Wood or Steel- A Matter of Style

Champagne uncorking photographed with a high speed air-gap flash
Photo by Niels Noordhoek, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons (click for details)

As discussed in my recently completed Wine and Woods series of posts, the decisions made in aging wine can have a profound effect on its aroma, taste, and feel. In most cases, the winemaker’s job is to use the aging process to deliver the best possible wine from the vintage in the barrels. With champagne the goal is a little different: steer the development of the wines to allow the brand a consistent sensory profile, called house style, year after year.

A recent article on Decanter.com, A debate from Champagne’s sensual parliament, explores the roles that wood and steel aging play in defining and realizing house style. Author Andrew Jefford also includes tasting notes from six champagnes, illustrating how the different choices manifest in the glass.

Wine and Wood (Part 4)

As fabulous as wooden barrels are for aging wines, they have one tremendous drawback: expense. They are costly to buy and difficult to clean. The wood will contribute aromas and flavors to wine for only one or two aging cycles, necessitating frequent replacement for many styles of wine. Taken altogether, the expenses of using wood barrels can add dollars per bottle to the cost of producing wine.

There is a barrel material that has none of these problems– stainless steel. Stainless steel containers are cheaper to produce than wood, easier to clean, require far less maintenance, and last virtually forever. They are also completely non-reactive and non-porous, adding nothing to the flavor or mouthfeel of a wine. For all these reasons and more, stainless steel is widely used for fermentation, even for wines that will be aged in wood barrels. The problem comes after that….

Left to their own devices, wines matures in stainless steel tend to have bright fruit flavors and a crisp mouthfeel. This is a style that some prefer, especially for lighter wines, but it also lacks the depth and complexity that wine lovers have come to expect for so many kinds of wine.1 To be able to take advantage of the cost savings offered by aging in stainless steel, winemakers have had to find ways to reproduce the sensory characteristics derived from wood barrels in their production processes.

One of these techniques, called micro-oxygenation, is the controlled release of small amounts of oxygen into wine through a ceramic disk placed at the bottom of the barrel or tank. The ceramic breaks up the oxygen into microscopic bubbles that are quickly absorbed by the wine.

Originally developed in southwestern France during the early 1990s to speed the maturation of wines based on the highly tannic Tannat grape, micro-oxygenation has been adapted for a wide variety of vinifcation uses, including helping wines maturing in stainless steel to develop in a manner similar to wooden barrels. For this purpose, “small amounts” means somewhere around 1 milliliter of oxygen per liter of wine per month! A detailed discussion on micro-oxygenation can be found it Duane Alexander Blaauw’s dissertation Micro-Oxygenation in Contemporary Winemaking on the Cape Wine Academy website.

With micro-oxidation imitating the slow infusion of air through wood barrel walls, the other part of the equation is incorporating wood derived aromas, flavors, and mouthfeel enhancements into wine being aged in stainless steel. This is commonly done by putting pieces of toasted wood in with the wine.

There are several advantages to this approach. While the pieces of wood interact with the wine in much the same way as barrel staves, they are much cheaper to produce as they don’t require precise shaping or bending and don’t have to be watertight. Putting the wood into the wine means that both sides (as well as the edges) are in contact with the wine, so that 100% of the wood surface area is used (as opposed to about 40% in a barrel). Lastly, the problem of cleaning the wood is avoided because the inserts are discarded after use.

The method that most closely mimics barrel aging is mounting long planks of toasted wood inside the stainless steel container. Lower-cost options include the use of shorter boards, wood cubes or chips, wood shavings, and even wood powder or sawdust. Smaller pieces tend to contribute aromas and flavors faster than larger ones, a fact that winemakers can use to reduce the production time of wine, albeit at the expense of the advantages that come from longer aging.

When combined with micro-oxygenation, the results of the plank technique have generally been good and it is widely considered a viable alternative for producing high-quality mid-priced wines. Similarly, wood cubes and wood chips can work well in younger wines. A 2011 study2 showed little difference in consumer preference for young wines aged for 6 months in oak barrels versus 6 months in stainless with oak chips added for the last month. (In fact, the oak chip wines scored higher than the barrel aged ones, though the difference was not statistically significant.) Wood shavings and wood powders are generally considered less effective than the larger pieces of wood but do impart some wood character at a low cost and with minimal contact time.

