What’s at the root of the British love affair with Chianti? We’re so at home in this region of vineyards, cypresses, olives and ancient stone hamlets that – some time in the Eighties, according to the Oxford English Dictionary – we even turned it into a Shire.
Wine may provide an answer. Not just because good red sangiovese pretty much flows from the drinking fountains between Florence and Siena, but because of what wine does for landscape, and what landscape does for wine.
But let me backtrack a little. Three hundred years ago, on September 24 1716, the hapless, reactionary, selfishly long-lived Tuscan Grand Duke Cosimo III finally did something useful, promulgating a decree that established the borders of the Chianti winewas a prescient act, one that not only predated the start of the appellation system in Bordeaux by nine years, but went beyond it, both in setting borders beyond which no wine could be called “chianti”, and creating what were then termed “congregations” of quality-control experts in each area.
The concept seems obvious – it protects consumers, producers and the image of the territory – but at the time, it was revolutionary.
The area of winemaking excellence sanctified by Cosimo’s decree corresponds to a remarkable degree with the current Chianti Classico zone – an enclave only granted its own, separate DOCG recognition in 1996 after a 70-year struggle by its producers against regional bureaucracy and vested interests (something the autocratic Grand Duke didn’t have to contend with).
It’s no coincidence that Chianti Classico is also one of the most beautiful parts of Tuscany. This is not just because vineyards turn hills into stripy land art installations; it’s also to do with the fact that good wine – at least in these parts – positively needs the wildness that surrounds the vineyards.
First-time visitors to the area are often surprised by how untamed much of the landscape is – swathes of holm oak, arbutus, hornbeam, ilex and broom are draped over hills that bristle with wild boar and porcupines. The vines – which take up less than 10 per cent of the total DOCG area – draw their resilience from the fact that they need to fight for nutrients with wild nature. Good sangiovese grapes, like good extra vergine olives, and more than a few people, feed on stress.
It also helps that Tuscan winemakers have long seen themselves as the custodians of the territory that provides their livelihood. A glance at Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s 14th-century frescoes of the Allegories of Good and Bad Government in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico demonstrates eloquently that, for the best part of a millennium, Tuscans have seen a well-tended landscape as a kind of moral imperative.
In the panel showing the Effects of Good Government on the Country, olive groves, neat vineyards and small country villas much like those that are rented out for summer leases today dot the countryside outside Siena’s walls. In the Bad Government equivalent, the landscape is a scorched waste between two opposing armies.
Attention to food – its freshness, provenance and preparation – is a natural corollary of this Tuscan country ethos. There may be little variety in an area where every trattoria seems to have the same menu, with starters such as ribollita (a filling cavolo nero, bean and bread soup) and pappardelle pasta strips in hare sauce, and main courses dominated by the thick-sliced T-bone steak known as bistecca alla fiorentina. But that’s because food is culture, and history; for a trattoria to mess with the canonic menu would be like a local producer making chianti out of cabernet sauvignon: it doesn’t bear thinking about.
How to visit Chianti
One of the helpful things about Tuscany’s most famous wine zone is how close it is to the two cities that bookend it to the north and south – Florence and Siena. From the former, the scenic SS222 Chiantigiana road enters Chianti Classico territory as soon as it crosses the A1 motorway that loops around the city to the south and west. Beyond the town of Greve, a left fork will take you to Radda, Gaiole and Castelnuovo Berardenga. Stay on the SS222 and you’ll pass through charming Panzano, which hosts the worthwhile Vino al Vino wine festival in September (vinoalvinopanzano.com), and the compact market town of Castellina, before skirting the impressive marchesi Mazzei estate of Fonterutoli on your way to Siena.
By definition, most of the best wineries are in the remote depths of the countryside. It helps if you have a car and a driver who are happy with strade bianche – Tuscan unpaved “white roads”, which are generally well made but not designed for low-slung Lamborghinis.
One good piece of advice, which will help you get pleasantly lost in stunning vine and castle-strewn countryside without actually getting lost, is to follow the first part of the Eroica route south from Gaiole. The Eroica (eroicagaiole.com) is a vintage bicycle race that takes place on the first Sunday of October, but it’s also a permanently marked route, accessible to cars as well as bikes and pedestrians.
Perhaps the most rewarding stretch, though it’s a difficult call, is the 10 kilometres that head south from Brolio castle to Pianella, through a landscape that has changed little in half a millennium.
Below you will find my entirely personal selection of the best three Chianti wineries to visit. These are not necessarily the ones most geared towards offering slick customer “experiences” – like the undoubtedly impressive state-of-the-art Antinori winery (antinori.it), near San Casciano Val di Pesa, where entire coach parties of visitors are processed with the same efficiency as the grapes.
