What Happened to Chianti?

Chianti's ubiquity has, perversely, also been its downfall. Zachary Sussman on what our indifference to a classic wine like Chianti reveals about us and why it might be time to reconsider.

Chianti Classico

When was the last time you ordered a bottle of Chianti?

Thought so.

In fact, a scan of most serious wine lists would leave you with the impression that it represents a minor player in the world of Italian wine. Of diminishing influence among industry tastemakers, who’ve gravitated toward more esoteric regions—Etna, Friuli, Alto Piemonte—Chianti rarely appears outside the confines of Italian restaurants. Even then, it’s typically limited to a few token offerings.

And yet, few Italian wines (really, few wines in general) loom larger in the American imagination. One of the first to be mass-exported to the U.S., Chianti—and I’m referring to Chianti Classico, grown in the Tuscan wine’s original zone of production—has since been adopted as a universal symbol of Italian-American culture. A household name, it has permeated the media, from the famous “spaghetti scene” in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp to Hannibal Lecter’s gruesome preference for pairing the wine with fava beans and human liver.

Today, however, Chianti somehow manages to be both iconic and ignored. “On the one hand, we have a huge advantage, which is how famous Chianti is as a wine,” says Veronica Lagi, export manager for Castello di Monsanto, one of the region’s oldest properties. “The difficult part is that it’s not so appealing to young and modern consumers.” Along similar lines, Michael Schmelzer, winemaker at the family-run Monte Bernardi estate, neatly sums up the situation: “Chianti has always been around; that doesn’t mean it has ever been cool.”

But maybe it could be. Lately, American drinkers have learned to value wine based upon its compatibility with food. Now that we’re embracing the European ideal of the “table wine”— treating it like a grocery rather than a luxury commodity—Chianti might seem primed for a comeback. After all, if any wine has championed these low-maintenance virtues through the generations, it’s Chianti. Why, then, has it consistently failed to evoke the same kind of worship lavished upon, say, Beaujolais, that perennial sommelier darling?

The answer to this question depends upon whom you ask. But the more relevant issue is what our indifference to a classic wine like Chianti reveals about us.

We’re in an age of “conspicuous authenticity,” a term coined by social critic Andrew Potter to describe our peculiar habit of transforming the small-batch, the heirloom and the rare into the stuff of cultural capital. According to the rules of this new form of status-hunting, a wine’s obscurity is often the measure of its value, which is why many of the industry’s latest obsessions have either been rescued from anonymity (see: Jura, Canary Islands, Colares) or from the brink of economic ruin (see: sherry). Unfortunately for Chianti, the region’s modern history doesn’t align with this fashionable “reclamation” narrative; having never hit bottom, it has coasted along as a familiar fixture of pizza parlors and supermarket shelves, a victim of its own mainstream success.

To be fair, the region hasn’t done itself many favors over the years. As Del Posto beverage director Jeff Porter explains, Chianti still struggles with a stigma dating back to the 1970s, when “large conglomerates… just pumped wine into the market and did not care about quality.” Drinkers of a certain age will recall the flood of cheap Chianti bottles in straw baskets, or fiascos, that once functioned as makeshift candleholders in Italian restaurants (and hippie bedrooms) across the nation.

Since the 1990s, however, a different but equally problematic image has emerged. Following the same path that much of Italy (and Tuscany in particular) took at the time, Chianti refashioned itself as a rounder, fruitier, modernized wine, designed to fetch high scores from critics. Notably, this transformation involved the introduction of international varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, which, as of 1996, can legally comprise up to 20 percent of the Chianti Classico blend. “They were trying to make Chianti into something it wasn’t supposed to be, based on a perception of what the market wanted,” says Alfonso Cevola, Corporate Director for Italian Wines for Glazer’s, one of the largest U.S. wine and spirits distributors. “A lot of that delicious typical Tuscan stuff got lost.”

All of this has left Chianti’s identity fairly nebulous, with wide inconsistencies in quality, price and style. Lately, however, as the pendulum of public taste swings back toward transparency and typicity, the way forward for Chianti appears to be a return to tradition. “The recent shift towards a more indigenous style is a reaction to the difficulty of selling the wines as Chianti grew too international,” Schmelzer explains. “Producers realized that they needed to tone down the new oak and non-native grapes to make something that would be more expressive of place.”

As it walks back the larger ambitions of the past couple decades, the qualities that originally made Chianti so popular are again coming into focus. The best wines offer an inimitable expression of sangiovese, emphasizing the brighter, earthier side of the grape, with its signature sanguinity and flavors of sour cherries and herbs. “There’s a very sound reason why Chianti became a famous wine,” says Jamie Wolff of Chambers Street Wines in New York. “Sangiovese has truly adapted to the terroir, and it really produces my favorite expressions. Brunello [Chianti’s plusher, fancier neighbor] gets the press and the money, but, to me, Chianti is much more useful.”

Even with this cultural recalibration, the region still lacks the necessary backstory to propel it into the avant-garde. Even the aspect that initially established it as a classic—its remarkable versatility at the table—can just as easily be found in many other Italian reds. “There’s no cool, young, hip movement emerging in Chianti,” says Jeremy Parzen, a blogger and Italian wine historian. “At least not that I know of.”

The thing is, Chianti can offer us something far more meaningful. It might not deliver Etna’s sense of discovery and volcanic mystique or Friuli’s fringe experimentations with tradition, but Chianti exists as an archetype, of sorts—a foundational pillar of Italian wine as we’ve come to know it. Without it, we can’t fully grasp the whole.

“Chianti, and specifically Chianti Classico, is a historic region,” says Porter, who predicts a resurgence of interest in the area’s wines. “By ignoring it, you’re missing the experience of Tuscany. It plays a vital part of the wine trade relearning classic wine regions.”

Until now, our discovery fetish has served us faithfully enough, helping to revive extinct and obscure regional styles and usher in an era of unprecedented wine diversity. Still, it’s important to remember that novelty isn’t the only worthwhile criteria.

The hyperactive way we cycle through wine trends—from orange wine to pét nat to whatever comes next—points to a paradox. If we imbue all of these “neglected” expressions with a certain countercultural street cred—which we then invest in ourselves—we forget that we’re the ones who overlooked them in the first place.

Unlike the countless categories we’ve delivered from obscurity, Chianti now represents the peculiar example of a wine that needs to be rescued from its own ubiquity. Maybe it’s still here, after all these years, to remind us that the only way to appreciate how far we’ve come is by looking back.