One final method for adding wood flavors and aromas to wine is the use of wood extract. Made by soaking oak chips in high-proof alcohol, extract tends to be harsh but can provide an instant infusion of wood-like character into a wine. (A common use for extract is to fine tune the flavor of inexpensive wines after dosing with wood powder and filtering.) It’s quick and cheap, and that’s probably all that can be said for it.

The general consensus in the industry is that when wood character is desired, the aging of wine in wooden barrels yields the best wines. However, most will also agree that when used to emulate (and perhaps gently accelerate) traditional methods, the techniques discussed above are capable of producing good wines at lower cost. However, as the focus shifts from emulation at a reduced cost to imitation at the lowest possible cost, the results are predictably of lower quality.

1 For those who have been following this series, it should come as no surprise that this difference in flavors has resulted in yet another style of wine. After aging part of the wine with wood and part in stainless steel, the two are blended back together. The resulting wine can have a mixture of the bright fruit flavors coming from the stainless portion and the rich mellow notes from the wood.

2 Pérez-Magariño, S., Ortega-Heras, M., and González-Sanjosé, M.L. 2011. Wine consumption habits and consumer preferences between wines aged in barrels or with chips. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 91: 943-949.

Wine and Wood (Part 3)

Spices for saleWood barrel aging has been called the winemakers spice rack. In the same ways that herbs and spices make foods more delicious, the aromas and flavors derived from wood can enhance wine. An earlier post discussed the effects of the different types of wood used in wine barrels, but that’s just the beginning. There are many other factors that affect the final result. For example, toast.

Toasting is something that occurs as part of the barrel-making process. When it is time to bend the barrel staves into their final shape, they are heated. In addition to making the wood more pliable, this also causes their inner side to brown, or toast. As the heat penetrates the staves, it triggers chemical changes that mellow the wood, reducing harsh tannins, diminishing woody flavors, and promoting the development of pleasing sensory characteristics.

By controlling the amount of heat and the duration of warming, barrel makers adjust the style and level of toast, achieving a wide variety of aromas and flavors including butterscotch, vanilla, caramel, chocolate, roasted coffee, and smoke. Toast is one of the specifications included when ordering a barrel, and it is an important part of shaping the future wine. (For more information on barrel toast, I recommend a visit to the website of the Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage, where there is a detailed discussion of the topic.)

Having selected the flavors available through wood type and the toast level, the next decision is how much spice to add. To minimize the effect of the wood, very large neutral barrels (ones that have been used many times for aging similar wines) are best.* When large flavor contributions are desired, newly constructed barrels in small sizes are the way to go. A balance between these two extremes is obtained by employing a mixture of new, used, and neutral barrels. The actual mix selected by the winemaker is often disclosed on wine labels or data sheets with phrases like “100% oak aged, 30% in new barrels”.

Winemakers can also control the effects of aging through the length of time the wine spends in the barrel. This is an especially useful approach, as the progress of the wine can be monitored via barrel samples and changes applied as necessary. For example, if the wine has enough wood influence but would still benefit from more interaction with air, it can be racked (transferred) to neutral barrels. When sampling indicates that enough time has been spent in barrels, then it will be bottled.

One of the interesting things about barrel aging is that the oxidation and evaporation effects resulting from the porosity of the barrel walls accumulate at a fairly constant rate, but what the wine draws from the wood itself decreases over time. This means that more aromas and flavors are extracted from the wood in the first few months of aging than in any similar period thereafter. To increase the effect of the wood on the wine, winemakers can use two, or even three, sequential agings in new wood barrels, a process described as 200%, or 300%, new barrel aging.

(Another technique for increasing wood influence, especially tannin extraction, is fermentation in barrels. Most winemakers believe that it is only suitable for use with new oak barrels and more powerful grapes like California Cabernet Sauvignon. Barrel fermentation is a labor intensive process that is only used in small batch wines.)

