The DOCG regulations.
Not all the wine produced in the Chianti zone is Chianti Classico.
To have the right to a denomination is not sufficient. In fact, the provenance refers to a given territory but also all the rules stipulated in the production regulations must be respected. Those rules determine the conditions and the requisites that permit a wine to be decked out with the name Chianti Classico DOCG
In addition, other fundamentals and other requisites concern the ampelographical base—or the types of grapes that can be used in the preparation of the wine. The rules provide for a minimum ratio of 80% for Sangiovese, the typical red variety of the zone. Along with the Sangiovese, other red grapes of the area can be used in a maximum percentage of 20%. These grapes include natives like Canaiolo and Colorino as well as “international” varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, all recommended and/or authorized for the production zone. Among the principal sensory characteristics indicated by the production rules, there is the ruby red color that can become at times intense and profound, depending upon the wine’s origin.
The odor offers floral notes of violets and irises combined with a typical character of red fruit. The flavor is harmonious, dry and sapid with a good level of tannin that fines in time, becoming soft and velvety. Other requisites requested include a minimum alcohol level of 12 degrees for young wines and 12.5 degrees for the Riserva. Minimum net dry extract amounts to 24 g/l, while total minimum acidity is registered at 4.5 g/l. In addition, the production rules require important factors. For example, it is stipulated that the yield of grapes per hectare cannot exceed 75 quintals four years after the vines are planted and that the yield of wine from grapes cannot exceed 70% or 52.5 hectoliters per hectare. In addition, the regulations note that the processes of vinification, preservation and bottling must occur exclusively in the production zone. And the wine may not be released for consumption before October 1. Minimum required maturation for the Riserva is 24 months including three months of bottle fining.
As far as the label is concerned, the regulations contain some terms that are added to those already stipulated by the specific rules in effect in the sector. In the first place, the label must contain the indication “Chianti Classico” with the more specific identification, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita and display the year when the grapes were produced (vintage). The name of the wine can be identified in connection with that of the estate or with a brand name or it can be a fantasy name or indication of the name of the vineyard of provenance. In any case, terms like extra, fine, select, selected, superiore, old and similar may not be used.
Sangiovese, the soul of Chianti Classico
The minimum permitted ratio of Sangiovese grapes used in the production of the wine is 80%, a percentage that can rise to 100%. Sangiovese is the real soul of Chianti Classico. The Sangiovese grape is extremely sensitive to external factors, especially terrain and climate, and it is truly difficult to identify another variety that is so well able to interpret the characteristics of the soil and modify its aromas in accordance with the terrain in which the vine grows. Flowery bouquets are derived from sandy soils, while scents of wild berries are suggested by limestone and the aromas of tobacco are fresh with hints of tufa. But always, whatever may be its zone of origin, there is that scent of violets that the production regulations identify as the characterizing and specific element of Chianti Classico.
Young and Riserva Chianti Classico
In the first years of its life, Chianti Classico is odorous, fruity and rounded and the wine features a brilliant ruby red color. But Sangiovese is a grape of medium-long aging capacity and it is used in extremely high percentages or alone as is foreseen for Chianti Classico. This can result in products with big bodies and substantial complexity that can withstand many years of aging.
Naturally, various factors concur in the establishment of the final quality of the product. Seasonal conditions are of great importance. In the best vintages those conditions assure perfect and uniform ripening of the grapes. But work in the vineyard whether during cultivation or during the harvest is also vital.
Of the entire production of Chianti Classico, about 20% is now devoted to Riservas, wines with dark red colors tending to garnet and aromas of spices and wild berries. They also offer imposing structures and are elegant and velvety. The best grapes are selected at the time of the harvest for the production of Riservas. Their qualities are further enriched when they are exposed to wood during maturation. Huge casks of chestnut and oak were once used but today producers prefer containers of oak with smaller dimensions, which accelerate the evolutionary processes and permit greater transference of their aromas to the wines. The wine matures in the wood for a more or less prolonged period, depending upon the dimensions of the container. There is, then, a further pause for bottle fining before the wine is sent to the market.
