07/12/2012 12:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Chianti: Vast Region Makes Vast Improvements

Vineyards in Chianti Classico region

Quality improvement has been the watchword for most of the wine world over the past few decades. As a result, those of us who love wine have access to better wines, from virtually all regions, than we've ever had before.

A vast, region-wide example of conscious planning to make better wines is the huge project that the leading organization of Chianti producers in Italy, the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico, launched nearly 25 years ago.

Called "Chianti 2000," the project, which ultimately lasted 16 years, began in 1988. Its aim was to help the region make better wines by planting experimental vineyards throughout the region to assess the impact on wine of different rootstocks, planting densities, vine training methods and soil management techniques. Its most important mission, however, was to select the best clones of the primary Chianti grapes for replanting.

Chianti is made primarily from Sangiovese. The percentage requirements have changed a lot over the past 45 years, since the original DOC rules allowed up to 30 percent white grapes. Frustration with those old rules helped spark the development of non-conforming wines in this region, which came to be known as Super Tuscans. See my earlier post on the Super Tuscan legacy for more background on that development.

Currently, Chianti has to contain a minimum of 70 percent Sangiovese. Up to 30 percent of the blend can consist of other varieties, with a maximum of 10 percent being white varieties and 15 percent international varieties, predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Canaiolo and Colorino are two of the traditional blending grapes in the region -- softer, rounder red grapes, used to balance the highly acidic and tannic Sangiovese.

Sangiovese bunches

In searching for the best grape clones, 239 presumed clones were tested, of which 34 proved to be virus free. After analyzing the grapes and wine made from those grapes under a variety of climatic conditions for many years, some proved to have consistently smaller berries, thicker skins and more open bunches. The first two are desirable qualities for fine wine in general, creating a higher solids to juice ratio. The last quality, more open bunches, was particularly an improvement for Sangiovese, which normally has a tendency to grow in very tight bunches, preventing the entry of sunlight and even overall ripening. In 2004, seven clones of Sangiovese and one of Colorino that had these characteristics were selected and registered in the national grape-variety registry as "Chianti Classico 2000.″

A significant amount of replanting with these clones has already occurred, and it's estimated that 60 percent of the vineyard area of the Chianti region will have been replanted in a period of 10 years.

We're talking a truly vast region -- almost a 100-mile-long area taking in much of Tuscany and portions of the provinces of Pisa, Florence and Arezzo. This is larger than the entire region of Bordeaux.

There are eight subzones of Chianti. The original area, most of which was designated as far back as 1716, is in the Chianti hills between Florence and Siena. This is the Chianti Classico region, which has more stringent requirements than other subzones. Among other things, Classicos have stricter yield restrictions, longer aging requirements (a minimum of seven months in oak) and must contain at least 80 percent Sangiovese and no white grapes.

The two other subregions gaining a reputation for high quality and ageworthy wines are Chianti Rùfina, east of the city of Florence, and Chianti Colli Senesi, in the hills above Siena.

Chianti may be labeled Riserva if it meets certain aging requirements. For Chianti Classico, this means a minimum of 24 months, including three in bottle. Outside of Chianti Classico, Riservas must be aged at least 38 months. Chianti from sub-regions other than Chianti Classico can be designated as Superiore if it meets more stringent requirements as to yields, alcohol and dry extract levels, and contains a minimum of 75 percent Sangiovese.

Now that wines containing these improved grapes are coming online, a major trade tasting sponsored by the Consorzio Vino Chianti this past Spring seemed like a great opportunity to compare wines from different producers, including many that are lesser known or without U.S. distribution as yet, as well as to compare wines from the different Chianti subregions.

The results were generally strong, helping, along with other excellent Chianti Classicos I've had in recent years, to put to rest memories of the thin, orangey, acidic wines of my youth that came in the bulbous, wicker covered bottles -- known as fiascos.

Traditional Chianti fiasco bottle

The Chiantis I tasted from 45 producers at the Consorzio event had bright aromas of red fruits and flowers, and sometimes spices, like cinnamon. They generally tasted of red fruits, like currants and cherries, some showing also herbs, or dried fruits. They all had high acidities. These are the kinds of wines that, due to their acidity, pair better than any other red wines with tomato based dishes, as well as with salamis and beef dishes.

The best Chianti Classicos I've had to date have been from Antinori, Badia a Caltibuono, Barone Ricasoli, Castello di Ama, Castello La Leccia, Fontodi, La Massa, Querciabella and San Vincenti. I've also had very good Chianti Rùfina from Frescobaldi and Selvapiana.

For more recommended producers, and for my complete tasting notes on 143 wines from Chianti producers, including Super Tuscan wines and sweet Vin Santo wines made by these producers, see the complete report on my blog here.