The Legend of the Black Rooster

June 1988. The green Volkswagen Beetle winds through the Chianti with deliberate slowness, on the legendary route 222. My parents in front, me in the back, stretched out over the seats.

It’s Sunday, and family tradition dictates that we go for a little drive. This almost always means the rolling hills of the Black Rooster, or in other words, of Chianti Classico, which are riven by the same straight road that bisects almost all of Tuscany. It passes through the gorgeous hill towns of Panzano, Greve and Castellina.

Every so often I would stick my head out of the window, just to fill my lungs and try to chase away the carsickness. And I remember to this day how perplexed I was at seeing artists lining the road, behind their easels. Most of them were painting the Chianti hills, but some of them were creating vast images of black roosters. 

Naturally, the drive would finish with wine and schiacciata. And on those bottles, which contained a liquid of such a rich red that I would almost call it claret, I found that black rooster once again.

My train of thought, no doubt oiled by the wine, takes me next to Sant’Andrea in Percussina, near San Casciano Val di Pesa, the stern, striking villa that Machiavelli, who lived there as an exile, dubbed the Albergaccio (literally, the ugly hotel). It was there that I worked as a young twenty-something for three years, in that manor house which just so happened to be home to the Chianti Classico Consortium. One of my jobs, one that I always did with the greatest pleasure (although I bored myself a little in the end!), was to tell all the visitors about the common factor between an area – the Chianti Classico – a wine, and a bird. It was my job to tell the story of the Gallo Nero.

So, let’s go back to the Medieval period and the Chianti area as it was then, stretching from just south of Florence to just north of Siena. This made it a battleground, tugged this way and that between the Florentine Guelphs and the Sienese Ghibellines. The two cities were as bitter and belligerent as they were magnificent and proud, and despite Florence’s constant expansion, it wasn’t until 1555 that it subdued Siena. Indeed, the Sienese routed the Florentines in 1260 at the Battle of Montaperti (“the great slaughter / that made the Arbia run red”, as Dante described it). And when the Florentines finally made the Chianti theirs, they found it was a powder keg waiting to explode, where skirmishes erupted in the woods and around the castles, often for the tiniest piece of soil. Not for nothing does the name Chianti probably come from the Latin clangor, meaning the clash of arms. Tired of fighting one battle after another, the parties eventually decided to resolve the Chianti question with “a single contest” – a single race!

The rules were thus: when the cock crowed, two horsemen – the best that Florence and Siena could produce – would set off riding from their respective cities. The point at which they met would mark the line that would divide the Chianti between the two powers.

The Sienese were confident. Their fame preceded them as horsemen, trained in their fearsome annual horserace, the Palio. The Florentines, meanwhile, were masters of a great many arts, but riding was not really one of them. But as we know, genius is born of necessity. The night before the challenge, the Florentines shut a black rooster in a cage and gave it nothing to eat.

Meanwhile, the Sienese, confident of victory, were getting in the pre-drinks. The city’s various contrade (districts) were living it up in grand style, and feeding their own white rooster, who was well-known as a chatterbox, fit to bursting.

And so, the day of the race dawned. Barely had the first fingers of sunlight started to creep above the horizon when, jumpy and nervous in its cage and hunger, the black rooster of the Florentines began to crow. The white Sienese bird, rather jaded after a night of festivities, joined in much later. This allowed the Florentine horseman to achieve a massive headstart over his Sienese opponent; and when the two eventually met, it was at Fonterutoli, near Siena, handing the vast majority of the Chianti to Florence.

Whatever the truth of the legend, the Black Rooster pops up many a time in actual history. From the 1200s onwards, Florence divided its part of the Chianti into various governmental administrations: thus 1384 saw the first statute of the Chianti League drawn up. This body, which dealt with matters both diplomatic and military, chose the black rooster as its symbol, on a gold background.

If you ever happen to visit the Palazzo Vecchio in Firenze, go upstairs to the Salone del Cinquecento. Raise your eyes to the extraordinary wooden ceiling, where you will see a painting that Giorgio Vasari completed in 1547: Ager Clantius et eius oppida, ‘The Chianti area and its towns’. An imposing, lordly figure leans on his shield, which bears an image of the black rooster on its golden background.

At that point in time, no one was talking about wine in relation to the Chianti. But as the decades went by and the area became peaceful, more and more defensive structures were converted into wineries, and vines sowed in their surrounding land. The sharecropping system took root and the Chianti gradually became one of the most famous wine regions in the world. In a statute of 1716 signed by Grand Duke Cosimo III dei Medici, the Chianti Classico was finally recognized as its own, superior, wine-producing territory.

So famous did Chianti become that it started to inspire a horde of imitators, throughout Tuscany and beyond. Often you would find bottles with a label that read Vino fatto a modi Chianti” – wine made in the Chianti style. The icing on the cake arrived in 1932, when Fascist Italy licensed the production of Chianti wine outside of the Chianti area, in a bid to boost the economy. Chianti winemakers responded by adding the word “Classico” to their labels.

In the end, justice was done, and those who had resisted the government’s licensing of plagiarism were vindicated. This was thanks in large part to the Consorzio del Marchio Storico, which had been founded in Radda in 1924, with the aim of safeguarding the region’s flagship product: wine. Its founders chose the black rooster – the Gallo Nero – as its symbol, which soon started to appear on the wine bottles.

Fast forward to 1996, a couple of years after that car ride with my parents. All Chianti wines, from Classico zone to subzones, had acquired either the DOC or DOCG quality mark at some point between 1967 and 1984, but there still wasn’t much clear distinction between the products. But 1996 marked a great victory: 72 years after the foundation of the Consorzio, Chianti Classico was officially recognized as a separate entity to other Chianti wine. Different areas of production, different labels, different identities, despite sharing the name Chianti.

Only in the recent years had the Gallo Nero become obligatory on bottles of Chianti Classico. In the past, it was a matter of choice. Now, on any bottle of Chianti Classico, you will find the black rooster. An animal that represents a region, a wine and a small strip of land in Tuscany that two cities fought over for centuries. It represents a history of difficulty and diversity, beauty and the highest natural goodness.

April 2021. I take the car and I head off onto the 222. My eyes are overwhelmed with the castles, tower houses, farmhouses, Etruscan and Renaissance remains and the country villas that pass me on the road. My ears take in the calls of hoopoes, starlings, chaffinches and the other murmurs of late spring; and my nose tingles with cypress, hawthorn, dog rose, holm oak and olive trees.

I stop at a wine place and swill a glass of 1988 CastellIn Villa. It is wine fit for a princess, maybe my favorite of the Chianti Classicos. I think back to what I was doing in 1988: just a young kid, wandering around with my parents. A sense of melancholy steals over me: it’s the taste of life, but yes, the unmistakable scent of melancholy. But so often that’s what the taste of wine is, especially when it comes to the Chianti Classico Gallo Nero.