Finally, the influence of different types of wood can be incorporated into a wine by using a mixture of barrels. For example, to get the flavors of American oak with the mouthfeel of French oak, the winemaker can age part of the wine in each type of wood. This is another choice frequently disclosed on labels or data sheets with phrases such as, “100% oak aged, 80% in French oak, 20% in American oak.” Even when it is not disclosed, clues will be present. For example, the combination mentioned above would likely yield moderate vanilla, coconut, or cream flavors with a lush satiny mouthfeel.

A variation on this approach is to use barrels made of one type of wood or toast level with barrel heads of another. The heads of the barrel are the flat ends and they represent about 30% of the interior surface area, enough to add distinct flavor and texture notes to a wine. One example of this is called “toasted heads”, where the heads have a higher level of toast than the barrel itself, allowing the winemaker to incorporate both structural tannins and toasty flavors. Another example is the use of acacia wood heads with oak barrels, a combination that tends to tone down oak derived flavors while preserving the structural tannins and gradual oxidation effects of barrel aging.

The artistry of the winemaker is choosing among all these techniques to highlight the best features of the wine without trampling its character. As spices can transform plain food into an exquisite meal, wood barrel aging can create wines of amazing depth and complexity from simple fermented grape juice. And it’s all because barrels were better for moving wine than amphorae.

*In recent decades, barrels made of stainless steel have also been used to mature wine without adding flavors, though the result is not identical. Wines aged in stainless tend to be brighter and more fruit forward than those matured in large neutral wood barrels. They are also less likely to age well, and in most cases should be consumed while young.  There are, of course, techniques for influencing how wines develop in stainless steel and new stylistic options for winemakers resulting from its use. These (spoiler alert) are a topic for part 4 of this series.

Wine and Wood — A Barrel Sampler

I recently had the chance to taste three very interesting bottles of 2013 Chardonnay made by Casa Larga Winery in the Finger Lakes region of New York. The wine was quite good, but that wasn’t the part that really held my attention. What made these three bottles so fascinating was that they were the same wine but each had been aged in a different type of oak: American, French, and Hungarian.

What ensued was a unique opportunity to compare the how the three different types of oak affect wine where the wood was the only variable. Once the Casa Larga staff knew I was interested, they (with a gleam in their eye) asked if I wanted to try it blind. Happy to play the game, I agreed, and the varietal character of the different oaks was expressed truly enough that I was able to correctly identify each. (Phew!)

You don’t have to travel to Casa Larga to try it for yourself. The winery sells all three wines through its website with delivery to 36 states. Invite some friends over and have your own blind tasting. I can’t think of a faster way to learn the key differences between the three oaks.

One more thing… winemaker Matt Cassavaugh told me that in future vintages he will be adding Russian oak to the line-up. Gotta say I’m looking forward to that!

Wine and Wood (Part 2)

wine_barrel_smallThe woods that the Gauls used for making barrels were oak and fir. When these were adopted by the Romans, oak proved to be more suitable for wine, and its use continues to this day. However, people being what they are, we can be pretty sure that just about every other kind of wood has been tried at least once for making barrels and probably for storing and aging wine. A handful have been up to the job.


Oak’s preeminence comes from the almost perfect combination of tantalizing aromas, enriching flavors, structuring tannins, and elegant mouthfeel that it can bring to wine. While the whole package can be overwhelming for delicate wines and is not suitable for use with all grapes, when employed judiciously, wines of incredible flavor, depth, and complexity can result.

As is true for the grapes that go into wine, the type of oak and where it comes from have an effect on the final result. The two extremes are American oak and French oak with the other European oaks generally viewed as being somewhere in between. American oak, a different species of oak than the others*, is known for providing more flavor and less structure while French oak is biased the other way.

For me, the first indicator of which oak has been used in aging a wine is mouthfeel. American oak imparts a distinctly creamy sensation, one that wraps around your tongue, while French and European oaks have a more satiny or silky mouth feel that caresses your tongue. If that doesn’t make sense to you now, try a few and you’ll get it.

American oak generally contributes the fewest tannins and French oak the most. Eastern European (Hungarian, Russian, and Slavonian) oaks are described as providing less structure and sweeter aromas than French oak with moderate tannin impact. Caucasian oak is considered by some (but not all) to be the most restrained of the oaks and well suited to lighter wines, including whites.

