The experts often tell us that Chianti and Chianti Classico are two very similar wines with substantial differences. A bit like a lot of twins: the resemblance is clear, but personality-wise, they could not be more different. Let’s try to get into specifics and understand exactly what changes across these two wines.
Both come from one of Italy’s most important grapes: Sangiovese. But neither of them is usually pure 100% Sangiovese: both are blended – to different degrees – with other grapes such as Canaiolo, Colorino, Merlot or Syrah. This is one of the big differences between them: the percentage of other grapes that are used. A normal Chianti might be 70% Sangiovese and 30% other varieties; in Chianti Classico the numbers change. In order to call itself a Classico, a Chianti must be composed of at least 80% Sangiovese.
The second difference, meanwhile, has to do with the geographical area. The Chianti Classico zone is extremely limited in comparison to the vast stretches of the Chianti more broadly. If we go back to the famous edict from Cosimo III, the area it delimited was called “Classico” because it was considered the best place to cultivate vines. From this, many extrapolate that “Classico” also denotes the best wines.
So where is the area in which Chianti becomes Classico?
In order to be considered a Classico, the grapes have to be grown in one of the following municipalities: Castellina in Chianti, Gaiole in Chianti, Greve in Chianti, Radda in Chianti e in parte quelli di Barberino Val d’Elsa, Castelnuovo Berardenga, Poggibonsi, San Casciano in Val di Pesa and Tavarnelle Val di Pesa. Maybe we should put them in geographical order, going from south to north in order to give pride of place to our municipality, Castelnuovo…
For real connoisseurs, there’s a further distinction: we have Chianti Classico Riserva and Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. The difference here is all in the aging process. After maturation, Chianti Classico normally has to be kept at least 12 months in the bottle. This stage is known as “refinement” and follows on naturally from the aging process, which takes place in barrels. A Chianti Classico Riserva, on the other hand, has to refine for 24 months in the bottle, while a Chianti Classico Gran Selezione needs 30 months of refinement. The Gran Selezione, moreover, is made from grapes that come from a single vineyard, and only the most select grapes at that.
One final curiosity: the Chianti and Chianti Classico denominations turned 300 in 2016. Cosimo III de’ Medici’s decree in 1716 is considered their official birthday.