There is no Italian wine more closely tied to the country’s culture and history than the wine we know today as Chianti.
Few remember that the great visionary of Chianti was also the second prime minister of United Italy, Baron Bettino Ricasoli (1809-1880). He, like his parliamentarian predecessor Camillo Cavour (from Barolo), believed that Italian wine could become a major export for the newborn monarchy. It wouldn’t come to pass in his lifetime. But by the 1960s, Chianti had become one of the most recognizable wines in the world.
Over the course of my career in wine writing (and reading), I’ve come across countless canards about Chianti and its origins. As I prepare for a talk to be delivered at the Chianti consortium tasting and seminar today in Houston, I wanted to share these debunked myths about the appellations that form what we know simply as “Chianti.”
Myth: Tuscan ampelographer Giovan Vettorio Soderini was the first to sing the praises of Sangiovese in his 1590 treatise on grape farming in Europe.
Truth: he praises a grape he calls Sangiogheto for its ability to produce a lot of wine but warns how difficult it is to make it into fine wine. (Modern day ampelographers also question whether the grape he mentions is even related to what we know as Sangiovese today. Most believe that Sangiovese didn’t appear in Tuscany until the 18th century.)
Myth: the etymon (origin) of the ampelonym (grape name) Sangiovese is sangue di Giove or blood of Jove [Jupiter].
Truth: while this folkloric etymology is theoretically possible, it’s hardly plausible, scientifically speaking. To date, there is no evidence whatsoever that points to this as the origin of the grape name (and believe me, I have looked under every stone I could find). It sounds cool and romantic but it’s just not a philologically tenable etymon. It would be fair to say that some people think that the name comes from the blood of Jove. But their source is a mere folkloric etymology. In other words, they once heard someone say that.
Myth: Chianti was cited as Tuscany’s best wine in an edict published by Cosimo de’ Medici III in 1716.
Truth: “Vino del Chianti” (“Wine from Chianti”; not “Chianti, the Wine”) was mentioned among other Tuscan wines that were illegal to “counterfeit.” The document does not point to “Vino del Chianti” as being superior (many wine-focused historians believe that Carmignano, another wine mentioned in the edict, was considered the top wine from Tuscany at the time). The interesting thing about Cosimo’s bando was that it created a de facto and ante litteram appellation system in Tuscany more than 200 years before the DOC system was introduced.
Myth: Baron Bettino Ricasoli, the Sangiovese pioneer and visionary, wrote a recipe for Chianti in the 19th century.
Truth: Ricasoli famously wrote that he liked to blend some white wine in his Sangiovese to make the wine more approachable in its youth. He did not propose a set formula, nor did he write that white wine needed to be added to make the wine later known as “Chianti.” (We should remember Ricasoli for the fact that his research and experimentation with Sangiovese led him to grub up the other grape varieties planted on his large farm. He was arguably the first to recognize Sangiovese’s potential as a grape for fine wine.)
Fun fact: did you know that Machiavelli was a grower and producer of Chianti? After his exile from Florence, he retired to his farm in San Casciano where he produced and traded wine among other agricultural products.
Machiavelli portrait via Wiki Creative Commons.