Wine 101: Italy Region Deep Dives: Chianti

This episode of “Wine 101” features Maze Row Wine Merchant’s esteemed partner, Brancaia, a winery located in the centuries-old wine region of Tuscany, Italy — the subject of our deep dive today. Brancaia has crafted an acclaimed complex wine that has captured the Tuscan identity in terroir for over 40 years. This is where wine meets world history. We’re talking Renaissance, architecture, medieval cities, ancient vines. To try Brancaia follow the link in the episode description to where you’ll find a Chianti Classico and a critically acclaimed Tre Red Blend

In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers explains the Chianti wine region. Follow along as he dives into the Chianti DOCG and its multitude of sub-appellations. Tune in for more.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers and what’s really stuck with me lately is — I was watching this cat documentary and they were saying cats haven’t changed in thousands of years and they’re still wild animals. So we have wild animals in our house? That’s cool.

What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair Podcast Network, this is “Wine 101.” My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of Vine Pair. And how are you? It’s time to take a deep breath. It’s time to just let it all soak in. We’re going to get Chianti down today. You and I. No more stress. All Chianti, all the time.

Okay. Here we are in the calmness of the Chianti episode. Okay. Yeah, no, that’s not working. I’ve had three espressos today. It’s very hard to be calm. I’m actually very excited because this is the Chianti episode. This is the episode where we’re going to dive deep and give you guys the deets of what you need to know to lower that barrier of entry to one of the most famous wine regions in the world — and one of the most famous wines we have on our American market. Before we get started, I would suggest… I mean, listen to this episode, but also listen to the Tuscany episode and also the Sangiovese/Chianti episode, because, in the Tuscany episode, I do a nice round overview of the region. And then in the Sangiovese/Chianti episode, I go over Sangiovese’s history and a little bit about Chianti that was within the context of that episode. And you’ll notice in those two episodes I don’t go really detailed into the sub-regions and Chianti Classico and all that, but that’s what we’re going to do here. Also, there might be a few things I don’t cover in this episode, but don’t worry because the next 10 episodes, including this episode, are all Italian. And the first tranche is all Tuscany.

We have a lot of cool stuff ahead of us, but today in this episode, we are deep into the Chianti hills. One thing to know about wines from Chianti is that over history, this region has changed multiple times and evolved in different ways to get to where we are today. And a lot of that stuff I will talk about in future episodes, but also you get some of that in the episodes that I suggested in the beginning of this episode. Whoa.

And even today, actually in a year from now, Chianti is going through yet another evolution or change, which we’ll get into. Like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Chianti is one of those big famous wine regions that we as Americans just know. We know Chianti so well. And Italian food, or Italian-American food, is one of the most popular cuisines we have in our culture as Americans. And in addition to that, year over year over year, the majority of wine being imported into the United States is primarily Italian wine, and a lot of that Italian wine is from Chianti. And when I say we know Chianti well, it’s culturally. As far as the details of that wine region, I often get people in a dizzy state going, “Look, I don’t understand. I know Chianti’s a wine, but that’s all I got.” So let’s simplify this a little bit and get you excited about it because it’s an exciting place for wine right now. In the history of Chianti, we’re in probably the best place to enjoy these wines.

Okay, let’s get into some Chianti deets here. If we were to do a drone shot above the Chianti hills, it would be beautiful. But also, you would see the Chianti hills, you’d see a big town to the north called Florence, and then you would see a big town to the south called Sienna. And all the hills that you see surrounding those two towns and going east and west from out and just all around, that is the Chianti DOCG. So for DOC and DOCG stuff, if that’s confusing for you, don’t worry, I’m going to get into a lot of that when we talk about super Tuscans coming up very soon.

And as we look down on these hills, just know that there are almost 40,000 acres under vine tucked into those hills. And the majority of the vines that grow in Chianti are the Sangiovese grape. But there are other native red wine grapes growing here as well, with names like Canaiolo, Colorino, and older varieties like Mammolo, and Ciliegiolo. But also in these hills — and they have been for a long time — you’ll find Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cab. Franc. Okay. So we have these hills, there’re tons of vines, and these are the varieties that grow in these hills, and if you were to train your eye smack dab in the middle of the Chianti hills, you would see what is called Chianti Classico. It is the place where it all began.

