What is Chianti, really? Chianti Classico and the black rooster, explained

A full-bodied look at this delicious red wine

Published September 4, 2022 5:00PM (EDT)

 (Rocky Luten / Food52)
(Rocky Luten / Food52)

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Scanning the wine list at an Italian restaurant, you might pick Chianti strictly out of familiarity, especially if you're new to wine. After all, you've probably wandered past a dozen or so bottles labeled "Chianti" at your local wine shop. You may remember the jug your grandparents used to bring out for pasta night. And perhaps you've noticed that some bottles sport a distinctive black rooster, even if you don't know why.

Long prized by wine geeks, Chianti Classico is making a comeback of sorts, thanks in part to its producers' zealous pursuit of quality winemaking. Chianti Classico's sales have climbed over the last two years, most likely fueled by wine producers' efforts to promote the region and highlight its differences from other appellations in Chianti.

Here's a bit about the wine, the rooster, and a few inexpensive bottles of Chianti Classico that express the incredible range of its wine producers.

The birth of Chianti Classico

Wait — is Chianti a wine or a place? Actually, it's both: Chianti is a mountainous Tuscan wine-growing region. Cosimo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany, legally established its borders in 1716, demarcating the area we now know as Chianti Classico, aka "old Chianti." (At the time, "Chianti Classico" was just "Chianti," and the wines made there were called — you guessed it — "Chianti.") The new legal designation was created in response to the area's reputation for quality. Its wines were known to make frequent cameos on royal tables throughout Europe, and its producers were keen to protect their interests.

However, no one consistently enforced the rules for who could use the name "Chianti" on wine. Since any winemaker could produce "Chianti" and trade on the region's long-established reputation, in the 19th and 20th centuries, many winemakers outside of Chianti did just that. Even winemakers as far abroad as California began to put the label "Chianti" on their wines and use the region's signature fiasco (those famously round, straw-clad wine bottles). As subpar producers jumped on the Chianti bandwagon, its standing among wine drinkers began to slip.

In 1932 the Italian government created a new law limiting which areas could use the Chianti name, as a response to pressure from regional winemakers. Much to the anger of producers from Chianti's traditional boundaries, however, this law also expanded Chianti to include surrounding regions that historically weren't considered part of it. Fortunately for those within Chianti's original boundaries, the law allowed them to use a new, exclusive label: Chianti Classico.

What about that rooster?

The black rooster, or gallo nero, is the symbol of Chianti Classico, a subregion of the larger Chianti production zone with a centuries-old tradition of quality winemaking. In 1924, a consortium of winegrowers in the original Chianti zone began using the black rooster motif — originally adopted by the Chianti League, a medieval military organization founded to defend the region's political borders — as their emblem. In 2005, the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico ("Chianti Classico Wine Consortium") chose the rooster to appear on the label of all Chianti Classico wines. Today, any bottle of real-deal Chianti Classico will feature a black rooster label. For the record, no one else is permitted to use this insignia.

Chianti Classico also maintains stricter winemaking laws than the larger Chianti region, regulating planting density, alcohol level, aging, flavor characteristics, and many other factors. Recent laws have added two special classifications: Riserva, which must age for a minimum of 24 months, and Gran Selezione, for which grapes must come from a single estate and age for a minimum of 30 months.

American "exceptionalism"

Occasionally, you might find a bottle of wine labeled "Chianti" that — surprise! — isn't from Italy, let alone Chianti. How is this possible? Oddly enough, these labels are legal because of a loophole in an agreement between the U.S. and the European Union about how U.S. wine producers can label their wine. Americans were once allowed to use European place names on their labels; many stateside winemakers used them to indicate the style of the wine. (A hearty red might go by "Bordeaux," while a crisp white might be "Chablis.")

A 2006 trade agreement made this practice illegal, but many wines were grandfathered in, including California jug wine behemoth Carlo Rossi's famous "Chianti." Grown in sunny, pancake-flat Modesto — far from Tuscany's famous hills — Rossi's version doesn't taste much like the real thing.

