I ran across the fun and notable history of Chianti Wine and the Chianti Region while doing some reading (psst I'm a wine nerd). Chianti wine is a popular, historic and well known wine. My personal take on Chianti has always been; distrust. I only feel good buying Chianti when I purchase it from a quality wine shop.
When Italy implemented its quality rating system DOC/DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), they modeled it after the French AOC system. It worked well, not perfectly, but well. It gave buyers a much better understanding of the quality, region and blend of different wines. However, in Chianti the original region designated as Chianti Classico DOCG has been expanded, not for reasons of quality, but due to political and business pressures. Everyone wanted to label their wine as Chianti and wrap the neck of their bottle with a DOCG paper label, which would boost sales. So, in 1984 the Chianti Classico and greater Chianti regions were each given their own DOCG rating. These ratings were given based on location alone, not quality. While the DOC system worked in most other Italian regions, it has been effectively ruined in Chianti. That leaves buyers in a situation where the label is only an indication of geography not blend, viticulture or wine making standards. There are Chianti wines which are of the highest quality and some which are glorified grape juice. This is a problem, because Chianti can be a great wine.
Side Note: If you are a student of Microeconomic theory, you should recognize this as a classic Asymmetrical Information Problem. The seller has more information than the buyer. The seller can use that advantage to over-charge some buyers (in this case the buyer loses). However, many buyers understand they are at a disadvantage. These buyers avoid the market (less sales) and/or they refuse to pay for “quality” because they do not trust the seller (here the seller loses). Asymmetrical Information Problems cause markets to underperform for both buyers and sellers. In the case of Chianti, less people are enjoying this magnificent wine and the better producers are not being compensated for their quality product.
There are new efforts to fix this, more on that later.
That was long preamble too, … well as you might guess, more of the Chianti story. The rest of the Chianti story includes the history, the wine, a logo and a lawsuit.
Let’s start with the history. The wine region of Chianti dates to a pre-unified Italy. The Chianti region is between the city-states of Florence and Siena. Control of the highly desirable Chianti region caused dispute between 13th century Florence and Siena. To resolve this dispute, without resorting to war (#YayDiplomacy), the two city-states devised a horse race to end the land dispute (#CreativeDiplomacy). At dawn two riders embarked from their respective cities and where they met would be the new land boarder. Siena selected a white rooster as its emblem and sent their fastest rider right at the crack of dawn. Florence selected a black rooster and in true Bill Belichick fashion, prepped their rooster, by keeping it in a box, half starved. The hungry and disorientated black rooster crowed much earlier and the Florence rider got a massive head start. The riders met only 20 KM from the Siena town boarder (the distance between Florence and Siena is 76KM). Almost the entire region of Chianti moved under the control of Florence. The Black Rooster has been the symbol of Chianti ever since. Aside from the animal cruelty, I find this story enjoyable and plan on reminiscing on it next time I enjoy a fresh glass of Chianti.
The earliest Chianti wines were white. Under the control of Florence, Chianti gradually evolved into a red wine. In 1872 Baron Bettino Ricasoli, a future Prime Minister with a passion for wine, established the first “Chianti recipe.” He recommended 70% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo and 15% Malvasia Bianca (a white wine). In the early 1900’s market pressures changed the blend to 70% Sangiovese with up to 10-30% Malvasia and/or Tebbiano (another white grape). The white grapes were additions for market reasons, not quality reasons. Today Chianti must be 75-100% Sangiovese, up to 10% Canaiolo and may include no more than to 20% of the approved grape varietals of Colorino, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. The white grapes of Malvasia and Trebbiano are no longer allowed.
The changing blend reflects the pressures of exporters, producers, politics and changing world taste. For a time, the blend was degraded from Baron Bettino Ricasoli’s first recipe, but it has been restored in the direction of quality.
Today a good Chianti wine is possibly the perfect food wine. Sangiovese is a thin-skinned grape, so visually, you see a translucent ruby red wine with hues of burnt orange. On the nose you have red fruits, bitter herbs, balsamic, espresso and sweet tobacco. On the palate Chianti is a harmonious dry, sapid wine with balanced fruit and a good level of tannin. This is a wine built for fine food.
Let’s get back to that Black Rooster. Aside from being the symbol of the region, the producers in the classic region of Chianti have rebranded and have launched an additional rating system for “Chianti Classico.” They are using the Chianti Classico Wine Consortium’s (CCWC) seal of a pink label with a Black Rooster (established in 1924). The goal is to establish quality standards, promote quality wine producers, protect the integrity of the brand, and prevent wine fraud.
The label and new Chianti Wine Classification System are intended to give buyers confidence in what they buy and reward sellers for making higher quality wine. Now when you see Chianti Montrespertoli, Classico, Riserva and/or Gran Selezione on a label you can trust the quality and know how long these wines were aged.
There however, was a snag in bringing this new symbol and classification system to the US. The Italian name for rooster is Gallo. Here in the U.S. we have a wine making concern E. & J. Gallo Winery (aka Gallo). Gallo is very protective of their brand, logo, trademark and name. They have a long reputation of filing lawsuits to defend their $500 million investment in promoting the “Gallo” brand. You guessed it, E. & J. Gallo Winery sued Consorzio Del Gallo Nero who imports Chianti wines into the US. The result of the suit was that imported Chainti wines voluntarily discontinued all use of the term “Gallo” in the U.S. For the most part they also did not use the CCWC black rooster logo. This has made it difficult for US consumers to take advantage of the CCWC classification system for Chianti Classico and has hindered efforts to alleviate marketplace distrust of Chianti wine.
While the market is getting better for buyers and sellers, the best way to be safe is to buy from a local wine shop and get recommendations. Right now, we have an excellent Chianti in the shop, which is not a Chanti Classico, but a Chianti ITG. ITG deserves its own blog. Our 2013 Terre di Corzano Chianti, comes from the greater Chainti region and is made at Superiore standards. 90% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo, biodynamic and aged for 12 months in neutral French Oak. It is everything a Chianti should be and speaks to the potential for high quality producers outside the Classico region.
Come in and enjoy some Chianti. Bring your rooster, we have a pet friendly porch.
J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine"Third Edition pg 162-163 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0-19-860990-6
A. Domine (ed.) Wine, pp. 402-411, Ullmann Publishing, 2008 ISBN 978-3-8331-4611-4