta San Guido, Camartina by Querciabella, Magari by Angelo Gaja, etc., both in critical gushings and prices commanded, caused embarrassed Italian authorities to rewrite the Classico regulations in an attempt to entice their prodigal sons to return.
Subsequently, Marchese Antinori famously failed to quip: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in…”
In fact, Tignanello is still sold as a roosterless IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipical or ‘typical regional wine’) which is free from even the relaxed regulations of the DOCG.
Actually, Super Tuscans make up only a small portion of the estate’s oblations, and Antinori’s real pane e burro is, in fact, Chianti Classico, adding to the sea of nearly eight million cases produced annually. Many of the vineyards under production were purchased by the family in 1900, and among fans of these bewitching baubles, the names of these estates roll off the tongue with as much wonder as they roll in from the glass.
Three new releases prove out the Antinori philosophy: Approbation of the past while maintaining the power of the pioneer.
Marchese Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva, 2007, around $35: A Classico that draws juice from a number of Antinori estates, the wine (90% sangiovese, 10% cabernet sauvignon) is aged two years in barriques and another three in the bottle. Lively and ruby-colored with garnet tones tickling the rim, it’s a classic Classico, jammed with jam along with aromas of violets and black cherry, with an earthy mid-palate showing cinnamon, blackberry, vanilla and oak. Tannins are beginning to round out with an acid substructure that remains tightly in place.
Marchese Antinori Chianti Classico Badia a Passignano, 2007, around $53: A big boy from the vineyard surrounding the renowned Vallombrosian Abbey—still in use by the Benedictines who, despite their hoodie-wearing, instill more reverence than fear among the locals. Pure sangiovese, the wine is a textbook terroir trumpeter, displaying characteristically dense black fruit flavors, rich tannins, smoke, olives, dried strawberry and mocha along with a nearly infinite number of similar nuances drawn from the Abbey’s limestone soil and moderate elevation. The combination of Hungarian and French oak (apparently) adds a nice note of spice to the finish.
Marchese Antinori Chianti Classico Pèppoli, 2009, about $28: Antinori’s nod to a public which nods to the fruit; the unique northeast-facing allows a unique microclimate to animate the Pèppoli vineyard, and although it is adjacent to Tignanello, it produces a wine of markedly different style. Howlingly aromatic and loaded with sweet tannins, summery berries (raspberries particularly) and fresh floral fragrances, the wine’s adherence to Classico regulation gives it an old-school backbone of taut wood, vanilla and coffee. The vintner’s art—here delightfully displayed—is in the seamless blending of two dichotomous characteristics into a balanced whole.