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In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses the origins of Sangiovese and Chianti. Beavers discusses the history of Sangiovese from its origins in Tuscany, as well as its many nicknames. However, what listeners will learn most about is Chianti, the popular wine made from the Sangiovese grape.
Beaver explains how Chianti came to be a central winegrowing region in Italy, dating back to the 18th century, and how it rose to popularity in the 1970s — appearing in popular films such as “Shaft” and “Silence of the Lambs.” Further, Beavers explains the emergence of the Chianti Classico DOCG in the late ‘80s.
Tune in to learn more and become an expert on Sangiovese and Chianti.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and I think I’ve watched all of HGTV. Like, all of it. I need something else.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 19 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast, Season 2. My name is Keith Beavers. I’m the tastings director of VinePair. Sup?
OK, so we did an episode on Tuscany last season. It was to get a nice, rounded idea about Tuscany, and in that episode, we talked about Sangiovese and we talked about how it’s different. It produces different styles of wine, depending on where it’s growing in Tuscany. It’s a very interesting variety, but it’s not an interesting variety in that it mutates and it clones itself and all this stuff. No. What’s unique about Sangiovese is that there are really two kinds of Sangiovese. There’s Sangiovese Grosso, a big fat grape. Then, there’s Sangiovese Piccolo, a little grape.
The majority of the wines that we drink come from Sangiovese Grosso, the big fat grape. But the thing is, Sangiovese Grosso grows throughout Tuscany, but the people who produce wines from that grape call it something different, even just in Tuscany itself. In Montalcino in Tuscany, they call Sangiovese Grosso, Brunello. In the town of Montepulciano, where they make Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, they call it Prugnolo Gentile. And in the Tuscan region of Morellino di Scansano, they call it Morellino. It can be confusing. I know I say it a lot in wine. It can be confusing. Why is wine so confusing?
Well, the thing is, wine is ancient. Oh my gosh, it’s so ancient in so many cultures, townships, and communes throughout Italy, throughout the world. All the synonyms for the grapes, it’s just insane. The thing is, during feudal systems and sharecropping, there is pride in all these towns. It seems to me that they name the grape, and they could care less whether another town calls it something else. This is what they’re going to call it. And that’s just how this works throughout the history of wine in general. In Tuscany, it’s a little bit crazy because it went from one town to the next. Sometimes the variety that’s being used is the same variety but has a different name. And it can be crazy.
Just like other old varieties like Pinot Noir, Sangiovese is thought to be ancient. The first documentation of Sangiovese is from a treatise on the viticulture of Tuscany in 1600 by a dude named Giovan Vettorio Soderini. In it, he says, “il sangiogheto, aspro a mangiare, ma sugoso e pienissimo di vino” which generally means “the Sangiogheto, bitter to eat but juicy and venous.” This is the first documentation of Sangiovese but it’s really the first documentation of the synonym of Sangiovese.
The story goes that, in the region of Emilia-Romagna, which is north and east of Tuscany, there is a town called Rimini. Just outside of that town is a mountain called Montegiove. And in the foothills of that mountain was a — wait for it — monastery! Yep, the monks. And here, the monks were making wine. And the wine they made, they called vino, which basically just means wine in Italian. When asked what this wine was, they thought for a second and they said “sanguis Jovis”, which means the blood of Jupiter. Sangiovese came from that.
Eventually, it’s thought to be also a reference to the blood of Jove. Sangiogheto is a synonym of whatever happened there. Sangiovese isn’t only important in Tuscany. This whole story happened in a region just outside of Tuscany. Sangiovese is really the workhorse of central Italy in general. In Umbria, it is blended in a DOC or a wine region called Montefalco. It’s often blended with a grape called Sagrantino, a very big, powerful variety that softens it a little bit.
In the region of Le Marche, there are two very well-known red wines there, Rosso Piceno and Rosso Conero, and they are also Sangiovese, blending with a grape called Montepulciano. Not the town, but the grape. It’s also being used more and in Lazio, which is where Rome is. And here’s a fun little fact, if you guys ever come across Corsican wine — yeah, we should sometime do an episode on Corsican wine. It’s pretty cool. They make wine from Sangiovese there. But there they call it Nielluccio. Yeah, it’s crazy. It’s good and it’s awesome. They do great rosés with it, too.
Now every town, every region that produces wine from Sangiovese is awesome. Everyone has their own unique spin on this variety. It’s beautiful, and that’s all in the Tuscan episode. Yet, what you and I know more than any other wine made from Sangiovese in Italy is Chianti. This wine has had a presence in our culture for a long time. I remember as a kid, in the early ‘80s, going to this Italian restaurant with my parents. They loved it so much, it was called Mom and Pop. They had basket wine bottles. They’re called fiaschi. There were Chianti bottles with the baskets on them, and that was the candleholder.
