Chianti Classico: The Search for Tuscany's Noblest Wine

Chianti Classico: The Search for Tuscany's Noblest Wine

by Bill Nesto MW, Frances Di Savino

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“An important new book on Chianti Classico: Winners of the André Simon 2013 award for their book The World of Sicilian Wine, Nesto and Di Savino have produced the investigative, scholarly and detailed book that Chianti Classico has long deserved. Nesto and Di Savino are brilliant historic investigators. . . . A must-read for anyone seriously interested in wine.”—Walter Speller,
This book tells the story of the ancient land named Chianti and the modern wine appellation known as Chianti Classico.
In 1716, Tuscany’s penultimate Medici ruler, Cosimo III, anointed the region of Chianti, along with three smaller areas in the Florentine State, as the world’s first legal appellations of origin for wine.
In the succeeding centuries, this milestone was all but forgotten. By the late nineteenth century, the name Chianti, rather than signifying this historic region and its celebrated wine, identified a simple Italian red table wine in a straw-covered flask.

In the twenty-first century, Chianti Classico emerged as one of Italy’s most dynamic and fashionable wine zones. Chianti Classico relates the fascinating evolution of Chianti as a wine region and reveals its geographic and cultural complexity. Bill Nesto, MW, and Frances Di Savino explore the townships of Chianti Classico and introduce readers to the modern-day winegrowers who are helping to transform the region. The secrets of Sangiovese, the principal vine variety of Chianti, are also revealed as the book unlocks the myths and mysteries of one of Italy’s most storied wine regions. The publication of Chianti Classico coincides with the three hundredth anniversary of the Medici decree delimiting the region of Chianti on September 24, 1716.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520284425
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/20/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 360
Sales rank: 295,275
Product dimensions: 7.30(w) x 10.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Bill 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.

Read an Excerpt

Chianti Classico

The Search for Tuscany's Noblest Wine

By Bill Nesto, Frances Di Savino


Copyright © 2016 William R. Nesto and Frances Di Savino
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96553-9



... nomi seguitino le nominate cose ...

... names are born of the things they name ...


This is the story of the wine region once known simply as Chianti. But it is not a simple tale. With its many twists and turns, peaks and valleys, Chianti is a territory worthy of an epic. Framed by Florence to its north and Siena to its south, Chianti is a land of quintessential beauty and culture. It is the timeless paesaggio (landscape) in the background of a Renaissance painting. It is a land of castles, chapels, bell towers, farmhouses, hills, oaks, cypresses, olive groves, and vineyards. It is an authentic place which gave birth to an iconic (and then generic) wine, also known as Chianti. It is a wine region that is striving to reclaim its identity from the vast Tuscan appellation, which, by law, has the exclusive right to the name Chianti — and which we shall call External Chianti in these pages. Long before a Fascist-era ministerial decree officially designated it a vino tipico (wine type) in 1932, Chianti was valued as a special wine from the rocky hills ofthree river valleys between Florence and Siena in the heart of Tuscany: Val di Pesa, Val di Greve, and Val d'Arbia. This place, the original Chianti, now known as Chianti Classico, has been rooted in conflict for much of its history. Beginning in the twelfth century, Chianti was a battlefield, buffer, and border between these two warring city-states (and their respective proxies). Yet it was the dispute over the borders of the Chianti wine region in the twentieth century that came to be known as the Guerra del Chianti (War of Chianti). With the outbreak of this conflict in the early 1900s, Tuscany witnessed the birth of a field of scholarship aimed at answering the question What is Chianti? The resulting treatises mapped a multitude of Chiantis — Chianti storico (historic), geographico (geographic), geologico (geologic), enologico (enological), classico (classic), and commerciale (commercial). They reveal how zealously the forces of Chianti Classico and External Chianti waged their battles both on paper and in parliament. But for all of the politics, polemics, conflicts, and complexities that have whirled around Chianti, the original place has remained one of bucolic simplicity and historic richness. We begin our journey by exploring Chianti culturale (cultural). This story is our search for the true Chianti.


