Chianti: Telling the Good From the Bad On Wine by Lettie Teague - WSJ.com: "At a certain point in American history, people stopped saying hello and goodbye and began saying ciao. On the streets of Manhattan, Seattle and even Greenwich, Conn., I've overheard otherwise non-Italian speakers madly ciao-ing each another when they arrived or departed. The only other Italian word I've heard uttered as often may be Chianti. And like ciao, Chianti has more than one meaning: It can stand for a cheap, simple bottle or a wine made by a world-class producer. Anyone who isn't a student of Italian winemaking (or, for that matter, Italian history and politics) may have a hard time discerning the difference between the two.
For a long time, there was only one type of Chianti: a cheap straw-covered bottle called a fiasco—which doubled as a good description of the wine itself. A bottle of Chianti was better suited to candle-holding than collecting. The reasons were numerous but mostly had to do with mass production and poor-quality grapes. Sometimes Chianti could contain as much as 30% cheap white grapes like Trebbiano in the blend—never mind that the wine Chianti producers were making was a red.
But by the mid-1980s, things started to change. Prominent Chianti producers took a more worldly view; they reduced their yields, eliminated the cheap white grapes and began experimenting with nontraditional varietals like Cabernet and Merlot. Some producers even made all-Sangiovese wines, which, though Sangiovese is the main grape of Chianti, was considered heretical at the time."
This about sums it up:
That may be the most important fact to know about Chianti today: Despite sharing a single grape—Sangiovese—and a similar climate and growing conditions, Chiantis are some of the most diverse wines in the world. But there's really no easy way for anyone who's not a serious wine drinker to tell the good Chianti from bad, the quality-minded producers from the also-rans. (The Chianti Classico Consorzio's gallo nero (black rooster) neck label is a guarantee of origin and proof of more selective standards—though a barnyard fowl isn't exactly a grand cru designation.) The fact is, a good Chianti can be found only through investigation and study—the opposite of what most people expect when they're choosing Chianti. And so I decided to hold my own tasting to see what, exactly, a Chianti buyer might find.