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Touring Chianti Classico with mapping guru Masnaghetti

To gain a greater understanding of its new Gran Selezione subzones, Sarah Heller MW takes a driving tour of Chianti Classico with the man behind the region’s most detailed maps, Alessandro Masnaghetti

Words by Sarah Heller MW

The Collection
Alessandro Masnaghetti talks Sarah Heller through his map of Chianti Classico

Since the Peutinger Map of Late Antiquity, Italy’s wine culture has been intimately tied to both its topography and man-made structures. Continuing the trend is Alessandro Masnaghetti, a figure at the centre of Italy’s modern mapping movement. Masnaghetti made his first map in the mid-1990s while working for famed wine critic Luigi Veronelli, melding his vast tasting experience with a data-driven mindset honed during a (brief) career as a nuclear engineer. These days, his Enogea newsletter produces wine maps and books, often in close coordination with local consorzi – layering the mutable boundaries of wine estates with minutely recorded geological, pedological, topographical and climatological particulars.

I was lucky enough to take a driving tour of Chianti Classico with Masnaghetti last summer, and it remains a highlight of the past year. Beyond leaving me punch-drunk with the beauty of these sun-glazed hills, it developed my comprehension of the new UGAs (Unità Geografica Aggiuntiva, or ‘additional geographic units’): subzones declared by the Consorzio for Chianti Classico’s Gran Selezione category back in 2021.

Alessandro Masnaghetti (Photo: Sarah Heller)

Roughly re-tracing Masnaghetti’s bike ride of the previous day, we depart San Donato in Poggio southwards, hoping to reach Castelnuovo Berardenga before returning north, an ambitious morning’s drive in a region spanning 50km north to south. The first distinction Masnaghetti draws is between ‘external’ and ‘internal’ Chianti Classico. He gestures at silvery olive groves, competing with vineyards even this far north. They mark warmer microclimates on the open, Mediterranean-facing western slope, generally lower in altitude. Across the roadway is a chillier ‘internal’ eastern slope but even western-facing internal slopes of Lamole and Radda UGAs across the Pesa Valley are relatively cool, he says.

As we pause in a rather precarious spot facing southwest towards Cispiano hamlet, Masnaghetti expands on another key factor: geology. While the northwestern-most UGA, San Casciano, has uniformly alluvial soils, most of the denomination has varied sedimentary geology: alberese (calcareous marls, which amplify Sangiovese’s structure) and sandstone, either macigno (non-calcareous sandstone, yielding wines of moderate colour and acidity but beautiful fragrance) or pietraforte (calcareous sandstone, whose still elegant Sangiovese has darker fruit and firmer structure). Alberese is most famous but also most diverse, snowy white in the popular imagination (hence the name) but grey, red or brown in reality; finely layered or piled in coarse blocks. Up where we are, purer limestone has left the slope steep with a thin, stony soil, favouring crisper fruit (try Villa Rosa, Masnaghetti’s recommendation), unlike the rolling hills of reddish, clay-heavy sediments below (try Rencine or Villa Cerna).

An aerial view of San Donato in Poggio

Dropping down to an eastward-facing slope overlooking Panzano and the Monti del Chianti behind it, we’re suddenly engulfed in pines and especially oaks, many comically petite – ‘roverelle’ in local parlance – thanks to impoverished, rocky soil. The trees and the shaded, narrow valley create a decidedly crisp microclimate. Masnaghetti points out the Monte San Michele, the highest of the chain (around 893m asl), a cooling influence in the region – though it remains largely unplanted since the appellation’s upper limit is 700m.

While the northwestern-most UGA has uniformly alluvial soils, most of the denomination has varied sedimentary geology

Panzano UGA was carved out of Greve – one of four communes fully included in the denomination, along with Gaiole, Castellina and Radda – and is a posterchild for the UGA system, having long been viewed as distinct. Warm and sunny despite being ‘internal’, it is known for its dark, structured wines, especially from the western-facing Conca d’Oro dominated by Fontodi.

Sarah and Alessandro

Re-emerging from the woods, we reach Castellina village, leaving the typically shadier, forested Florentine Chianti Classico for the drier, brighter Sienese half. The village illustrates the challenge of defining regional styles; sitting over 500m asl, it is the DOCG’s coolest and windiest village, but Gaiole and especially Radda are cooler UGAs. Radda’s vertical, elegant wines (try Castello di Albola) result from vineyards uniformly high and close to the Monti del Chianti, while Castellina’s vineyards vary in exposure, altitude and geology. Its heavily planted, southwest-oriented amphitheatre of heavy clays (try Castellare) contrast with the surrounding alberese or lower-lying lacustrine soils (Lilliano or Villa Cerna).

Further south, we reach the new, trickily named UGA Vagliagli (‘Val-yee-al-yee’), the western ‘wing’ of the butterfly-shaped part of Castelnuovo Berardenga commune that is included in Chianti Classico. We teeter down from the steep heights that include Vagliagli village (~500m asl) – where wines are tart and elegant (try Mocenni’s) though still decidedly Sienese – to the vast plateau below, which trends darker and richer.

A view of a village in Chianti Classico during the tour of the region (Photo: Sarah Heller)

Heading towards Castelnuovo Berardenga UGA (the eastern ‘wing’) we pass through woody Gaiole UGA, the wedge splitting the butterfly wings. We pause in its famed (unofficial) subregion of Monti (not to be confused with the Monti del Chianti), where we emerge from cool forest at the historical Castello di Brolio to face full west on a plateau bathed in sunlight from morning to evening, even in autumn. Masnaghetti notes the evolved red alberese soils, which support only hardy, flat-topped maritime pines.

Far more critical than any boundaries is the ‘feel of the place’, so varied I feel like we’ve visited 11 regions in one day

Our final stop (before a mad dash northward for a Chianina beef burger at Dario Cecchini’s thronging butcher’s shop meets restaurant in Panzano) is a full south-facing stretch of Castelnuovo Berardenga. We peer over San Felice, a luminous stretch of vineyards apparently extending forever across a flat plain, its blood red soils baked by relentless sunlight. On clear days you can see Monte Amiata, the brooding landmark of Brunello di Montalcino to the south, whose wines these somewhat resemble.

Still dizzy from the fractal-like topography and constant donning and doffing of cardigans and shades, I concur with Masnaghetti that the UGA subdivision is an important first step but far more critical than any boundaries is the ‘feel of the place’, so varied I feel like we’ve visited 11 regions in one day. Luckily, site-sensitive Sangiovese is all about ‘feel’ and as the UGA names start to appear on Gran Selezione bottle labels from the 2020 vintage onward, I imagine we have much of that to look forward to.