I have never been to Italy and it is not to say that I will never go, but about six years ago Italy came to me through a bottle of Castellare di Castellina, a great value wine from the Chianti region of central Tuscany. For me, this was my first taste of an Italian wine from the wonderful picturesque slopes of Tuscany. Importantly, over the years my wine experience with Chianti wines has increased, but I won’t pretend that I know what I am talking about when describing its characteristics and taste. Though I will say that for someone like me, who is fussy about red wine and aftertaste, Chianti is surprisingly a very approachable wine. But don’t expect me to just simply sit and enjoy the aroma and taste of wine in general without daydreaming about its origins. Is it not fun to sometimes learn something new about the history of wine from a region, rather than being told by a critic how a wine might taste under the palate, or how a particular wine might smell of fresh flowers such as rose and violets? Come on, give me a break ! Let’s take a brief trip down memory lane.
Italy as a geographical region has been famous for their wines for centuries. Archaeological evidence suggests that the vine was systematically cultivated in Italy first by the Etruscans and then closely followed by the Greeks. Though it was under the yoke of the Romans that viticulture and winemaking really took off. Furthermore, as winemaking began to grow, so did the development of the wine trade as a very profitable business. The most important centre of the wine trade in Italy had always been Pompeii. Wines from Pompeii reached ports and towns as far off as Bordeaux in Gaul (France). However, when the city was destroyed in 79 CE, viticulture spread heavily across all parts of the empire out of necessity. In Italy itself, winemakers went berserk using almost all the cultivable land available, especially in the regions around Lazio and Tuscany. Only a history enthusiast like myself will appreciate that this almost comical situation prompted the Emperor Domitian to forbid the planting of any further vineyards. I have got to say, what a killjoy! (It would be some two hundred years before this ban was lifted.)
Sangiovese grapes are the main ingredient of classic Chiantis.
With the fall of the Roman Empire, wine growing and production declined but its traditions didn’t die and were kept up mainly by rural farmers and monasteries. Later wine re-emerged with the rise of the city-states of Genoa, Florence and Venice. The financiers who helped revive the wine trade were especially fond of viticultural regions such as Piedmont and Tuscany. It was in these regions that vine varieties such as Borolo, Brunello and Chianti were first developed.
Interestingly, Chianti as a wine dates back to the thirteenth century, though by 1716 strict rules of what could be classified as a Chianti were legislated by the Duke of Tuscany. Some bottles of Chianti today will have ‘Classico’ on the label, which indicates that the grapes of these bottles comes from one of the four original villages, that were officially recognized as the only producers of Chianti in 1716. Notably today Chianti bottles also carry a special “Controlled designation of origin” (DOC) seal. Of course, what ultimately makes Chianti wines world famous and adorable is the sangiovese grape, which is typically the main ingredient of Chianti wines.
Photo credits: The header image of a Chianti region vineyard and winery is used under the Creative Commons Atrribution 2.0 license. The image of Sangiovese grapes is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.
I originally wrote this article in 2014 for Sean Munger‘s website. It has been updated here with some minor changes.