Italian wine labels can be a bit intimidating. With the castles, foreign languages and weird abbreviations, it is hard to decipher if what you choose will be worth your hard earned dollars. The labels of the Italian section of a retail shop or the list of a restaurant menu (sigh…we will get back there eventually), will have words like Riserva, Gran Selezione, Toscana IGT and DOCG. These designations are going to tell you a few things about the wines, such as the origins and variety of grapes that compose the wine and how much time it was barrel and bottle aged. As the more requirements become stricter, the amount of wine produced becomes limited. The more limited the wine, the more expensive it is. Knowing the basics of Chianti labelling laws can help steer you towards a well- made, appropriately priced Chianti gem.
First, we have to acknowledge what we are working with: Sangiovese. This darling of Tuscany has the signature markers of high-acid, a transparent ruby color with black and red cherry being the dominant flavors. Herbs, spice, violets and earth are also found in the complex expressions of this indigenous grape. Sangiovese has a medium tannin structure that builds as the quality increases. Sangiovese in Chianti has a slightly different DNA than the Sangiovese Grosso from Brunello di Montalcino and requires less time to mellow than its southern cousin.
The Chianti Hierarchy can be split into two major categories: Chianti and Chianti Classico. After the schism between the two zones in 1996, each decided to determine base line and other more premium levels of wine for their respective DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita).
The Idea of a DOCG is to Guaranteed a wine from a region to ensure high quality. By limiting yields and the amount of DOCG ‘Tags’ that demark these wines, the region guards against the counterfeit and inferior wines flooding the market and lowering the value of the Chianti name.
Chianti DOCG: Elevated from DOC status in 1996. Wine composition must adhere to the following regulations: 70-100% Sangiovese and the rest can be other indigenous or international grapes but cannot exceed 15% of Cabernet Sauvignon. All of the grapes must come from the Chianti zones (but NOT Chianti Classico). Any of the subzones can use their subzone name or the general Chianti labelling. These wines must have a minimum of 11.5% alcohol.
Chianti Superiore DOCG parallels the same specifications that Chianti DOCG requires, except that this level requires 6 months of ageing in barrel with 3 months in bottle before release. Chianti Superiore must also be at least 12% alcohol. There are also lowered vineyard yields for this category. Chianti Riserva DOCG must follow the Chianti DOCG rules but also requires two years of ageing in a barrel.
Chianti Classico DOCG separates itself from the satellite zones due to the galestro and sandstone soils. These wines are made with 80-100% Sangiovese with the rest of the blend using international or indigenous red varieties grown within the region. Unlike in the general Chianti DOCG, the traditional white grapes of Trebbiano and Malvasia that were used in the original Ricasoli formula are no longer permitted. A minimum alcohol level is set at 12%. The maximum yield of these vineyards is 7.5 tonnes per hectacre.
Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG follows the rules of Chianti Classico DOCG above with a 12.5% minimum alcohol level but also requires two years total ageing with at least 3 months in bottle. Chianti Classico Gran Selezione (Great Selection) is the newest classification for Chianti Classico DOCG, created in 2014. Wines that carry this tag are Chianti Classico DOCG compliant but the grapes must be all estate grown (producer owns all of the vines used to produce the wine) and aged for 30 months with at least 3 in the bottle. The minimum alcohol level is 13%.
Toscana IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) is considered the ‘lowest’ level of classification that you will see on wines from Chianti, however this labelling allows for more experimentation for the winemakers. This category of wines was created to collect taxes from some of the country’s finest Super Tuscan wines that do not adhere to the above DOCG requirements. Many producers now create IGT wines with grapes from their younger vineyards, wines that are not Sangiovese based or wines that do not express the qualities of typical Chiantis or other Tuscan DOC or DOCGs.