Even as far back as the ‘70s, it made it into film. You have “Shaft,” an amazing film. When Shaft goes in to talk to the local Italian crime boss, the dude is sitting there sipping on a nice Chianti. I mean it was a basket wine, but in the ‘70s, it was considered good stuff. Of course, we had to get this out of the way: “A census taker once tried to test me. *I ate his liver with fava beans in a nice Chianti” — creepy murder doctor Hannibal Lecter, “Silence of the Lambs.”
Yeah. I don’t know where you are in age or pop culture, but that scene is one of the most famous scenes from the movie and one of the most famous scenes in film history. And what’s really interesting is in the book, he has this fava beans with the liver, with an Amarone, which is actually a red wine from the northern part of Italy. But because Chianti was so ingrained in our minds, the people writing the script decided to put Chianti in there instead of Amarone so we would be familiar with it. Sure enough, that line is basically timeless.
And even though we, in the United States, have had an intimate relationship with Chianti for such a long time, it still confuses us. It’s confusing because, guys, Chianti is complicated. It’s really complicated. If I had an entire episode to tell you the history of this place, it would blow your mind.
The city of Florence, which is very close to the Chianti wine region — which we’re going to get into in a second — I think between the 14th and the 16th century was the center of the world. This is where the birth of the Renaissance happened, some of the most famous glassmakers in the world were in Florence. The stories, the history, and the documentation are pretty immense. Just the story of Florence and its history with its rival city just to the south, Siena, includes Chianti and the wines from this region. These are awesome stories for another time because we’re here to talk about wine. Let’s get deep in the hills of Chianti and understand this place.
In the center part of Tuscany, there is a major town called Florence, which you guys all know. And then south of that city is a city called Siena. Between the town of Florence and the town of Siena, are these mountainous hills there called the Chianti or the Chianti Hills or the Chianti Mountains. It’s thought that viticulture goes all the way back to the Etruscans, which came before the Greeks. Actually, the Greeks came to Italy, and they saw the Etruscans. The Etruscans freaked out the Greeks because of their hedonism. It’s wild. I just wanted to tell you about that.
I mention the Etruscans because I’ve always been so fascinated with the word Chianti, in that I don’t know what it means and it’s very hard to figure out what it means. The only thing I could really find is that the Etruscans are thought to name this area, Clante. I don’t know what that means, but Clante? Chianti? It makes sense. If anybody knows any Italian etymologists that can help me out, would be awesome. However, the word Chianti first shows up in documents in the late 1330s. That seals the deal for Chianti. Well, the name at least because this document doesn’t name wine so much, it just calls this area the Chianti Hills.
By the 18th century, this area was known for wine. There are three townships in the Chianti Hills: Castellina, Radda, and Gaiole. At this time, Chianti was applied to these three townships. Also what’s interesting is these three townships are under the jurisdiction of Florence, and they formed what was called the League of Chianti, which was a guard against the town or city of Siena at the time. There was a rivalry, and a pretty storied rivalry at that. If you remember in the Portugal episode, we talked about the Douro Valley and how it was one of the first attempts at demarcating or creating some controlled appellation because of the popularity of the wine to combat fraud and to maintain the authenticity of the wines coming out of that region because of all the money that was being made there.
This is the same thing that happened in 1716 in the Chianti Hills. The three initial townships — Radda, Castellina, and Gaiole — were demarcated as Chianti, the wine-growing and winemaking region, by Cosimo III, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. In these hills with high-ish elevation in this very well-known famous soil called galestro with some limestone and clay, there’s a short list of native varieties that are being used to make wine around this time — most of them red, some of them white, often blended together for red. You had Sangiovese, there was a grape called Ciliegiolo, which is actually related to Sangiovese. Also, there is a grape called Mammolo and a grape called Canaiolo. Those are the red wine grapes. For white wine, there’s a group called Trebbiano, which is all over central Italy, and a grape called Malvasia, which we’ve mentioned before in other previous episodes.
There wasn’t a rhyme or reason and there weren’t any rules or regulations. Toward the end of the 19th century, there was this dude named Baron Bettino Ricasoli. In 1872, he wrote a letter saying that he had synthesized 10 years of experimentation. And what he’s found is that the Sangiovese grape is the best grape to use as the base of the Chianti blend. For aging wines, he found that Sangiovese’s aroma profile and its vigorous acidity, blended with a little bit of Canaiolo, was the best way to make age-worthy Chianti. For younger wines, he kept that little formula going, but he thought, “You know what? Add a little bit of Malvasia. Add a little bit of white wine. It really is nice.”
This formula or this idea caught on. And basically, this guy — and his family still makes wine to this day — is the inventor of modern Chianti. From the 18th century to the 1930s, this is what Chianti was: three townships basically carrying the Chianti name, but it’s spreading out more and more. People started to adhere to this new Chianti formula. The identity of Chianti was coming into itself. By the 1930s, this wine was becoming very popular, so the Italian government decided they were going to extend the Chianti zone. They’re going to name different subzones to capitalize on what was happening here. And to the dismay of the original townships, the government extended these subzones to basically surround the original area.