And what’s unique, interesting, and sometimes confusing is, remember when I said, when you’re looking at that whole area, it is the Chianti DOCG? Well, within the Chianti DOCG, there is another DOCG, and that is that center region, Chianti Classico. It almost exists separate from the rest of Chianti while sitting smack dab in the middle of Chianti.

Okay, so we see these two towns, one to the north, one to the south, and then we have, smack dab in the middle, a DOCG in the middle of this larger DOCG. So surrounding the Chianti Classico region right there in the middle are seven separate communes, or subzones, or sub-appellations of the Chianti DOCG region. Okay, now whether it’s the general Chianti DOCG, Chianti DOCG with one of the seven communes or subzones appended to the label, or the Chianti Classico region DOCG separate from everything else, no matter what, the primary variety is going to be Sangiovese. Because the way it works out in Chianti in general… It changes, but in general, 70 percent of any blend in the Chianti hills needs to be Sangiovese. In Sienna it’s 75, in Chianti Classico it’s 80, and I think it goes up to 90 as well for some tiers. But we don’t have to get into the minutiae of that. Just know that Sangiovese rules the day here in the largest part of a blend, no matter where you are. And fun fact: These days, you’re going to see more 100 percent Sangiovese than ever before. That’s why this is a really great time in Chianti.

There was a time in Chianti when they tried to sort of internationalize the wine — that’s probably not even a word — but they put a lot of oak on wine to kind of get it a little more into the American palate. But over the last 10, 15 years has been a move towards more high- acid, more fruit-forward, expressive wines. And that’s why I think it’s a really fun time for Chianti right now.

But other varieties like Canaiolo, Colorino, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, can also be blended into Chianti. But again, it’s not as often that they’re doing the French varieties anymore. They’re trying to go more towards keeping it as native variety as possible, but it changes dramatically from place to place. So we have the center Classico region and all these surrounding seven subzones. And one thing to know about these subzones is, the majority of them, well a lot of them hug the Chianti Classico area, but something to know about these is the majority of them are for weeknight wine. I mean, very good, extremely food-pairing-friendly wines that are best consumed in their youth.

Chianti — hot take here — Chianti doesn’t really age. It’s not one of the age-worthy wines that we have in the world. Yes, they do age between five and 10 years, sometimes 15. We’re kind of pushing it after that. But Classico is where the majority of the age-worthy stuff is. Outside of Chianti Classico, in these seven subzones, we are encountering very cool, fresh fruit-forward wines. There are exceptions, there’s always exceptions, but these are very general terms. This is why it’s really fun to go out there and try all these Chiantis.

Okay. Let’s get to the seven subzones. Okay. I’m going to try this out. If Florence is 12 o’clock and Sienna is 6 and we’re going clockwise, these are the seven sub-appellations of the Chianti DOCG: Chianti Rufina, Chianti Colli Aretini, Chianti Colli Senesi, Chianti Montespertoli, Chianti Colline Pisane, Chianti Montalbano, and then Chianti Colli Fiorentini. That last one is just south of Florence, so kind of cancels… It goes right to the noon hour. Does that make sense?

So like I said, the majority of these are going to be light, easy drinking… I mean, not light, but sort of medium-bodied with the cherry notes and the cranberries and all the beautiful things that tangy Chianti brings us. But there are a few of them like Chianti Rufina, which is north of Florence. It’s in a very high elevation, and often that area, those wines age a little bit. Also, in Sienna, the Colli Senesi all the way down the… Colli Senesi’s the hills of Siena and that’s where the vineyards are. And because it’s the most southern region, a subzone of Chianti, the wines are a little more plush. But most of the other ones are nice, fruity. Like Colli Pisane is actually almost a satellite region further towards the coast, actually. And then you have the Colli Fiorentini just south of Florence that was traditionally just to make wine for Florence because it’s such a huge city.

And even though there are general aging requirements in Chianti, each subzone, not all of them, but some of them, have their own specific ways of aging. And that’s not as important as the fact that they age the wines somewhat. A year sometimes, six months, eight months here. But they release them at the time at which they believe in their subzone that wines, on average, should be released. So by the time it gets to you, it’s right where it needs to be. And also, if you see a bottle of wine in a wine shop, it just says Chianti DOCG and nothing else, which means that the grapes for that wine could be sourced from any of the seven subzones. But if it says Chianti, and then it has the name of a commune, you know it’s coming from a specific, terroir-specific place.

