Bill Nesto MW and Frances Di Savino, Chianti Classico: The Search for Tuscany’s Noblest Wine. University of California Press, 2016.
I didn’t know much about Sicily and its wine industry until I read Bill Nesto and Frances Di Savino’s 2013 book The World of Sicilian Wine and it really opened my eyes. I enjoyed the detailed analysis of the regions, the wineries and the wines and I especially appreciated the economic history of the wine region and its complicated relationship with international markets. What an interest place!
I approached their new book on Chianti Classico from a different perspective. While I am no expert on Chianti and its wines, I am way more familiar with this region that Sicily. (A section in my 1990 book Mountains of Debt analyzed the fiscal history of Renaissance Florence, including their wine tax scheme.)
Would Nesto and Di Savino be able to open my eyes to this relatively familiar place in the same way as the earlier book? Yes! What an interesting book.
One chapter literally made me rub my eyes. It was the chapter on viticulture, which is complicated in Chianti Classico as elsewhere with competing theories about the best way to train and treat the vines to get the best quality or maximize quantity.
This is not a new discussion and as evidence of this the authors cite one of the most famous works of Italian Renaissance art — the 1338-39 Lorenzetti frescoes of the allegory of good and bad government that are found in Siena’s town hall. I have seen these images several times (the distinguished economist Robert Mundell, who taught some years before me at the Johns Hopkins Bologna Center, first drew them to my attention), but I never appreciated the full story they told.
There, within a part of the image on the effect of good government, are three different vine systems! One features narrow rows of densely planted vines. A second has rows widely spaced with interstitial crop plantings. And a third is planted in the Etruscan style with trees for the vines to climb. Fascinating.
What is Chianti?
The over-arching question this book addresses is “what is Chianti?” Newcomer wine consumers are often confused about whether Chianti is a grape or a region, but that’s not what we are talking about here. Rather the issue, which is thoroughly examined over the course of eleven chapters, is how should the Chianti region be defined and what wines should therefore receive the Chianti designation.
Once upon a time Chianti meant the area that we now call Chianti Classico, but at several critical points the borders of the appellation were expanded to include zones called “External Chianti,” which vastly increased the volume of Chianti wine available.
Changing the borders of any appellation creates conflict (hey Mr. Champagne, I’m talking about you!). Chianti has in fact been the focus of at least several wars including a real war in the middle ages between the city-states of Florence and Siena and an economic and political war between the interests of Chianti Classico and those of External Chianti.
Nesto and Di Savino take sides in the Chianti wars, especially over the geographical boundaries and cite a previously obscure edict issued by by Medici grand duke Cosimo III in 1716 defining Chianti narrowly as Chianti Classico. They argue for a return to Cosimo’s borders, making the case that the appellations in External Chianti are now strong enough to compete without the Chianti designation. This is bound to stir up further controversy. Stay tuned.
Full of Surprises
Chianti Classico is packed with information and insights — something for all wine lovers. The early chapters introduce us to the controversies and how they (and Chianti) evolved over several centuries. Great depth and detail here. Then several chapters examine the geography, grape varieties, viticulture, wine-making and winemakers. Finally, each subzone is explored with profiles of the major wine producers that double as a wine touring guide. Cosimo’s 1716 edict appears at the end in the form of a Da Vinci Code-style mystery story.
Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that my favorite part of the book is the set of chapters on the economic history of Chianti, Chianti Classico and the Chianti Wars. Economic forces were unusually important in shaping this wine region over the years and Nesto and Di Savino do a masterful job turning what is obviously pain-staking research into a lively and informative narrative.
There were many surprises. I had no idea that international trade was such an important force in Chianti in the earliest years. I had no idea that Chianti was such a valuable “brand” long ago, either, or that the story of the straw covered flask bottled would be so complicated and interesting.
And I did not realize that Chianti Classico almost ceased to exist at one point in the post-WWII era when high cost producers found themselves undercut by cheap bulk Chianti wines that drove prices down to, for them, economically unsustainable prices. The story of how this happened and how the Chianti Classico producers rallied to revive their industry makes great reading.
Does Chianti Classico live up to my high expectations for it? Yes! A great book for anyone who loves Chianti or Tuscany or … wine!