The Chianti landscape

Chianti is one of Italy's most famous wine regions. Those unfamiliar with the wines may have seen the old-fashioned wicker bottles turned into candle holders in your local trattoria or know the reference in the film Silence of The Lambs.

Chianti is a delimited region in Tuscany, first defined in the 14th century, although wine has been produced here since the time of the Etruscans.

The wine is produced mainly from Sangiovese, one of Italy's noblest and most widely planted black grape varieties. This vine is renowned for making wines with crisp acidity, sour cherry notes, and complex aromas.

The region is subdivided into seven subzones, each with its character. Within the borders of this region, there is another region that is classified separately: Chianti Classico. This suffix indicates that the wine comes from the 'heartland' of Chianti: the part of viticulture's historical centre. Here, you will find beautiful hilltop towns and deep valleys. Classico is located between the cities of Florence in the north and Siena in the south.

Geography is not the only difference between the two. Let us examine the shared and differing characteristics.

Villa Rosa Chianti Classico Ribaldoni

Are they made from the same grape variety?

Yes, in large. Sangiovese (the name is said to be a contraction of sangue di giove—the 'blood of Jupiter') must constitute between 70% and 100% of basic Chianti, whereas it must be 80 to 100% of Chianti Classico. The other varieties can pretty much be anything else as long as they are not aromatic and are traditionally found in the region. Typically, you would find traditional varieties such as Ciliegiolo, Colorino, and Malvasia Nera, alongside international varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. In my opinion, these international varieties corrupt the style a little, although there are many great examples.

Do they taste the same?

They share many characteristics, particularly Sangiovese's distinct sour cherry notes. Where they differ is in the degree of richness and concentration. Chianti Classico is made from the best vineyards, normally with lower yields, and aged in some form of barrel, be it a large cask of 25 - 50 hectolitres or a small 225-litre barrique.

Are they different in quality?

Typically, yes. Chianti Classico is a much more ambitious and refined wine. You could expect to pay around £10 - £15 for a good single-estate Chianti, whereas Chianti Classico is around £15 - £30. Classico is built for ageing and improving over many years.

Are there any other styles that I should be aware of?

Both Chianti and Chianti Classico have Riserva versions, which are typically aged a little longer before being released to the market. Most of the time, they will be from better parcels of vineyards or perhaps the best barrels in the cellar. Since 2014, there has been a new classification of Chianti Classico: Gran Selezione. This is higher quality, made from stricter rules, and must be assessed for quality and typicity before approval. Gran Selezione tends to be pricey but competes in quality with other great Tuscan and Italian reds, such as Brunello di Montalcino.

How do I recognise the difference on the label?

Chianti and Chianti Classico will each be distinguished on the label. One further point of reference is the black cockerel (gallo nero) logo on the neck or back label of Chianti Classico. This symbolises membership of the Consorzio, or growers' association of Chianti Classico.

Is there anything else I should look out for?

When buying wines like these, always look for single-estate wines. This is how the best wines can be discovered. There are countless great producers in the region. Here is a list of the producers, not an exhaustive one, that we follow: Villa Cerna, Villa Rosa, Fontodi, Selvapiana, and Castello di Ama.

The various communes in Classico each produce their own style of wine: it is worth exploring these and finding out which suits you best.