From its earliest days, Chianti has been shrouded in mystery. Historic maps of Tuscany (called Tyrrhenia, Etruria, and Tuscia during earlier epochs) do not consistently identify a region named Chianti. Rather, the place-name Chianti often appears somewhere north of Siena and in the vicinity of the townships of Castellina, Radda, and Gaiole and the Pesa and Arbia Rivers. Similarly, the origin of the name has yet to be discovered. It likely derives from a word in the language of the people who once controlled Etruria, the Etruscans. The Arno River to the north of Chianti was the natural boundary for northern Etruria. Since at least the seventh century B.C., Chianti was the entroterra (hinterland) of the Etruscan cities of Volterra to its west, Fiesole to its north, Arezzo to its east, and Siena and Chiusi to its south. Remarkably, Volterra, Fiesole, Arezzo, and Siena were four of the five dioceses of the Catholic Church that had ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Chianti as of the Middle Ages (the fifth being Florence, which the Romans founded). In contrast with the later period of Roman rule, when the main north-south roads, the Francigena and the Cassia Nova, circumvented it, during the centuries of Etruscan rule, roadways connecting established urban centers crisscrossed Chianti. This "road map" provides interesting clues to the relationship of Chianti to the surrounding towns, even in the present day. One throughway ran northwest along the high ridge from the town of Radda, past the parish church (pieve) of Santa Maria Novella, then north past the town of Panzano, eventually turning west in the direction of Sambuca in Tavarnelle Val di Pesa. From this juncture another throughway branched north past the pieve of Santo Stefano in Campoli, on a hill between the Pesa and Greve River Valleys, then continued northwest toward the towns of Mercatale and San Casciano in Val di Pesa. A third one traveled from Volterra east to Castellina, then northeast to Lamole, and then to the Monti del Chianti (Chianti Mountains), where it intersected with the roadway that ran parallel to these mountains, leading north to the Arno River and south to the strategic city of Chiusi. This network of roadways, or "ridgeways," suggests that there was an exchange of people and produce between Chianti and the Etruscan cities surrounding it. And indeed the Etruscan ruins discovered throughout Chianti provide ample evidence of this exchange.

In the main square of Castellina there is a small museum, Museo Archeologico del Chianti Senese, which is housed in the town's medieval castle. Here many archaeological remnants of Chianti's distant Etruscan past are on display. By one account, in January 1507 a farmer in Castellina was digging to plant a vineyard when he uncovered an Etruscan tomb containing many precious objects. These included wine wares and other ceramics associated with the Greek-inspired symposium (the after-dinner wine-drinking, poetry-reciting, music-playing, and other-pleasure-seeking ritual). Unlike the wine lovers of ancient Greece and Rome, the Etruscans invited their wives (and female relatives) to participate in their sacred symposia. Among the objects that the Etruscan Chiantigiani (native people of Chianti) used in their symposia were the bucchero kantharos (a wine goblet on a pedestal with two high, vertical-looped handles) and the kyathos (a one-handled wine cup or ladle). The kantharos was closely associated with the ritualistic worship of the Greek wine god, Dionysos (and the Etruscans' wine god, Fufluns). The term bucchero refers to a typology of fine Etruscan black-fabric ceramics. The kantharos and kyathos objects on display in Castellina were made outside Chianti, in the more established Etruscan settlements of Chiusi, Orbetello, and Populonia (the last two both on the Tuscan coast).

In the middle of the seventh century B.C. the Etruscan aristocracy imported their prized wines from the Greek islands (such as Chios in the eastern Aegean) and the Turkish coast. By the end of that century, they had developed their own dynamic wine industry and culture. They exported their fine wine and bucchero wine wares throughout the entire Mediterranean region, including to coastal and central France, Spain, Greece, Syria, and Egypt. While the Etruscans adopted the ritual of the symposium and the style of many Greek ceramic wares, the bucchero kantharos and kyathos were strongly associated with Etruria and were imitated by ancient Greek (and Celtic) potters. Greek pottery commonly depicts Dionysos holding a bucchero kantharos. Bucchero wine wares and ceramics have been found in tombs and other Etruscan sites excavated throughout Chianti, including one on a steep hill in Gaiole called Cetamura (almost 700 meters, or 2,297 feet, above sea level), on the property of the present-day Chianti Classico wine estate Badia a Coltibuono. Whether the Etruscan Chiantigiani used their kantharoi, kyat- hoi, and other bucchero and bronze wine wares in the consumption of their native wine is not known. Archaeobotanic evidence of both the wild vine (Vitis silvestris) and the cultivated vine (Vitis vinifera) is suspected at the Cetamura site from as early as the third century B.C. As of 2014, approximately 430 grape seeds have been recovered from six strata (including Etruscan and Roman) in a 106-foot well there. These discoveries were made by an Italian firm specializing in the excavation of wells, in close collaboration with a team of archaeologists from Florida State University, the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Syracuse University, and New York University under the direction of Nancy Thomson de Grummond, the overseer of the Cetamura del Chianti archaeological site since 1983. Many seeds were found in vessels that are believed to have been cast into the well as sacrificial offerings, along with coins, votive cups, animal knucklebones (astragali), and ceramic and stone tokens, as part of a sacred ritual involving divination at this high-elevation site at the eastern edge of Chianti. An Etruscan ceramic amphora, pottery from two of Chianti's surrounding Etruscan cities, Volterra and Arezzo, and an Etruscan bronze wine bucket, along with a fragment of an Etruscan wine strainer, were also retrieved from this well. In light of the archaeological evidence for the ritual and artisanal activity that took place at this site during the Etruscan, Roman, and medieval periods, De Grummond and her team have christened it "the Sanctuary of the Etruscan Artisans at Cetamura del Chianti." As this book went to print, the Cetamura grape seeds were undergoing DNA analysis to determine their varietal identification. There is much excitement in Chianti about whether Sangiovese or an early precursor of Chianti Classico's principal vine variety will be found among the pips from Cetamura.

