Comment: Where is the Chianti?   Leave a comment

A map of the Chianti region courtesy Wikipedia.

We’ve all seen maps that are intentionally distorted in a way that countries’ sizes reflect, proportionally, their production or consumption of a certain product. For instance a map of Europe distorted to show per capita beer consumption might make tiny Belgium a new empire, while Italy would shrink down to the size of Slovenia in comparison. Following this logic, imagine now the size of the Chianti area in Italy relative to the rest of Italy. Going by the popularity of the eponymous wine, the use of the name in entrees (e.g. Summer Chianti Pasta) at Italian restaurants abroad, and the travel guides devoted to it, it would seem that the Chianti occupies a large relative part of the foreign imagination-ing of Italy.

One would assume, then, that defining where Chianti is would be easy. Au contraire. The earliest mention of geographic zone called Chianti is in 1250; Florence has divided its territory into “leagues” for defensive purposes, and had created the “Lega del Chianti. It included Radda, Gaiole, and Castellina. This area, all inside of the province of Siena now, is relatively small compared to the zone that we know as “the Chianti” today. The league was transformed later into the province of Chianti, which was extended in 1717 by Cosimo III de’ Medici up to (but not including the municipalities of Greve and Panzano). Chianti ceased to exist as an administrative district, however, when Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo divided the territory up in municipalities in 1774.

Since then has not been an administrative zone: it sprawls across three Italian provinces (Siena, Arezzo, and Florence), has no discernable geographic borders (yes, vaguely it’s in the Chianti hills), and the only legal definition of the boundaries of this imagined space are those drawn up to define the doc wine production area. Even then the borders seem a little hazy, as one can see from the Fascist-era law that governs the area: “From this point the border follows the Ambra Stream and one of its unnamed tributaries to the Ciarpella Farmhouse, then the mule path that goes to the Casa al Frate Farmhouse. From here it follows an imaginary line to the village of Ombrone (298 meters above sea level). It then follows a mule path, going up to 257 meters above sea level, where is runs into a dirt road, which comes out onto the road to Castelnuovo Berardenga. It goes up that road to reach an elevation 354 meters above sea level. From here it follows a ditch…”

Some towns which were not included in the original medieval document cited above even added, in the 1970s, the suffix “in Chianti” to the legal names of the municipalities. Panzano and Greve became “Panzano in Chianti” and “Greve in Chianti.” This strange history of a now-imaginary region leads us logically to several questions: Do lines so arbitrarily (and, historically speaking, relatively recently) drawn really tell us about the identity of a wine? Why does a region that’s not even a region carry so much emotional weight, especially with foreigners?  ZN


Posted January 26, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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