In the flavor spectrum, if you get a predominance of sweet vanilla, coconut, or cream soda, you are probably tasting the influence of American oak. French oak is known for mild vanilla aromas with flavors that run to cinnamon, allspice, custard, and crème brûlée. Hungarian oak often comes across with a fuller mid-palate than French oak and a pleasant spiciness that has nutmeg, clove, and sweet oriental notes.

The choice of which kind of oak to use in aging wines is (naturally) up to the winemaker, but there are some general tendencies. French oak, the leading choice in wood aging for most French wines, is selected by winemakers around the world for its tannins, structure, and subtle flavor components. Eastern European oak fills much of the same role outside of France (and, at one time, was even preferred by many French winemakers). American oak is used with bigger, fuller wines, primarily in Spain, North America, South America, and Australia. Slavonian oak is widely employed in Italy because of its ready availability.


Flavors of caramel, toast, and honey are what Chestnut can contribute to wine. The wood also contains a lot of tannins, and wine aged in new chestnut can be so tannic as to be undrinkable. This effect is tempered by using older barrels, and fans of chestnut aging value the complex flavors, light tannins, and good fruit preservation that result.

Due to the more porous nature of the wood, barrels made of chestnut have much higher evaporation and oxidation rates than those built from oak. Because of this, chestnut barrels are generally viewed as being suitable only for short aging periods. One exception is Vin Santo which, aged for several years without topping up, embraces the effects of both evaporation and oxidation as part of the wine’s style. Some winemakers utilize chestnut for long term storage by coating the inside with wax (or, more recently, silicone). Chestnut barrels are used in Beaujolais, parts of Italy, and Portugal.


Barrels made from cherry wood are traditionally employed in the production of Ripasso and Vin Santo style wines in Italy. Winemakers that use it prize the wood for its gentle contribution of light cherry and red fruit flavors that complement their wines. The wood is also known for significantly influencing wine color, making it redder and deeper.

Like oak, cherry wood contributes tannins to wine as it ages. Wines aged in cherry oxidize faster than they would in oak. This can shorten the aging process or become an integral part of the aging process for oxidized wines like Vin Santo.


Of all the woods commonly used in winemaking, acacia is the most gentle. Winemakers that work with acacia note its ability to provide structure and oak-like mouthfeel while preserving the aromatic and fruit characteristics of the wine. Less toasty and woody than oak, it is well suited to white wines, delivering delicate citrus and floral notes with a possible touch of sweetness that would never be noticed in more powerful wines. Some winemakers describe acacia as tannin-free, while others feel that it adds small amounts of soft tannin to the wine.

Acacia is more porous than oak, resulting in higher wine loss and more frequent topping up. It is typically used when the winemaker wants a short (3 or 4 month) period of conditioning before bottling.

Acacia barrels are common in Austria. They are used in Bordeaux, Sauternes, Loire Valley, and Gailac, commonly with sweet white varieties such as petit manseng, muscadelle, and mauzac. Acacia enjoys a broader range of use with Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Rhone white varietals. In the U.S., acacia is employed for aging sauvignon blanc, pinot blanc, viognier, chardonnay, and pinot gris.

*American oak is a species named Quercus alba, while two species of oak are used for barrels in Europe, Quercus robur and Quercus petraea. The two European oak species are often considered the same for wine making purposes (and are typically intermixed in barrel construction) though some sources express a preference for one over the other.


Wine and Wood (Part 1)

wine-barrelsThe original reason for putting wine into wood barrels was to make it easier to move. Amphorae and dolia made from clay were a proven solution for wine storage and could be transported reasonably well by ship, but their weight and fragility made them much less suitable for going any distance over land. The Mesopotamians are believed to be the first to use wooden barrels to carry wine. These were manufactured by hollowing out palm tree trunks, a time-consuming and expensive process, and their use did not spread outside of the Middle East.

Barrels of the type that we are familiar with today were invented by the Celts in northern Europe and spread through the region by trade. Their use with wine resulted from the Roman Empire’s expansion into central Europe. As the advancing legions ventured further and further from the Mediterranean coast, keeping the troops supplied with wine was a growing problem. When the Romans reached Gaul, they were introduced to staved barrels made from oak and fir that the Gauls used for storing and transporting beer*. Not ones to ignore a good idea, the conquerors quickly adopted the barrels for use with wine.