Given the routes that the Etruscans established throughout Chianti, it is an open question whether wine was being transported from there to the surrounding Etruscan towns. There is evidence that an Etruscan settlement at Pisa, at the mouth of the Arno River, served as a repository for agricultural produce (perhaps including wine) shipped down from the Arno River Valley. What is known is that, unlike the Greeks and their colonists in southern Italy and Sicily, who trained their vines either with the alberello (bush-vine) method or low on wooden stakes, the Etruscans "married" their vines to trees (usually elm, maple, or poplar). While the Etruscan words for "wine" and "vineyard," vinum and vina, are Italic in origin, the Etruscan language included a distinct word, ataison, to identify this native form of vine training. From the Middle Ages until the mid-twentieth century, the sharecroppers of Chianti used a type of vine training called alberata or maritata, vines "married" with trees. Whether these peasant farmers knew it or not, their conjugal form of viticulture had deep roots in Chianti's Etruscan soil.

Chianti remained a rural landscape for the Etruscan urban areas that encircled it. The pattern of modest Etruscan tombs in Chianti suggests that small family groups settled this countryside to intensively cultivate grapevines, olive and chestnut trees, and legumes as early as the second half of the seventh century B.C. Given the wooded hills and rocky soil, agriculture in this region must have been (and still is) a greater challenge than in the plains and valleys to the west of the Elsa River or on the gentle clay hills to the south of the Arbia River. The only evidence of ancient Chianti's agriculture on display at the archaeological museum in Castellina are the fragments of bronze and iron implements that the Etruscan Chiantigiani used in their farming. The grape seeds that the archaeologists have excavated from the aqueous layers in the ritual well of Cetamura promise to help unlock some of the mysteries of Etruscan Chianti's vinicultural past. Long before there were wine appellations of origin, there were the natural territorial borders established (and worshiped) by the Etruscans. The Etruscans used peaks, valleys, waterways, and trees to delimit both their urban and their pastoral landscapes. The Roman historian Varro credited the Etruscans with developing the science or discipline of defining the boundaries of land and sky, including the "cardinal points of north, south, east, and west." Among their many deities, Selvans, depicted as a young man, was the protector of Etruria's forests and wooded lands. He was also the god of their arboreal boundaries and borders. In the centuries to come, the winegrowers of the original Chianti would have done well to honor their ancient sylvan god!


