The Untold Story of Chianti

by Bill Nesto and Frances Di Savino, coauthors of Chianti Classico: The Search for Tuscany’s Noblest Wine

Chianti Classico coverIn our new book, Chianti Classico, we tell the untold story of the wine region once known simply as Chianti. But it is not a simple tale. For anyone who has had the pleasure of navigating the countryside between the cities of Florence and Siena, the simplicity and majesty of Chianti’s landscape is inescapable. Narrow country roads curve through forested hills and sloped vineyards. Medieval castles, Romanesque chapels, and grand cypresses punctuate the scenery like the background of a Renaissance painting. Yet the story of Chianti as a wine region has been lost to history. Even for many modern-day wine consumers, Chianti does not connote an actual place, but rather an old-style Italian red wine in a straw-covered flask. By the early twentieth century wine labeled as “Chianti” was being made throughout Tuscany, Italy, and even in California!

On our search for the true Chianti, we were determined to take the wine road less traveled. Beyond studying Chianti’s viticulture and enology, we set out to understand the evolution of agriculture and culture in Tuscany. Along the way we learned about an unedited manuscript on agriculture and gardens from the mid-sixteenth century written by a little-known Florentine named Girolamo da Firenzuola. One clue led to another, and between visits to Chianti Classico wine estates we went hunting in the archives and libraries of Florence and Siena. Examining two versions of this unpublished manuscript, we studied the two books about growing grapevines and making wine. Deciphering the archaic penmanship and Tuscan language was our first challenge. In the chapter titled “To Make a Precious Wine,” Firenzuola named places such as Radda, Panzano, Lamole, and other towns near the Chianti Mountains as the source of Tuscany’s precious wine. To make this wine, Firenzuola singled out the vine variety, Sangioveto (Sangiovese), the essence of modern Chianti Classico wine. Though long marginalized by a narrative that labeled it as making vinegar instead of wine, Sangiovese did not “officially” become Chianti’s star variety until the mid-nineteenth century when Baron Bettino Ricasoli, Chianti’s largest landowner and Italy’s prime minister, selected it as the principal variety in his Chianti blend.

Why Firenzuola’s manuscript languished in the shadows for centuries is a genuine Tuscan mystery. We guide our readers on a journey to unlock the “secret of Sangiovese” and other myths and mysteries, including the “Medici code” – the long-lost evidence for Chianti’s identity as a noble wine region. Cosimo III de’ Medici, Tuscany’s Grand Duke, issued this edict (bando) on September 24, 1716. It delimited the wine region of Chianti and created the first legal appellations of origin for wine in the world. On September 24, 2016 the Chianti Classico Consortium, its member wine estates, and Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, officially celebrated the 300th anniversary of the 1716 bando in Florence. In telling the stories of Girolamo da Firenzuola and Cosimo III’s 1716 bando, our quest has been historical truth. Happy Anniversary, Chianti!

authors of Chianti ClassicoBill Nesto is a Master of Wine and a founder of the Wine Studies Program at Boston University, where he is also a Senior Lecturer.

Frances Di Savino is an attorney with a background in medieval and Renaissance studies and is Bill’s partner in life and on the wine road. Bill and Frances coauthored The World of Sicilian Wine, which won the André Simon Book Award in 2013.

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