From the vineyard to the table
In the vineyard
The traditional training systems include Guyot and a derivation known as the archetto toscano (Tuscan bow). In recent years, especially in new vineyards, the spurred cordon system has become widely diffused, possibly because it offers outstanding prospects for mechanization that still assures high-quality production. If the system of cultivation selected is traditional, the terrain will be worked many times during the year. Currently, however, growers are encouraging the growth of grasses among the vines and especially on relatively steep slopes. This permits draining of excess water and reduction of erosion.
The revival of the vine’s vegetation after the cold weather of winter begins with the opening of the buds from which the shoots will emerge. This occurs about the middle of April. Toward the end of May and the beginning of June the vines produce small, odorous white flowers. Setting occurs in mid-June. This is the point at which flower becomes fruit. With the heat of July and the early days of August, the small grapes, initially green, begin to change color progressively in a process known as veraison. At that point, ripening begins and during it the grapes take on various substances that will ensure production of fine wines. Those substances include sugars, polyphenols and aromas. Meanwhile, the level of acidity shrinks to desirable levels. September is perhaps the most important and delicate month for ripening. The variations in temperatures between the sunny days and the cool evenings assure completion of a lengthy process. October is the month of the harvest, which occurs at different times depending upon the type of grape and the fruit’s maturation. In zones at lower altitudes, harvesting can begin at the end of September, while ripening is slower at higher altitudes. From the end of November to the end of February, the vines are dormant and it is now time for pruning.
In the cellar
As soon as they arrive in the winery the grapes are subjected to crushing and the removal of their stalks. The must obtained is then transferred to various types of containers where alcoholic fermentation begins. It is characterized initially by a tumultuous phase with the development of temperatures that are generally below 30° C. (86° F.). The duration of the maceration of the skins in the must and/or wine varies according to the characteristics of the grapes but it usually amounts to about two weeks. During this period, the skins are forced upward by carbon dioxide produced by yeasts during fermentation and form a compact mass known as the cap. In order to get the most out of the raw material, the cap is broken up and forced downward. And wine is pumped over the mass. The process results in the extraction from the skins of polyphenols that give the wine its color and contributes to its longevity. The polyphenols also provide aromatic substances upon which the complexity of the bouquet depends. Racking follows. The term refers to the separation of the pomace from the wine, which undergoes a second fermentation, the malolactic. In this fermentation, lactic bacteria transform aggressive malic acid into the much softer lactic acid. To give the wine limpidity, rackings are carried out and the last of them occurs, according to tradition, at the moment of the flowering of the vines, which announces the arrival of hot weather. The wine that will soon be placed on the market remains in tanks or in casks for some months, while the products that will become Riservas begin their long sojourn in wood followed by fining in the bottle.
In the bottle
Once acquired, Chianti Classico is a wine that must be carefully preserved. The ideal setting is a cellar that is not humid and where temperatures are constant. However, the wine can be laid down in nearly any place that is not exposed to light, noise or sources of heat. It must not be forgotten that this wine is a product that continues to live a slow evolution after fermentation during which it develops further finesse. It is also necessary to place the bottle in a horizontal position so that the cork, moistened by the wine, maintains its elasticity, which is necessary to block oxygenation due to the infiltration of air. The longevity of a wine also depends on the duration of its preservation in the winery. The bigger its structure—as in the case of the Riserva—the longer the period of waiting before consumption of the wine can begin.
At the table
Chianti Classico makes a fine accompaniment for the flavors of Tuscan cuisine but it can also be teamed up with a large number of dishes. In particular, red meats cooked on the grill can be matched by wines with medium bodies and limited tannins, while more elaborate meat dishes require more structured wines. The great Riservas are ideal as accompaniments for dishes of game and aged cheeses. Preserved in the bottle for months if not years, the wine needs to be oxygenated before being served; that’s especially true of a Riserva. For this purpose, the bottle is opened several hours before consumption. If this is not possible, the wine can be decanted. It is poured slowly into a carafe and it quickly absorbs oxygen.
The ideal serving temperature is 16-18 degrees C. (61-64° F.). If the temperature is too high, it risks suffocating the alcohol in the bouquet; if it is too low, the acidity will lose its equilibrium. No less important is the choice of the correct goblet. To exploit a Chianti Classico wine to the maximum and exalt the bouquet, a tulip shaped goblet is necessary. The rim should taper slightly inward. A young wine requires a smaller goblet, while a Riserva needs a more ample glass.