And speaking of terroir-specific places, we have to talk about the other DOCG hang out in Chianti, the Chianti Classico region where it all began. Okay. So the thing about Chianti is the maximum elevation in Chianti is 2,300 feet above sea level. That is more than the highest region. Rufina goes up to, I think, 1,600 feet. So we have these very mountainous hills, and this is where, like I said, where it all began. And the Chianti Classico region, right now, like I said, things are going to change soon, but right now consists of nine communes. But this is the thing, you’re not going to see these communes prominently displayed on the wine label. They will be somewhere, but they won’t be prominently displayed. So, I can list them. I’ve been struggling to figure out whether I should list them or not, but I think I’m going to list them just to have them on record for the transcript so you guys can read it. But when it comes to enjoying it, I have other thoughts.

So here are the nine communes of Chianti Classico: Greve, San Casciano, Tavarnelle Val di Pesa, Barberino Val d’Elsa, Castellina, Poggibonsi, Radda, Gaiole, and Castelnuovo Berardenga. You’ll notice within that are the three originals from previous episodes. But the thing is, you’re not going to see these in the label. So the thing about Chianti is, it’s fun to pay attention to the different subzones that you’re buying and within Classico and stuff like that. It’s a lot of fun. And if you stick into one subzone for a while, you will get a sense of some terroir and styles. But Chianti changes so often and winemakers aren’t a monolith, they’re all different. So every subzone has generally a Sangiovese-base wine, but it could be different based on the varieties that they choose to blend with it, whether it’s a hundred percent Sangiovese. Maybe it’s in oak, maybe it’s raised in stainless steel. There’s so many different ways Chianti can come at you. So it’s more fun to just go through the subzones and try them. And if you’re going into the Chianti Classico thing, it’s the same thing.

There are actually, and I’ve crossreferenced this with Jedi wine master Jancis Robinson, but from what I understand, there are about 50 varieties you can use to blend in Chianti Classico. That is lunatic because the majority of the wines coming out of Chianti Classico are a hundred percent Sangiovese. These days they’ll blend international varieties and there are more than they would other national varieties because it’s Chianti Classico and they age longer, but that’s crazy. But one thing in Chianti Classico you are going to encounter is the tiers of “quality” in that region. And it’s changing, but I have to tell you about it now and then I need to tell you about what may happen in the future so you just have the information. It doesn’t really matter so much because this is all sort of internal. Chianti Classico, trying to define themselves.

For a long time, Chianti Classico was trying to create what would be called a cru system that is familiar with Burgundy, but the people of Chianti Classico rejected that and instead created this thing called gran selezione. And what that is, they created a third tier of quality in Chianti Classico. So you have Chianti Classico Rosso that needs to be aged for one year. Then you have Chianti Classico Riserva, that needs to be aged 24 months with three months in bottle. Now I don’t always like to go into aging requirements because you’re going to get a bottle when it’s ready on the American market. Or if it’s been aged where we can talk about vintages, but the reason I’m saying this is because the gran selezione was, when it was brought on board, I think it was 2012 when it was brought on board, what it said was if you want to have a gran selezione tier on your wine label, you have to have all varieties harvested on your estate, from your property. Nothing from other vineyards that you might have contracts with, and the aging requirement is 30 months instead of 24 months with three months in bottle. And I’m only bringing that up because it’s a new thing and the aging requirements are part of the new thing. But right now in Chianti Classico, they are creating what’s called the UGAs. Unità Geografiche Aggiuntive, which means the official additional geographic unit.

So they are moving closer to this cru system in Classico where they’ve approved 11 communes that would be specific terroir-driven spots, and seven of them are some of the original stuff that I mentioned before. I know this is very confusing. And to make it even more confusing, this UGA thing right now only applies to gran selezione. Nothing else. None of this is as important as going to your wine shop, understanding the subzones, the seven of them, understanding what Chianti Classico is, in that it ages more and it’s the original, and to have fun, cook food, drink Chianti. It is an absolute pleasure of a wine to consume and you have all of those subzones and two DOCGs to play with. That’s awesome. And that is Chianti.

I hope this overview helped you. I try to break it down piece by piece. If you have any questions, just hit me up on Insta. DM me @VinePairKeith. Let’s talk next week about Tuscany. There’s more Tuscany.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.