Chianti Classico’s new subzones: shining a light on diverse terroir

When it comes to Italian wine, quality classifications can be confusing, even for the most astute of wine lovers. Keen to understand what Chianti Classico’s 11 new subzones mean in the glass, Nina Caplan heads to Tuscany

Words by Nina Caplan

You don’t need to know much about Italian wine to get the feeling that its quality classifications, regional laws and subzone designations are a little opaque. This isn’t the central paradox of Italian wine – there is fierce competition for that honour – but it is a problem. There are so many regions with recognisable names where officialdom doesn’t help the bewildered would-be purchaser to find what they want at the price they want it. Chianti Classico has long struggled with this. Although almost everyone knows Chianti (and that it no longer comes in a straw basket), few are aware of the significance of the Classico label, which denotes a limited geographical area of high-quality vineyards. Fewer still could tell a Gaiole from a Greve. The Gallo Nero (‘black cockerel’) is a cheerful and easily recognisable logo. But how to convey what it stands for?

‘My generation started asking for a subdivision of the vineyards in the 1980s,’ says Giovanni Manetti, owner of the Fontodi winery. As Chairman of Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico, he has spearheaded the introduction of 11 Chianti Classico subzones, agreed last year. ‘At that time, the doors were closed, but now we are all aware that territory coincides with quality.’ In the past, he adds, people used to ask how much time the wine had spent in barrel, but he dismisses that as a quality designation and he’s not alone. ‘It starts in the vineyard,’ says Guido Orzalesi of Castello La Leccia. ‘If I harvest 10 days before or after someone whose vineyards are at the same altitude, one of us has got it wrong. But the container we use – oak barrel, steel vat – is less important.’

Subzones have a complicated history in this part of Italy (although most viticultural history, in most of Italy, is complicated). In 1932, the Consorzio requested an official demarcation of their territory, to help them protect the historic winemaking region from the imitations that Chianti’s popularity was encouraging. The judgement recognised Chianti Classico as different but only as a subzone of the enlarged Chianti region, little succour for the winemakers trying to assert their uniqueness. The quickest way to make yourself unpopular in Chianti Classico is to forget to add the ‘Classico’.

This precedent has been copied in regions from Bardolino to Cirò. The result is that Classico winemakers have had to focus on the macro – ensuring consumers differentiate between their region and the broader one – rather than the micro, the detail of differences in soil, microclimate and flavour within their borders. With the new division into 11 Unità Geografiche Aggiuntive (UGAs), Chianti Classico is hoping to remedy this problem. The English translation, ‘Additional Geographical Units’, is not very sexy and, for the moment, the designation will apply only to the top-tier Gran Selezione wines. But never mind: this is progress.

To find out what kind of progress, I went to the region and stood on various hilltops with Alessandro Masnaghetti, whose superhuman work of categorising and mapping the region has enabled the UGAs. It was November and cold, but the Tuscan landscape is never less than beautiful; thanks to Alessandro, it became increasingly understandable, too. ‘The landscape always gives a reference point,’ he said, marking out the edges of the appellation with the smoking stub of his cigar (it was 9.20 am).

He talked about soils: pietraforte (‘it’s calcareous sandstone, so very hard, and breaks into bigger pieces. Historically it was used to build houses – and palaces!’); alberese, which is clay-limestone; the big banks of compressed soil to the south that the locals call tufo (‘but it’s not tufo!’) and galestro, or schistous clay which is found all over and is not, says Alessandro, a geological formation. ‘We usually believe boundaries are geological,’ he observed, ‘but it isn’t true. Usually, they are administrative.’ This is not news to any of the producers within Chianti Classico.

The hope is that eventually consumers happy to seek out a Meursault or a Volnay will ask for, say, a Lamole

From the ramparts of Castello La Leccia (UGA: Castellina), a castle dating back to 1077, and which is now a 17-room hotel and restaurant as well as a winemaking operation, Alessandro pointed in one direction to a jagged range of peaks – ‘sandy soil, so there’s more erosion and steeper slopes’. He pointed to another softly rounded group of hills: ‘clay, so less erosion’. I spend a lot of my time with my nose in a glass, trying to smell or taste terroir. In that place, I was looking at it.

There have recently been other changes – the minimum percentage of Sangiovese in the Gran Reserva has gone up from 80% to 90% and non-native varieties can no longer be included at all – but Alessandro is less interested in this. ‘The change in focus from variety to soil is what’s important,’ he said. ‘That’s our history, it cannot change.’

The creators of the UGAs hope that eventually, consumers happy to seek out a Meursault or a Volnay will ask for, say, a Lamole. This is the smallest UGA, with just nine producers on a single, mainly east-facing slope, with Macigno soils, which are sandstone with no limestone content. I think it could work: I tried one that Fontodi makes (despite being based in the Panzano UGA): Filetta di Lamole 2019, delicate yet spicy, with a fine fretwork of acidity. As wine-lovers will, I stored the name away for future reference. What is more important, ranging across the region and sampling wines from the different UGAs, I could taste the variations. And Burgundy can only dream of a website with explanations and visuals as clear and comprehensive as Alessandro has created for the Chianti Classico Consorzio.

On our way to one last tasting, there was a welcome pause, at the Castello di Brolio, a vast red-brick castle on a 1,200 hectare winemaking estate in the Gaiole UGA. It is owned by the Ricasoli family, whose story is intrinsically linked to the region. Baron Bettino Ricasoli was the second Prime Minister of the newly-formed Italy in the 19th century and the original architect of the Chianti winemaking rules. Built, destroyed and rebuilt since at least 1141, the castle is a reminder of centuries of strife here, on the border between Florence and Siena, two states who were frequently at war.

Perhaps it is fanciful to compare this to Chianti Classico’s battles to distinguish itself in the public mind from the Chianti beyond its borders. And perhaps introducing more borders – city-states within the nation – is not going to achieve what they hope for. But the winemakers are optimistic, and so am I.

Chianti Classico’s 11 subzones

  • Castellina
  • Castelnuovo Berardenga
  • Gaiole
  • Greve
  • Lamole
  • Montefioralle
  • Panzano
  • Radda
  • San Casciano
  • San Donato in Poggio
  • Vagliagli

A brief history of Chianti (Classico) classification and wine laws

  • 1398 – The first documented mention of ‘Chianti’ in relation to wine
  • 1565 – Giorgio Varsari portrays Chianti as a black rooster as part of a painting in the Palazzo Vecchio
  • 1716 – Cosimo di Medici III, Grand Duke of Tuscany, legally recognises the borders of the Chianti region.
  • 1872 – Baron Bettino Ricasoli creates the winemaking technique that becomes the standard in Chianti.
  • 1924 – As production of ‘Chianti’ wines grow outside the traditional area, the Chianti Consortium of wine producers – the first in Italy – is founded and chooses the black rooster as its emblem.
  • 1932 – The suffix ‘Classico’ is added to identify Chianti wines made in the territory originally recognised by Cosimo III in 1716.
  • 1984 – Chianti Classico obtains DOCG status.
  • 1996 – The use of 100% Sangiovese is authorised.
  • 2005 – Use of white varieties in blends is banned entirely from the 2006 vintage onwards and the Gallo Nero is made an official trademark.
  • 2010 – Production of ‘Chianti’ is banned in areas demarcated as ‘Chianti Classico’.
  • 2014 – Chianti Classico Gran Selezione is introduced.
  • 2022 – Eleven subzones are agreed upon for use with Gran Selezione wines.