As they spread through Europe, the Romans carried their wine making traditions with them. Grapes flourished in many of the Empire’s new territories and, over time, the transport challenge became bringing wine from the provinces back to Rome. What the traders of the time soon discovered was that the wine shipped in oak barrels often arrived tasting better than when it had left the northern lands.

What caused this magic transformation?

Wine kept in wooden barrels is changed by two processes. One is direct contact between the wine and the wood, the other is limited contact with air through the sides of the barrel. Working together, these interactions enhance wine by reducing fruitiness, developing new flavors, providing structure, and adding texture.

A well-made wood barrel doesn’t leak, but it is still slightly porous. This allows a little bit of the wine to evaporate out and a little bit of air to come in. While too much air is bad for wine, a properly topped-up wood barrel allows just enough air contact to gradually dissolve oxygen into the wine, supporting chemical processes that help the wine to develop. These processes can do things like increase body, soften tannins, and create a rounder mouthfeel. The slow infusion of air into wine also helps stabilize the color of red wine, increase aging potential, and can even reduce vegetal characteristics such as green and leafy aromas.

While the air is busy doing its job, the wood is also changing the wine. Aromas and flavors transferred from the wood add complexity. Various chemical reactions enhance mouthfeel and structure. Tannins mingle, typically making white wines slightly more tannic but, interestingly, red wines sometimes softer and less tannic.

The strength of these interactions is affected by barrel size, how much use the barrel has seen already, and how long the wine is aged in it. Barrel aging effects are increased by using smaller barrels, newer barrels, and longer aging times. The influence of the wood on the wine can also be magnified by fermenting in the barrel.

During the aging process, the contact with the wood impacts the wine most strongly in the first months, with a gradually decreasing the rate of change over time. After being used for aging two or three times, most of what the wood has to give to wine has been used up and the barrel is called ‘neutral’. It will still allow air to interact with the wine, gaining all the benefits of the gradual infusion of oxygen, but the wood will no longer add flavors or tannins.

The different factors that increase or decrease the effects of wood and air allow winemakers to plan an aging regimen that best matches the wine they are making. However, before exploring that it makes sense to review the different woods used in barrels today and what they contribute to the wine. That will be the topic for the next post is this series.

*In Commentarii de Bello Gallico, Julius Caesar wrote about another use the Gauls found for their barrels. During the siege of Uxellodunum in 51BC, the townsmen filled barrels with tallow, pitch, and dried wood then set them on fire, and rolled them down on to the Roman positions causing a great blaze. The Romans prevailed, though perhaps with a somewhat increased interest in barrel technology.

Knowledge for the Asking

Two things are inarguably true about wine knowledge; we all start with the same amount (none), and no matter how much you know, there is always more to learn. I think it’s a safe assumption that anyone reading this has the interest to learn more, but blogs can only go so far. This week on Food and Wine, Sadie Stein writes about overcoming her fears to access one of the best learning resources available in Can a Sommelier Save Your Wine Life?

What Sadie’s friend says about sommeliers is true for most of the people in the wine business– we work with wine because we love it. Whether it’s a wine dinner, a tasting, or just buying a bottle at your local wine shop, ask a few questions. When it comes to wine, and wine knowlege, sharing is a big part of the enjoyment.

The Tale of the Black Rooster

Logo of the Military League of Chianti

As noted in my post The Good, the Bad, and the Fiasco, the black rooster is the logo of the Chianti Classico growers association, Consorzio del Vino Classico Chianti. The consortium chose the rooster because it is a long time symbol of Chianti, dating back at least as far as the establishment of the Military League of Chianti in 1384. However, that still leaves the question: Why a black rooster?

During the Middle Ages, there were two important cities just north and south of Chianti: Florence and Siena. By the early 13th century these rivals had an established history of diplomatic scheming and bloody battles. Both were interested in controlling the Chianti area that lay between them, and the rooster is part of a legend about how they settled one of their disputes.

