The Chianti Classico
As I sit on my front patio gazing at the hills of Chianti, soaking in the sunshine with the desperation of someone who knows that the Tuscan sun will turn to rain in the coming weeks, I’m glad to write about the famous region of Tuscany that I temporarily call home.
Historically speaking, the Chianti region of Tuscany was born when its borders (Florence to the north and Siena to the south) were formally drawn in 1716 by Cosimo III, the grand duke of Tuscany and a member of the famous Medici family that ruled the area for centuries. At the time, Chianti wines were already a great success. In the early 1900s, as the wine’s success continued to grow and producers outside of the original region began to market their wines as Chianti-style, the original Chianti vintners founded a consortium and created the black rooster symbol, which remains the trademark of Chianti Classico wines today. The “Classico” distinction tells you that the wine in fact comes from the original Chianti region.
Our most loyal readers may recall that I have already revealed my favorite Tuscan wine to be Brunello, produced in the dramatic countryside around Montalcino in Southern Tuscany. However, Chianti Classico remains high on my list. It is a very drinkable red, easily paired with any food. As with Brunello wines, Chianti Classico wines are regulated by the Italian government, and only compliant wines receive the label Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOGC), or controlled designation of origin guaranteed. Chianti Classico wines must consist of at least 80% sangiovese grapes, a delicate grape grown in vineyards that decorate the region. The other 20% may be another type of grape, such as merlot or cabernet. There are also rules about aging, and the lovely Chianti Riserva wines are the older ones.
On a recent rainy afternoon, I attended the 44th annual Chianti Classico wine festival in one of my favorite towns- Greve in Chianti. Greve is one of a handful of towns with “in Chianti” helpfully included in the name, lest you forget where you are. It is a quick 30-minute drive from Florence directly south into those rolling olive and grapevine covered hills that you visualize when you think of Tuscany. The town itself is quite small, with a very unassuming central piazza. But take a closer look, and you will find some of the best food and wine in Italy right in front of you. You are in Chianti central.
The Chianti Classico wine festival occurs over a 4-day period around the second weekend of September each year, rain or shine. There was only one day that worked for my schedule, and it was the one rainy day of the festival. I was undeterred. I zipped up my rain jacket, paid my entrance fee of €10, and dove in.
Here’s where I must admit that I am far from expert when it comes to Chianti wines. A novice like myself could easily be overwhelmed by the sheer number of wineries represented. However, each vintner I spoke with was friendlier and more helpful than the last. They were happy to tell their stories- many of the wineries have been in the same families for generations. I tasted some delicious wines that day, met some nice people (some tourist and some local) and enjoyed the original artwork displayed for the occasion around the piazza. But my favorite moment occurred right when I checked in. I was handed my beautiful glass, engraved with the logo for the 44th Expo del Chianti Classico, and then promptly handed a wineglass carrier to wear around my neck, so that I would not have to be bothered with actually carrying my glass. I suppose they overestimated the amount of wine I would consume that afternoon.
Lest you think that my adventures around Chianti only involve wine-drinking, let me tell you another story, which will probably not change your mind. While my husband Bob was still in town, we decided that the family should visit one of Tuscan Travel Group’s villas and spend the day exploring the Chianti region.
Casa Storica is a sprawling historic estate located right in the heart of Chianti, on the way from Florence to Siena, not far from San Gimignano. Between the main villa and 3 other buildings, it can house up to 32 people. An individual unit can also be rented to a group as small as a honeymooning couple.
This is one of those places where you check in and never want to leave. The grounds are stunning and the buildings are maintained and decorated with taste and obvious affection by the family that owns and has owned the property since the 17th century.
Prominently displayed in the view from Casa Storica, and within walking distance, is the medieval fortress-enclosed town of Monteriggioni. We ventured into town for a quick cappuccino and ended up staying longer to walk around amongst the tiny, charming shops.
Though we were tempted to stay for lunch, we decided to press on deeper into the rolling hills in search of a particular restaurant recommended highly by Tuscan Travel Group’s friend and blog contributor, Giovanni Nivino. When Mr. Nivino starts to talk about restaurants and wineries in the Chianti region, it’s time to stop and listen. From decades of travel to the region, lovingly seeking out the best family-owned places at the end of the most unassuming dirt roads, he is truly a Tuscan wine and food expert. On this day, we went to a place good enough to have been named one of his favorite lunch spots in all of Italy.
Badia a Coltibuono is a little church / restaurant / cooking school / winery perched atop a hill outside of the town of Gaiole in Chianti. The drive there, through lovely, is a little windy and confusing. Just when we thought we were hopelessly lost, we arrived. The restaurant is so charming and has such lovely views, it took our breath away. Bob and I put ourselves in the chef’s hands by ordering the tasting menu with wine pairings. Everything, from the beef tartare appetizer to the rich chocolate cake, was amazing. And while I would not initially think of this as the right place to bring your kids, the servers were extremely helpful in guiding us to the best kid-friendly menu options. There was even a small onsite playground, which entertained the kids while we meandered through a leisurely lunch. We loved it so much that we asked Mr. Nivino for more suggestions of his favorite Chianti restaurants.
Though Tuscany covers thousands of square miles of central Italy, the Chianti region is quintessential Tuscany. It may be due to the fact that it is easy to get to with a flight into the small Florence airport. Or it may be that the wines are so predictably tasty, even the simple “table red” ordered in a neighborhood restaurant does not fail to delight. It may be the idyllic scenery, amazing non-fussy food and welcoming people. I’ll have to give this some more thought. But for now, if you’ll excuse me, my wine holder-necklace seems to be empty.