It’s a truism of wine touring, anyway, that the most rewarding places are often those that are initially reluctant to let you in – because they’re too busy making wine.
Castello di Ama
There are several reasons to visit this celebrated Gaiole winery, not least its growing collection of site-specific contemporary art, which includes works by Daniel Buren, Anish Kapoor and Louise Bourgeois. Occupying most of a pretty panoramic hamlet, Ama makes some of the area’s most serious, cellar-worthy chianti classicos, as well as L’Apparita – the holy grail of Italian merlot.
Lasting an hour and a half, tours (€35/£27 a head, but well worth it) take in the art, the village, the vines and tastings of four of the estate’s stellar wines, plus a rather fine olive oil.
Before or afterwards, stop for lunch at the Ama restaurant Il Ristoro, which plays engagingly against its posh 18th-century villa setting by offering unfussy, traditional Tuscan dishes like mama makes. Three roomy, aristocratic suites (from £276 per night) in the estate’s other historic villa allow guests to spend more time in one of Chianti’s most seductive corners (castellodiama.com).
Badia a Coltibuono
Much of Chianti still breathes the proto-ecological medieval spirit of the Lorenzetti Buon Governo fresco mentioned above, but it is particularly strong in this estate centring on a well-preserved 11th-century abbey, whose vines were first planted and tended by Vallombrosan monks.
Visits (costing €10 a head) take in the ancient cellars and a lovely Renaissance formal garden, and end with a tasting of the estate’s excellent chianti classico and olive oil. The al fresco restaurant with its upscale regional dishes is a delight, while the estate’s homely, comfy rooms and self-catering apartments – which share a good-sized swimming pool – are decent value for the area, starting at around £145 a night (en.coltibuono.com).
British winemaker Sean O’Callaghan arrived in Chianti many years ago to work for this little jewel of an estate just outside the town of Gaiole. The property was set up by another Briton, the late John Dunkley – one of a handful of producers to lead Chianti Classico to greatness in the Seventies and Eighties.
O’Callaghan is now in charge of production in a small, serious winery that only became properly geared up for visits in 2014 when the new, sustainable cantina was inaugurated. Visits (0039 0577 749098; info@; €20) take in the historic sangiovese vineyards, the wine cellars, and a tasting of the entire range – a rosé, three reds, a dessert wine and the estate’s olive oil. You would be well advised to nab a few bottles of the 2013 chianti classico before they all go – this is one of the best non-riservas in the whole DOCG zone.
O’Callaghan also helps out with the winemaking at Val delle Corti (valdellecorti.it) near Radda – another fine small producer, which also offers accommodation, in a chicly rustic two-bedroom cottage amid the vines (riecine.it).
Where to stay
Chianti is prime territory for a villa holiday, and several operators and agents that specialise in Tuscany and Umbria offer properties here. Try: Bridgewater’s Italy (0161 787 8587;bridgewatertravel.co.uk); Dominique’s Villas (020 3265 1052;dominiquesvillas.co.uk); Elysian Holidays (01580 766599;elysianholidays.co.uk); Invitation to Tuscany (020 8444 9500;invitationtotuscany.com); Sun-Hat (01522 889450; sun-hat-villas.com); To Tuscany (0121 286 7782; to-tuscany.com).
Other Italy specialists worth trying include: Cottages to Castles (01622 775217; cottagestocastles.com); Ilios Travel (01444 225633; iliostravel.com); Real Holidays (020 7359 3938;realholidays.co.uk).
With so many good villa options, characterful hotels can be thin on the ground. You can stay in the wineries mentioned in the main story, but I also have two favourite options in the Classico zone and one in Siena itself:
Villa Bordoni, Greve
A cute country hotel with decor by Riccardo Barthel, the king of the Florentine antique salvage look, and a restaurant that puts a gourmet spin on the local tradition. (telegraph.co.uk/villabordoni; doubles from £233).
La Locanda, Radda
Isolated rural retreat, with a spin of globetrotting elegance in its Anglophile country-house decor. Volpaia, viewed from the hotel’s wisteria-draped pergola, is one of the region’s most photogenic rural hamlets. (telegraph.co.uk/lalocanda; doubles from £174).
Grand Hotel Continental, Siena
In the centre of town, the Grand Hotel has a splendid 17th-century façade and frescoed ceilings. The common areas – the SaporDivino wine bar and restaurant – are more contemporary, with a glass, steel and weathered-brick wine cellar. (telegraph.co.uk/continentalsiena; from £250).