As the story goes, the parties were interested in a non-military resolution to the crisis at hand. The plan they came up with was to set the border at the place where two riders, one from each city, met when they simultaneously set out to travel to the other’s city. Lacking radios or synchronized timepieces, the method devised for coordinating the departure times was the first crowing of a rooster on the chosen day.

The Sienese selected a white rooster which they fed well so that it would have plenty of energy for crowing long and loud when dawn broke. The Florentines picked a black rooster which they kept tightly confined and underfed. As a result, Florence’s rooster was in a foul mood and on the day of the contest it began crowing as soon as it was disturbed, a time well before day break. This gave the rider from Florence a large head start. The two met at a point only a short distance outside of Siena (most accounts say 12 kilometers), giving control of Chianti to the Florentines.

Whether the story is true or not, history records that when Siena threatened to attack the town of Montepulciano in 1203, Florence manufactured a diplomatic crisis by laying claim to Tornano, a fortress a few miles north-east of Sienna. The potestà (chief magistrate) of Poggibonsi was asked to arbitrate the dispute, and on June 4, 1203, he gave his decision, moving the border between the two cities to just six miles north of Siena.

We’ll almost certainly never know for sure if a black rooster was involved in the events of 1203 (or any other time in the Florence-Siena rivalry). On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that you’ll never forget what the black rooster means to wine today!

For those interested in history, detailed information on Florence and Siena in the Middle Ages can be found in two e-books available through Google:

A History of Siena by Robert Langton Douglas, with information on the decision of the potestà starting on page 58.

Siena and Southern Tuscany by Edward Hutton, where these events are described starting on the bottom of page 81.

An Introduction to Decanting

Decanting is one of those subjects that keeps coming up at wine tastings. Why should you do it? When should you do it? How do you do it? This week Eater provides an excellent introduction in Ask a Somm: When Should I Decant?

As the article points out, not all wines benefit from decanting. How do you decide whether or not to decant when you don’t know the wine well and don’t happen to have a sommelier on hand to advise you? You let your taste buds tell you.

Open the bottle before serving time and give it a taste, then decide whether to decant or not. For an older bottle, this would typically be right before serving, for a younger one allow an hour or more.  You don’t need to know the wine well, just have some idea of how wine changes as it interacts with the air. You probably have some sense of this already, but I have a simple experiment to help you sharpen your skills.

Pick a bottle that you think might benefit from decanting. A good place to start would be a mid-price cabernet sauvignon or a syrah that’s 2 or 3 years old, but pick anything you like, you will learn something. Then get some large bowl red wine glasses out.

Open the bottle, pour a glass right up to the widest part of the bowl, then re-cork the bottle. Taste the wine, but don’t drink it up! You’re going to need it later. Make some notes on the color, aroma, and flavor, then go away for 30 or 40 minutes. Here’s the hard part: only drink water while you’re waiting.

When you come back, pour a second glass just like you did with the first. Taste it and compare to the notes you made when you first opened the bottle. It may have changed some, but probably not too much. Now taste the one that has been sitting out for a while and make notes on color, aroma, and flavor. When you compare these notes to those from your first taste you probably are going to find some differences, and that’s what decanting gets you, just a bottle at a time instead of a glass at a time.

If you have the curiosity and patience, keep going with another glass every 30 to 40 minutes to see how the wine changes. Whether you keep adding new glasses or just continue with your first two or three, I recommend varying the order you taste them in as doing so may reveal different qualities in the wine.

Now that you know what to expect, you’re ready to start decanting. Don’t let the lack of a decanter hold you back on a wine that needs it. Any glass container that allows the wine to spread out and interact with the air can work. A one-quart measuring cup, for example. It may not be pretty, but that’s easily solved– when the wine is ready, just use a funnel to pour it back into the bottle for serving.

The Good, the Bad, and the Fiasco

Straw wrapped Chianti bottles
Chianti in straw-wrapped fiascos

For many people, their first experience with Italian wine will be Chianti. It’s an experience that has the potential to be either very good or very bad and the reasons for this are intimately tied to the history of the wine.