How Chianti Classico is made

In the U.S., we tend to talk about wine in terms of grape varieties: "I love Pinot Noir," or "Chardonnay's my favorite." In Europe, though, wine is all about place. Every region boasts unique features and winemaking traditions that lend different flavors to wine grapes.

Take elevation, for instance: Chianti Classico's vineyards are, on average, 350 meters above sea level. Those higher altitudes means that there's more atmospheric pressure, resulting in cooler air and allowing grapes to ripen more slowly. Cooling sea breezes also help to temper Tuscany's heat. While warm days are important to help grapes ripen fully and develop their characteristically intense flavors, these cooling influences along with nightly temperature drops help to preserve grapes' natural acidity and lengthen the growing season for added complexity.

Then there's the land itself — Chianti Classico's soils include clay-limestone composite albarese and rocky clay-schist mixture galestro, which help to regulate the vineyards' temperature and water retention.

Finally, there are the grapes. Chianti wines largely comprise a grape called Sangiovese. Tough to grow and fond of warm climates, Sangiovese is an acidic, thin-skinned grape. In Chianti, it typically becomes a tart, tannic, bold red wine with notes of cherry, plum, and garden herbs. With age, it can develop savory notes like soy sauce or salami.

Chianti owes much of its current flavor to Bettino Ricasoli, a 19th-century Italian landowner and politician who popularized the (then lesser-known, now regionally dominant) Sangiovese grape. Though Ricasoli's recipe for Chianti differs from today's highly regulated incarnation of the wine, Sangiovese still comprises most (and occasionally all) of the blend.

Basic Chianti must be made from at least 70% Sangiovese grapes, while Chianti Classico must be at least 80% Sangiovese. The rest can be a mix of a limited number of grapes, such as native Italian grapes like Canaiolo or international varieties like Merlot.

The winemaking process also affects Chianti Classico's flavors. Wines that remain in contact with the grape skins for longer periods during winemaking tend to feature more robust tannins and a deeper color, while those made with less skin contact have a lighter, more approachable style. Aging in oak — traditionally in large, old barrels, but sometimes in small, new ones for a stronger oak flavor — can add flavors of baking spice and vanilla.

Chianti Classico to try this year

Here are a few bottles I recommend to first-time Chianti Classico drinkers, all of which ring in around $20–$25.

Villa Calcinaia 2018 Chianti Classico

This Chianti Classico pours a deep, dark ruby and features a nose of intense blackberry. Fermented at 84° F, the wine is full-bodied, with ripe fruit on the palate, and prominent tannins. (Higher temperatures extract more color and tannin.) The alcohol level is a whopping 14.5%, thanks to south-facing vineyards that soak in the Tuscan sun, but the wine remains refreshingly acidic despite its weight and intensity. It might be the wine you're looking for if you're serving rich, fatty, savory foods such as steak or pork.

Canonica Di Cerreto 2015 Chianti Classico Riserva

Ripe, rich, and full-bodied, with 18 months of oak aging, this wine could be the ideal gateway Chianti for drinkers more accustomed to ripe, hot California Cabs. With its notes of wet stone, ripe black plum, black cherry, and baking spice, this fruit-forward Riserva offers ripe tannins and balanced acidity, and clocks in at 14.5% alcohol.

Pomona 2018 Chianti Classico

In contrast, this wine features more savory, less fruit-forward flavors. With notes of olive, herbs, tea, bramble, and sour cherry, this wine ends with an edge of pleasant bitterness. Its elegant, fine-grained tannins and reserved style wouldn't overpower delicate pasta or fish courses.

Ruffino 2018 "Riserva Ducale" Chianti Classico Riserva

Another savory, earthy Chianti Classico. Aged for 24 months in large oak casks and concrete vats, this Riserva features a delicate body, elegant tannins, mouthwatering acidity, and flavors of cranberry, tart cherry, bramble, and a hint of soy sauce. The wine's alcohol content — 14% — is well integrated enough that it slips into the background.

By Andrew Triska

MORE FROM Andrew Triska

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