What is Chianti and Why You Should Always Have Some at Your House

Chianti can be one of your best friends to pair with food. Unfortunately, thanks to cheap bottles wrapped in wicker baskets on restaurant tables, it became synonymous with low quality. But that can be far from the truth! Read on if you care to learn a little more on the wines coming from Chianti.

What is Chianti?

Simply put, Chianti is an area in the central Italian region of Tuscany. It is not a specific type of grape, but a region that has become incredibly famous for its high-acid, food-friendly wines based on the sangiovese grape. Historically it was a wine blended with many different local varieties, but today all wines labeled "Chianti" are at least 75% and up to 100% sangiovese.

As I mentioned above, chianti got a bad reputation in the 20th century with low-quality examples. Those woven-basket bottles we see on tables at Italian restaurants practically ruined the name of Chianti. But thanks to stricter laws that started in the 1980s that prohibited certain grapes, yields, etc. in Chianti, the quality has drastically improved for today's consumer.

BUT, that doesn't mean all Chianti is a safe bet (unfortunately). The area is very large and therefore there are many different styles and qualities produced. But that doesn't mean you should completely ignore Chianti (please see below on "why you should always have a bottle at the house"!). My suggestion is to be adventurous and try some new labels. A bottle between $12-$20 is usually a great value that won't disappoint!

Flavors of Chianti

  • light red to deep ruby in color
  • On the palate: bright red fruit flavors like cherry, raspberry, or plum. Some may have notes of tea, dried leaves, or tobacco
  • Generally very high in acidity, making them an excellent match for foods
  • usually a good supporting tannin structure

Chianti Classico

When you see "Chianti Classico" on a label, you are looking at a wine from the original area dictated as "Chianti", first recorded in 1398. This area doesn't necessarily mean a better wine than regular chianti but is generally understood as the finest region, with prices being a little higher and qualifications a little stricter. This area permits up to 100% sangiovese in the bottle (so no other grapes have to be blended in) and does not allow any white grapes in the blend. From personal consumption, I've noticed most wines from Chianti Classico are generally deeper, darker, and richer than other easy-drinking Chiantis. This is perhaps because any wine from the Chianti Classico region must be aged in oak barrels for at least 10 months.

When you see "Riserva" on the Label

Whether its "Chianti Riserva" or "Chianti Classico Riserva" you see on the label, this little word indicates an aged, and thus generally higher quality, wine in the bottle. Chianti labeled with "riserva" means the wine has been aged at least 2 years in oak and 3 months in the bottle. Additionally, the alcohol must be at least 12.5% for these wines. These wines usually age really well in the bottle and can stand up to bigger dishes like stews and steaks.

When you see "Chianti Superiore" on the Label

Think of Chianti Superiore as a similar designation to Chianti Classico, but without being from the classico region. Unlike Chianti Classico, Chianti Superiore may come from any of Chianti's other subregions but must be aged for at least 6 months in oak barrels and 3 months in the bottle. This essentially just gives the producers not located in the Chianti Classico region a chance to show that their wine too has met aging requirements that generally results in a better wine.

Other Chianti Subregions You Might See on Labels

  • Chianti Classico
  • Chianti Montalbano
  • Chianti Colli Fiorentini
  • Chianti Montespertoli
  • Chianti Rufina
  • Colli Senesi
  • Colline PIasane
  • Colli Aretini

Why You Always Need a Bottle of Chianti at Your House

I hope all this chianti-talk has got you thinking about the next bottle you'd like to try! Which brings me to my last point of asking you to always have a bottle of Chianti at your house. Why would I ever ask that? Because we love Italian food in America, and Chianti is one of THE BEST wines to pair with our favorites. Be it pizza, pasta, ravioli, cheese, chicken, lamb, or anything with tomatoes/tomato sauce, Chianti is going to be an amazing match. As I mentioned above, this wine has got incredible acidity which matches with lots of dishes that call for red wine. So safe to say, next time you have spaghetti night at your house (and no matter how easy it was for you to cook), you will be able to dress it up with a great Chianti wine pairing because, well, you'll have a bottle on hand! Check out this simple Basil Garlic Tomato Sauce Spaghettini recipe I paired with Chianti: