By Robert Horvat
I have never been to Italy and it is not to say that I will never go, but the other day Italy came to me I enjoyed a bottle of Castellare di Castellina, a great value wine from the Chianti region of central Tuscany. For me, this was my first taste of an Italian wine from the wonderful picturesque slopes of Tuscany. I won’t pretend that I know what I am talking about when describing its characteristics and taste. What I can tell you is that I am not usually a fan of very dry wine but this 2012 bottle was indeed wonderful. For someone like me, who is fussy about aftertaste, this was a very approachable wine. But don’t expect me to just simply sit and enjoy the aroma and taste of wine in general without daydreaming about its origins. Is it not fun to sometimes learn something new about the history of wine from a region, rather than being told by a critic how a wine might taste under the palate, or how a particular wine might smell of fresh flowers such as rose and violets? Come on, give me a break ! Let’s take a brief trip down memory lane.
Italy as a geographical region has been famous for their wines for centuries. Archaeological evidence suggests that the vine was systematically cultivated in Italy first by the Etruscans and then closely followed by the Greeks. Though it was under the yoke of the Romans that viticulture and winemaking really took off. Furthermore, as winemaking began to grow, so did the development of the wine trade as a very profitable business. The most important centre of the wine trade in Italy had always been Pompeii. Wines from Pompeii reached ports and towns as far off as Bordeaux in Gaul (France). However, when the city was destroyed in 79 CE, viticulture spread heavily across all parts of the empire out of necessity. In Italy itself, winemakers went berserk using almost all the cultivable land available, especially in the regions around Lazio and Tuscany. Only a history enthusiast like myself will appreciate that this almost comical situation prompted the Emperor Domitian to forbid the planting of any further vineyards. I have got to say, what a killjoy ! (It would be some two hundred years before this ban was lifted.)
Sangiovese grapes are the main ingredient of classic Chiantis.
With the fall of the Roman Empire, wine growing and production declined but its traditions didn’t die and were kept up mainly by rural farmers and monasteries. Later wine re-emerged with the rise of the city-states of Genoa, Florence and Venice. The financiers who helped revive the wine trade were especially fond of viticultural regions such as Piedmont and Tuscany. It was in these regions that vine varieties such as Borolo, Brunello and Chianti were developed. This finally brings me back to my Chianti Classico! Chianti as a wine dates back to the thirteenth century, though by 1716 strict rules of what could be classified as a Chianti were legislated by the Duke of Tuscany. Interestingly some bottles of Chianti today will have ‘Classico’ on the label, which indicates that the grapes of these bottles comes from one of the four original villages, that were officially recognized as the only producers of Chianti in 1716! Notably today Chianti bottles also carry a special “Controlled designation of origin” (DOC) seal. Of course, what makes Chianti wines world famous and adorable is the Sangiovese grape. Though it is one of the most widely found red grapes in Italy and obviously the ‘secret’ to the success of the Chianti, you will however find this ruby red grape varieties in ‘new world’ regions from California to surprisingly, my country of Australia.
I hope I have entertained you a little here today about my new love for Chianti wine. Learning something new about regional wine shouldn’t be a chore. Come on lets face it, it might even inspire you to look for Italian wines to try like the Chianti Classico. By the way, if you have had a little too much Chianti, you might find that bird on its label, just might sing to you! Interestingly enough, different vintages showcase different migrating birds. There you go another interesting fact, or is that the Chianti talking?