Chianti is one of the most recognized of all the world's wines, but it is also one of the most abused and the least understood wine names. True Chianti originates only from the vicinity of Florence, in the northern Italian region of Tuscany.

Today, only red wines (blended according to specific regulations) may be called Chianti, but whites will probably be permitted in the not too distant future. Seven separate regions are entitled to the denomination, and most produce the early maturing, slightly harsh but easy-to-drink Beaujolais-style wine popularized in the straw covered "fiasco."

While this style is still available, much of the export has shifted significantly to a higher quality, wood-aged product in standard "Bordeaux" bottles. The origin of most of these better wines is the historic "Chianti Classico" area in the rocky hills between Florence and Siena. Chianti Classico is a carefully crafted, graceful but austere offering which, when properly aged, develops a delightful perfume of violets and a luscious, spicy flavor accented by oak.

The general Chianti Classico region was identified for quality wine production in 1713. Unfortunately, fame led to emulation -- not of the wine, but the name "Chianti." By the early 1800s, producers from all over Italy were more than willing to meet the growing demand for this fine Tuscan red with unlimited quantities of their own (usually inferior) products. The image of the wine gradually degraded to the point where Chianti and cheap, low-quality red table wine became synonymous, and the Tuscans could not receive a fair price for their genuine wine.

This and the phylloxera plague of the 1920s caused a group of 33 producers to band together in 1924 to form a league, the Consorzio del Vino Chianti Classico, for the preservation of quality and identity. They chose as their trademark a black cockerel or rooster (il gallo nero) on a golden background with a red border -- the symbol of the historic League of Chianti, a political group of the 1200s.

While Chianti Classico produces only about 15 percent of the total volume of Chianti, the Black Rooster Chianti Classico is one of the most rigidly controlled wines in the world. The Consortium numbers over 700 members, or about 92 percent of the Classico region's producers. Its controls are considerably more stringent than the national laws (which were written for the Chianti region as a whole in 1967) and include frequent and sometimes unannounced inspections of vineyards and cellars, as well as chemical tests and blind tastings of every barrel by a select panel of judges.

A wine not meeting all the requirements is disqualified and must be sold in bulk to restaurants or to the large non-member producers (who market it as simple Chianti). In the period from 1972 through 1974, for example, 45 percent of the output was declassified. A few producers, notably Antinori and Riscasoli, have opted out of the Consortium, perferring to avoid the strict and expensive controls and rely instead on their substantial reputations.

Chianti Classico, like claret, is a blend of grape varietals based on one predominant type -- in this case the Sangiovese. The nature of the blend has been fixed since the "optimum" formula was developed in 1835. It is roughly 50 to 70 percent Sangiovese for fruit, vinosity, and astringency (character and backbone), 10 to 30 percent Trebbiano and Malvasia (white wines) for softening and bouquet (particularly in wines meant to be drunk young), and 5 percent "other."

There are three designations to indicate the precise amount of aging the wine has received. Classico receives six to 12 months of aging. These wines are usually best drunk by their fourth or fifth year. Chianti Classico "Vecchio" indicates a wine that has received two years aging, and Chianti Classico "Riserva" designates a wine that has received three years of aging, one of which may have been in the bottle. These two extended designations are indicated by an outer colored band on the neck seal: silver for Vecchil (less frequently seen), and gold for Riserva.

With proper cellaring, the Riservas should last as long or longer than typical Clarets. They improve for seven to 20 years and are generally best after 10 years.

In tasting, the two basic style categories of Chianti Classico are readily distinguishable: A lighter variety is made ready to drink right off the shelf, but most others benefit from at least five additional years of cellaring. Those in the lighter, "flowery" Beaujolais style (fruity and soft) should be a favorite with novice wine drinkers. Because of their light body, they make an excellent introductory dry red wine to those now drinking mostly white or roses. A Riserva or Vecchio represent a more austere style and usually need further aging in a home wine cellar. Wines in this bigger style require the same care and patience as Barolo and, in good vintages, should not be drunk much before they are eight to 10 years of age.

Moderately old (eight to 15 years) Chianti Classicos made in the bigger style require decanting and breathing in order to achieve their full character. sThe very old ones should be handled with care -- perhaps being decanted just before serving. The younger big wines will not benefit appreciably from decanting -- nor will they suffer. They will be hard regardless.

Although the better retailers in town carry a reasonable selection of labels, the supply of older vintages is rapidly dwindling. It is painfully clear that price and availability will not soon, if ever, be better than they are today. The wise enthusiast will choose his favorite 1975s (and '71s if available) for laying down and grab any remaining '69s and '70s for near-term consumption.

The '69s, just past their 10th year, are entering the period of optimum drinkability, and are showing very well in general. The '74 Riservas are hard but have reasonable potential. The '75s are generally superior to the '74s, with rich extract and good balance already evident; '75 and the coming '77s are the vintages to put down now. Generally avoid '72s and '73s or '76s. 'The '77s, '78s, and '79s are expected to be very good to excellent quality vintages, but they are somewhat below average in quantity. With inflation in Italy soaring, they will certainly be considerably more expensive by the time they get here.