HISTORY OF A FIASCO
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
What makes fiasco a classic? Seven hundred years of history, a straw basket wrapping, the Sangiovese grape and the hills of Chianti…
“Fare fiasco” in Italian means to fail, an expression which has been traced back to the ancient glass blowing craft when, sometime during the 14th Century, a mistake in the manufacture resulted in a round bottomed vessel which couldn’t stand upright, that is, a failure of a bottle.
However, rather than discarding it, the glass makers devised a straw basket wrap with a base specifically intended to keep the bottle standing. The basket material - typically made of a swamp weed sun dried and blanched - provided also protection against breakage. Thus the “fiasco” was born and it occurred to its users that it could be also conveniently packed for transportation, with the necks of inverted bottles safely tucked into the spaces between the baskets of cocked ones.
The term fiasco - intended as "failure in performance" - entered English language in the second half of 19th Century borrowed from theatrical slang and continued to be used world-wide ever since.
No matter its controversial origin, the fiaschi (plural of fiasco) were quickly adopted by the Tuscan wine producers in order to bottle their Sangiovese, the native grape thriving in the limestone laden soils of Chianti, a hilly land that stretches for about 20 km (North-South-Southeast) between Florence, Siena and Arezzo, in Tuscany.
This famous wine region has today a reputation that extends beyond the quality of its wine. The name "Chianti", synonymous of excellent wine, does not refer to a variety of grape... rather it identifies a territory of several different areas restricted to the municipalities of Gaiole, Radda and Castellina which, by the way, were part of the 1384 "League of Chianti" whose symbol was the famous black rooster.
During the Renaissance Boccaccio (writer and poet) mentioned the fiasco in his 1350 Decameron poem, renowned Botticelli painted it in his 1483 “Banchetto per Nastagio degli Onesti” and among many others also Ghirlandaio (a Florentine painter) included it in his 1490 “Birth of John the Baptist”. Throughout its history, the fiasco was found on the tables of peasants and Popes alike, immediately recognizable for its shape and design which turned it into a highly appreciated trademark.
Wine has been made for centuries in Chianti. Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1670 to 1723, used to gift fiaschi to other European nobility and royal courts. The wine trade kept flourishing in Tuscany and so, in an effort to enhance the producing area and reduce the sale of fraudulent Chianti, Cosimo de’ Medici issued a decree in 1716 establishing the world's very first legally defined appellation of origins for wine, about 140 years before the 1855 Bordeaux classification.
In the 14th Century the straw basket was wrapped horizontally around the fiasco reaching the neck of the bottle. However, in 1629 it was decided in Florence that the capacity of the mezzo-quarto bottle of fiaschi had to be certified by a lead seal applied to the glass. For this reason, starting the second half of the 17th Century, the straw cover was reduced and wrapped vertically instead, leaving the vessel bare from the shoulder up, an arrangement that persists to this day.
By the early 20th Century, the manufacture of fiaschi employed about 1,000 glass blowers and 30,000 basket weavers. In the 1960’s the Bordeaux-style bottle became increasingly popular among vintners in Chianti and so it was wrongly assumed that the fiasco would be soon abandoned. On the contrary, a 1965 law assigned the fiaschi to wines of legally controlled denomination (D.O.C., Denominazione di Origine Controllata) thus restoring the prestige of the classic, original straw-dressed bottle.
Curiously, Italian, European and U.S. college students in the 1970s bought the fiaschi not only to enjoy the Sangiovese wine but also to use the empty bottles as trendy candleholders. The tradition is still going strong in most world Campuses and Italian restaurants.
Today Chianti is sold both in fiaschi and in Bordeaux-style bottles where it can age and mature at its best up to twenty years. The finest Chianti Classico has a pure, deep red-cherry flavor, sometimes deliciously tart or bittersweet, along with pronounced floral aromas and flavors and an earthy minerality. Various unique notes can be detected within Chianti, to include dried herbs, strawberries, cherries, and sweet tobacco.
Typically, Chianti includes from 70% to 100% of Sangiovese grape. The creator of one of the oldest blend was Barone Bettino Ricasoli, who was briefly Italy’s second Prime Minister in 1861. His blend, which the family-named estate Ricasoli - a family that’s been around Chianti since the 1140s - still produces near Gaiole, includes three local varietals in strict proportions: 70% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo and 15% Malvasia Bianca.
Sangiovese is a thin-skinned red grape native to Italy which thrives in warm environments. Its origins goes back to the time of the Etruscans and Romans who named it "the blood of jupiter", sanguis jovis, sangiovese.
Chianti Classico come in three tiers. The first, labeled simply Chianti Classico, must be aged one year before it is released. Chianti Classico Riserva must be aged two years, while the third, Gran Selezione, must be aged for 30 months and must be made entirely of estate grapes to be approved by a tasting panel. Only Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva may come in fiaschi.
As a well-known dry medium-bodied red Italian wine, Chianti naturally pairs well with many classic Italian food, particularly tomato sauce based pastas, lasagna, ravioli, olive oil dishes, meats, cold cuts, aged cheeses and of course, pizza.
But your fiasco of Chianti Classico will pair well also with Asian cuisine. Being medium-high in acidity, high in tannin and usually low in alcohol content, it can happily marry Filipino food (Kaldereta or Pork Adobo), Thai food (Stir-Fried Pork, Red Curry and Pad Thai), Indian food (Paneer Masala Curry or Dal Makhani) and Japanese food (Tamago-Sushi, California Rolls and Salmon Sashimi). If not, you should try it with fresh cherries or a 70% dark cocoa chocolate!
And don’t forget to use the empty fiasco as a candle holder…