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Chianti's Comeback

A glass and decanter of Chianti wineIn the romantically rolling hills of Tuscany, winemaking history goes back not just centuries, but millennia. The region's most popular wine, Chianti, has been made since at least the 14th century. Yet simply because a wine's history is long doesn't mean that it has always been glorious. In fact, by the 1960s and '70s, Chianti's quality had sunk to the point that, for most consumers, its traditional straw-wrapped bottles seemed to have more value empty as kitschy kitchen decor.

Fortunately, the book on Tuscan winemaking is anything but closed. Once-maligned Chianti is not only back, it's better than ever. And Chianti and other wines are helping today's Tuscany stake a legitimate claim as one of the world's most exciting regions for both traditional and cutting-edge wines.

Chianti

Grapes growing in a lush valley vineyard

After more than six centuries, Chianti is still tops in popularity among Tuscan red wines. But even though overall quality is at an all-time high, it's important to remember that there are wide variations. In the best versions, Chianti is pleasantly tangy, medium-bodied, earthy and, often, highlighted with a kiss of red cherry. These qualities make it a phenomenal partner to a wide range of foods.

Although Chianti is often a blend of several grapes, Sangiovese is by far the most important variety. With a temperamental streak rivaling that of an Italian diva, Sangiovese is one grape that insists on impeccable soil, sun exposure and winery techniques if it's going to put on its best performance.

To qualify as Chianti, the grapes have to be grown, and the wine produced, within the boundaries of Tuscany's Chianti region. And Chianti itself is divided into seven sub-zones. Two sub-zones in particular — Classico and Rufina — consistently craft standout Chiantis.

For those looking for sophisticated, age-worthy wines, both the Classico and Rufina zones produce Chianti Riservas in addition to traditional Chiantis. These wines get the spa treatment, spending substantial time lounging in oak before being bottled and released for sale. Look for the words "Chianti Classico Riserva" and "Chianti Rufina Riserva" on their respective labels.

Rebels With a Cause

Chianti's nosedive in quality during the '60s and '70s led innovative, quality-minded Tuscan winemakers to the bold idea of abandoning the sinking Chianti brand in order to create an entirely new style of wine. To do this, winemakers turned to grape varieties not traditionally grown in the area. Although any variety was considered fair game, Cabernet Sauvignon emerged and remains the most important, figuring prominently in many of the best wines.

The rebel winemakers named their anything-goes wines Super Tuscans and, with a snub to convention, sold them as vini da tavola, or table wines—a lowly status in Italy's tradition-bound wine-labeling system.

The wines themselves, however, were anything but lowly. And the wine-loving public quickly caught on. Today, due to their worldwide renown for quality, intensity, and age-worthiness, Super Tuscans garner some of the most stratospheric prices of all Italian wines.

On the label, Super Tuscans are no longer sold as table wines, but are usually marked with Toscana or Toscano, and the words Indicazione Geografica Tipica, or the letters, IGT. And some famous—and famously expensive—Super Tuscans are labeled as DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllate) Bolgheri or Bolgheri Sassicaia.