Following the rise and fall of ancient Rome, Tuscany was invaded by tribes from north of the Alps, including the Ostrogoths and Longobards (Lombards). The former Etruria and its elevated wine culture lay buried deep in the rubble. The Etruscan cities of Fiesole and Chiusi were among the casualties. By 800, Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, had liberated Italy from the Longobards and was crowned the Holy Roman emperor in Rome by the pope. A parade of Germanic and French kings followed Charlemagne, each vying for the imperial crown and hegemony on Italian soil. The ensuing conflicts between the empire and the papacy dominated the Tuscan landscape for centuries to come. Florence and Siena, along with dozens of other cities and townships (comuni, the plural of comune) in central and northern Italy, emerged as vibrant centers of commerce and capital (financial, political, and cultural). This process of urbanization (inurbamento) profoundly reshaped the relationship of Florence with its surrounding countryside (contado). Although each city had deeply personal (and violent) factions in support of both the papal and the imperial causes, Florence ultimately allied itself with the papacy under the Guelph banner (with the goal of securing greater political autonomy and the pope's lucrative banking business), while Siena allied itself with the imperial aspirants under the Ghibelline banner. The feudal lords of Longobard stock (such as the Ricasoli-Firidolfi clan) with fortresses in Chianti generally also allied themselves with the Ghibelline cause. For their loyal service to the Germanic kings, these imperial legates were granted more territory and greater jurisdictional and fiscal prerogatives in their fiefs in Chianti. These feudal families fortified their castles and landholdings, including hilltop villages, in a process known as incastellamento. During the same age, Florence's links with Chianti were strengthened as reform-minded religious orders such as the Vallombrosans built abbeys (badie, the plural of badia) in the countryside in search of solitude and agricultural revenue. By the end of the eleventh century, the Vallombrosan order had established both Badia a Passignano in Tavarnelle Val di Pesa and Badia a Coltibuono in Gaiole. To safeguard their commercial and agricultural supply routes, Florence and Siena sought greater control over their surrounding territory (ager in Latin). In each city's march to become a city-state (civitas in Latin), conflict was inevitable. And Chianti became their battlefield.

Before engaging on the battlefield, Florence and Siena set out to subjugate the feudal families controlling their respective contadi (the plural of contado). This was the battle of commune versus castle. For Florence, that meant defeating the Ricasoli-Firidolfi clan, which possessed, by some accounts, as many as fifteen castles in Chianti, from Brolio Castle in Gaiole to Panzano Castle in the heart of the territory between Florence and Siena. In his sweeping history of Florence, the sixteenth-century author Scipione Ammirato described the Ricasoli family as the ancient "padrona d'una gran parte del Chianti" (lord of a large part of Chianti). One of the earliest pictorial representations of the region lies at the base of a Ricasoli family tree engraved in 1584 (reproduced on the back of this book's dust jacket). Armored knights on horseback, with lances in hand, are shown riding into battle and hunting (two of Chianti's longest-standing pastimes). The Arno River courses downstream east of the Chianti Mountains toward Florence, and the Massellone River flows through the center of Gaiole. Chapels and cypress-lined ridges punctuate the hilly landscape. The walled city of Siena lies in the background. It is a panorama of Ricasoli castles and fortified villages which also are among the storied estates and townships of modern Chianti Classico: Coltibuono, Montegrossolini (Montegrossi), M. Rinaldi (Monterinaldi), Brolio, Cacchiano, Meleto, Gaiole, S. Sano (San Sano), Selvole, Vertine, Ama, Rietine, Radda, and Panzano. According to a later Ricasoli genealogy, Chianti's first family also owned castles in the upper Arno River Valley and the castle of Monteficalli (Montefioralle) in Greve. In telling the story of Florence's conquest of Chianti, Ammirato identified Greve as the "villaggio al principio della provincia del Chianti" (village at the beginning of the province of Chianti). During the twelfth century, the Florentine Republic brought the Ricasoli-Firidolfis and the other feudal families of Chianti (and their vast landholdings) under its control. Brolio Castle (whose pentagonal bastions are unmistakable in the Ricasoli family tree) was the last Ricasoli citadel north of Siena's territory. It fell to Florence in 1176. Florence finally asserted its dominion over Montegrossi Castle, the original bastion of the Firidolfis, in 1197. From that time forward, the Ricasoli-Firidolfi clan and its network of castles were perforce part of Florence's defensive line against Siena.


Excerpted from Chianti Classico by Bill Nesto, Frances Di Savino. Copyright © 2016 William R. Nesto and Frances Di Savino. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Preface xiii

1 The Original Chianti 1

2 The Evolution of Chianti through Bettino Ricasoli: The 1600s to the 1870s 21

3 The Birth of Chianti Classico and External Chianti: The 1870s to 1945 35

4 Chianti Classico Enters the Global Market: 1945 to the Present 59

5 Chianti's Hidden Roads 96

6 The Geography of Chianti Classico 105

7 The Secret of Sangiovese 117

8 Viticulture in Chianti 132

9 Enology in Chianti 161

10 Chianti Classico Winegrowers by Subzone 189

11 The Medici Code 252

Afterword 273

Notes 277

Selected Bibliography 297

Works Cited 299

Index 313

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