Chianti became the first designated wine region in the world in 1716 when the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de’ Medici, issued an edict naming the land around the villages of Radda, Gaiole, and Castellina (with Greve added later) as the recognized producers of the wine. Today the boundaries of Chianti have expanded to cover almost 100 miles in length from north to south while the smaller area around the original villages is now known as Chianti Classico.

The modern definition of Chianti was formulated in 1872 by Barone Bettino Ricasoli and documented in a letter to Professor Cesare Studiati at the University of Pisa:

“… the wine receives most of its aroma from the Sangioveto (which is my particular aim) as well as a certain vigour in taste; the Canajuolo gives it a sweetness which tempers the harshness of the former without taking away any of its aroma, though it has an aroma all of its own; the Malvagia, which could probably be omitted for wines for laying down, tends to dilute the wine made from the first two grapes, but increases the taste and makes the wine lighter and more readily suitable for daily consumption… “

It is interesting to note that this description encompasses two styles of Chianti: a lighter, younger style for everyday drinking, and a richer, aged style. For a variety of reasons, it is the former that has been, until recently, dominant.

During the first half of the twentieth century, agriculture in much of central and northern Italy was based on a sharecropping system. Farmers who were making wine for their own consumption using their share of the grapes had little interest in (or surplus wealth to support) laying down bottles for aging, so they naturally turned towards the younger, everyday style. Many landowners were also focused on converting grapes to wine as quickly as possible and then selling it in bulk. Both would often manage the vineyards to produce as much fruit as possible, a bias reinforced by government-led replanting programs in the 1960s, and a choice that led to and acidic wines.

Further eroding the flavor of Barone Ricasoli’s original recipe was the replacement over time of the aromatic and flavorful Malvasia by the considerably less so Trebbiano. This was undoubtedly driven by Trebbiano’s prolific production, resistance to disease and rot, and adaptability to a wide range of soils.  These are advantages which it also holds over Sangiovese, which may explain why larger percentages of white wine came to be used in Chianti blends.

The quantity over quality style became the official version of the wine when the Chianti DOC was created in 1967, and white wine grapes were required to be at least 10% of the blend, with up to 30% allowed. Using this formula, an ocean of tart, cheap wine was bottled and distributed far and wide in the straw-wrapped container all too aptly called a fiasco*.

However, even as the government was encouraging the production of bad wine, some Tuscan winemakers were focusing on excellence in winemaking. This movement is famous for giving rise to the ‘Super Tuscans’, but it also led to changes in the laws governing Chianti. In 1984, the minimum percentage of white wine grapes was reduced to 2% and blending up to 10% of “international” red wine varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon was authorized. Chianti and Chianti Classico were also upgraded to DOCG appellations, a change which reduced the maximum yield from the vineyards and led to the growing of more concentrated fruit.

The laws were changed again in 1996, eliminating the requirement for blending in white wine at all and upping the allowed portion of international grapes to 15%. Finally, in 2006, blending white wine was completely banned in the Chianti Classico region (though still permitted in other parts of Chianti), and the allowed portion of authorized international varieties was increased to 20%.

The Black Rooster logo of the Consorzio del Vino Classico Chianti

Bad Chianti still exists today, but there is also a lot of good. The most highly regarded region is Chianti Classico. Many of these wines, some will say the best, carry the gallo nero (black rooster) logo of the Chianti Classico growers association, Consorzio del Vino Classico Chianti. In the larger Chianti appellation, the wines of the Rufina sub-zone are generally considered the best, though good wines can come from anywhere in the region.

A full range of styles is available, from early drinking wines that, outside of the Classico region, incorporate white wines in the blend, to rich, age-worthy riservas that undergo extended maturation in wood. Finally, yes, there are those that only a generous person would categorize as, er, rustic. But, for the most part, Chiantis are still affordable enough that when you hit a bad one, you just open another bottle.

*Most etymologists believe that the English meaning of fiasco, ‘a complete failure’, is related to the Italian word for flask or bottle, but not because of bad Chianti. The origins of the English usage are unclear but apparently rooted in late 19th century Italian slang. Two good discussions of the subject are this entry on World Wide Words and Still in the Bottleneck, or, Chasing for the First Fiasco on the Oxford University Press blog.