To this day, there are seven of them. Chianti is the prefix, and then the geographical location comes after that. I’m not going to get into all of them, but I’m going to name some of them right now so you can get a sense of them. Colli Fiorentini, Rufina, Montalbano, Colli Aretini, Colline Pisane, and Montespertoli. And you’ll often see it on the wine label. It’ll say Chianti in big letters, and underneath it it’ll have the geographical location. This extends the Chianti zone to about 40,000 acres, give or take. It’s a very large area.
In the 1960s, when Italy was creating its own appellation-controlled system that was based on the French appellations system, they went to Chianti and they saw how popular the ricasoli formula was. When they gave Chianti its DOC, that is the blend that became a regulation for Chianti: Sangiovese, Canaiolo, and Malvasia. They also added other varieties in there: Mammolo, Ciliegiolo, and also Trebbiano. With such a large area and with some economic troubles in the region, the trend of Chianti wines went towards quantity, not quality. Of course, there was quality being made during this time, but until the early 1980s, it got pretty bad as far as people taking advantage of a good thing. The famous Fiaschi basket wine we see in “Shaft” was eventually seen as just not very good wine. It was very thin. There was a lot of white wine in it, and it was giving Chianti a bad rap. To this day, Chianti basket wine is mainly known as a candle holder. Am I right?
And it wasn’t only basket wine that was compromised. There was a lot of wine coming into the United States and just being distributed throughout the world in which the quality wasn’t there.
In 1984, the government said “OK, we’re going to elevate the Chianti region from a DOC to a DOCG. We’re going to have stricter rules put in place. Now, we’re restricting the amount of white wine you can use and doing all these things to make sure the quality of Sangiovese is sound.” And I gotta say, they made some good decisions.
From 1984 on, Chianti really began to improve. But we have to think about that original township area. Remember I said, to the dismay of that area, all these other little sub-zones were created? Well, they’re still pretty mad. Or should I say, the quality-minded winemakers in the area were mad. This initiated what was called the Chianti Classico 2000 Project, which was a project of studying the soils and all the things in that center heartland, that area that started it all.
In 1996, that area of Chianti became Chianti Classico — its own DOCG, its own autonomous wine-growing region, not a subregion of Chianti. For the longest time, it was just a subzone. It was called Chianti Classico as in, this is where it all began. It was part of the seven subzones that were created in the 1930s, but it was considered Chianti Classico. It didn’t really have a geographical name to it. Now, Chianti Classico is its own thing. It’s made up of about nine communes. I’m not going to list the communes here because it’s not that important. I mean, the communes are important, absolutely. But for you as a wine buyer and consumer in the United States, the communes are not something that’s going to help you find wine, because the Chianti Classico region does not allow for the communes to be put on the label. You’re just going to see Chianti Classico. I’m sure the communes are somewhere in the small print on the back label. Also, something to know is that Castellina, Radda, and Gaiole are still part of the center of Chianti Classico.
Wine-wise, what is Chianti? Chianti is basically two appellations. You have the heartland of it all where it all began, the Chianti Classico zone. It’s its own zone. It has its own rules. They tend to be a little more strict than the larger Chianti area. Then you have the larger Chianti DOCG. That Chianti has seven subzones that have actual geographical names attached to the Chianti word. Outside of that area is just Chianti proper. If you see a wine that just says Chianti on it, it’s coming from anywhere outside of these zones, but it’s still in Chianti. And whether you’re in Chianti proper, geographical Chianti, or Chianti Classico, Sangiovese is the primary variety used in the blends.
In international varieties, which are basically French varieties — Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot — they’ve always been allowed in the Chianti region. And for a long time, they were being used not heavily, but they were used to attract the American palate. In addition to that, using significant oak exposure to get that vanilla spice thing going. That trend is starting to dip a little bit. We’re starting to see more older varieties being used in the blend and less Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, even in the smaller amounts. We’re starting to see wines with less oak influence coming out of Chianti. That’s really where Chianti began. The wines of Chianti are red with a medium-bodied perception. They are tangy with great acidity, and that’s what Sangiovese wants to give you. Then, you put a little Canaiolo and Mammulo in there, and it gets a little bit earthy. It makes for an amazing food wine. Steak Florentine with Chianti? Just forget about it!
In Chianti proper, they still blend a little bit of white wine into their wine sometimes. It’s winemaker to winemaker, whatever they want to do. You won’t see white wine being blended into Chianti Classico anymore. They outlawed that stuff.
And even though there’s so much more to talk about — diving into the Classico communes, diving into the geographical areas, getting a little more history going, getting a little more context of things — this is just your roundabout Chianti 101. Now you can get a good sense of what you’re drinking, what you’re looking at, and not feeling too overwhelmed. Because man, Chianti is complicated.
@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’ shoutout to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, a big shoutout 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 everyday. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.