Changes in Chianti: A Boon or TMI?

ou’d think that a region like Chianti, with world-famous name recognition, would just adopt the motto, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  Not so.  Changes today abound in the area, specifically the sub-regions of Chianti Classico and Chianti Rùfina, that might well lift the wines to new quality levels.  But, along with the heightened quality comes the prospect of Too Much Information overwhelming the consumer.

A little background information helps navigating the new terrain.  Chianti is a large region with its own DOCG (Denominazione Origine Controllata Garantita), Italy’s highest category for wine) encompassing the area in Tuscany around Florence and Siena.  Within this very large region, lying between Florence and Siena, is an upscale much smaller area, Chianti Classico, with its own DOCG.  The other major subzone for top-notch wine is Chianti Rùfina, lying northeast of Florence.  With new designations and regulations, both Chianti Classico and Chianti Rùfina have upped their game.  (For the sake of completeness, the other subzones of Chianti are Chianti Colli Senesi, Chianti Montalbano, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Colli Aretini, and Chianti Montespertoli.)

Let’s start with Chianti Classico.  It’s a large area encompassing many small villages with a plethora of soil types, exposures, and elevations.  This diversity alone, not to mention differences among producers’ winemaking practices, guarantees a wide range of wines.  In an attempt to distinguish the wines from each of the major villages within Chianti Classico area, the Consorzio Chianti Classico, its governing body, introduced unità geografiche aggiuntive (UGAs).  In theory, the wines from these 11 subzones or villages within the Chianti Classico area have unique characteristics emanating from their individual terroir.  Think of the UGAs of Chianti Classico more like the village designations in Burgundy.  Just as the wines from Gevrey-Chambertin should differ from those of Chambolle-Musigny, the wines from Radda should differ from those of Castellina.  Of course, the elephant in the room with any geographic comparisons is the producers’ interpretation of the terroir, their wine making techniques. To really see—taste—the differences in terroir you need to taste wines from the different sites made by the same producer.  As more and more producers in Chianti Classico make wines from the different UGAs, consumers will eventually be able to see the not-so-subtle differences among them.

Into the weeds we go with the 11 subzones consumers will eventually need to recognize: Castellina, Castelnuovo Berardenga, Gaiole, Greve, Lamole, Montefioralle, Panzano, Radda, San Casciano, San Donato in Poggio, and Vagliagli.  The UGAs differ from the recently introduced menzione geografica aggiuntiva (MGA) of Barolo and Barbaresco which identify vineyards, not villages.  Consumers will not need to learn these new UGAs immediately, because they will be used initially with the Gran Selezione tier of Chianti Classico.  So, let’s speak of those and upgrades to that category.

About a decade ago, Chianti Classico introduced a new quality tier, Gran Selezione, that now sits atop the quality pyramid, above Riserva.  To qualify as a Gran Selezione, the grapes must come from the producer’s estate (nothing purchased) and undergo more aging—30 months—compared to 24 months for the Riserva and be approved by a tasting panel.  The allowed grapes, with a minimum of 80% of Sangiovese, remained the same. In theory, the Gran Selezione should be the estate’s best Chianti Classico.

Importantly, if producers opt to label their Gran Selezione with a UGA—they’re not obligated to—they must adhere to stricter requirements regarding the blend.  At least 90% of the wine must come from Sangiovese.  If producers opt to use other grapes for the remaining 10 percent of the blend, they must be only indigenous varieties—no Cabernet or Merlot is permitted.

Chianti Rùfina appears to be going one step further with their TerraElectae designation. But, again, before jumping into this set of weeds, a little background.

Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici III included Pomino, which at that time was included within Chianti Rùfina, along with Chianti Classico in his decree of 1716 that demarcated areas of fine wine production.  A very small area of only about 1,900 acres of vines, and 20 or so producers, Chianti Rùfina makes only about 3.5 million bottles a year.  For comparison, Chianti Classico has 13,000 acres under vine and produces roughly 48 million bottles annually.  The most elevated vineyard in the entire Chianti region sits in Chianti Rùfina.  On average, vineyards there are slightly higher in elevation than the ones in Chianti Classico.  Rufina’s high elevation means the Sangiovese ripens more slowly, maturing tannins and developing a panoply of aromas and flavors.  The elevation imparts brisk nights that allow the grapes to hold onto acidity, delivering liveliness to the wines.

Tom Maresca, an authority on Italian wine, describes the difference between Rùfina and Classico brilliantly, “No cypresses and bay bushes here: It [Rùfina] is higher, hillier, wilder, more rugged, with pine trees and mountain laurel as its characteristic vegetation.  There are castles here, to be sure – this is still Tuscany – but they look a lot more businesslike than any in the Classico, as if they might not too long ago have been working propositions.  The whole feel of Rùfina is of another age.  What Rùfina does share with the Chiantis, and with most of the rest of Tuscany, is Sangiovese, but Rùfina’s Sangiovese differs widely from the Tuscan norm.  It has an underlying base of earth and clay that grounds the wine foursquare, so that, as beautifully soprano as the fruit may get in its best vintages, it never lacks a complementary bass to round it.  In my mind, this is a great, great terroir whose potential has not yet been fully exploited….”

Ian D’Agata, a world’s authority on Italian wines (and whose two books, Native Wine Grapes of Italy and Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs, are benchmarks for the subject) notes, “Wine lovers should not forget about Chianti Rùfina.  For the most part a high-altitude, cool-climate viticultural area, its Chiantis are some of the most perfumed, flinty, and refined of all.”  He emphasizes that the region can produce “very fine wines blessed by lacy acidity and refined texture that age extremely well.”

The TerraElectae concept focuses on a specific vineyard in contrast to the Gran Selezione category in Chianti Classico in which wines can come from a group of vineyards, as long as they are all owned by the same producer.  The TerraElectae concept is much like the vineyard designated wines of Burgundy, but without the hierarchical classification of premier or grand cru.  Chianti Rùfina wines bearing the TerraElectae designation must come from a single vineyard owned or managed by the producer, be made entirely from Sangiovese, and be in the Riserva category.  Regulations limit yield and require 30 months of aging of which 18 months must be in oak and 6 months in bottle.  Each producer in Chianti Rùfina is allowed to designate one vineyard as TerreElectae.  So, for example, Marchese Frescobaldi has designated their 2018 Vigna Montesodi as TerreElectae, as has Colognole with their 2018 Vigneto Le Rogaie. Fattoria Selvapiana will designate their 2019 Vigneto Erchi next year.

Taken together, the UGAs of Chianti Classico and the TerraElectae of Chianti Rùfina are very much in step with the current trend of focusing on the origin of the grapes.  That, in turn, should thankfully lead to more distinctive and individualistic wines.

I predict that, in the not-too-distant future, regulators will soon allow UGAs to appear on labels of the normale and Riserva Chianti Classico in addition to Gran Selezione, and that Gran Selezione will evolve from single estate wines to include single vineyard designation ones.  The granularity of site-specificity will be important to wine geeks of the world, like myself. I remain fascinated by how the same grapes grown in adjacent vineyards—whether in Burgundy, Barolo, or Chianti—can result in different, yet equally enjoyable, wines.  The remainder of the wine drinking population will at best, ignore the additional information, or at worst, be put off by it and turn toward more generically labeled wines or White Claw®.  My advice to them is to remember the most important information on the label remains the producer.  Find ones you like and drink their wines.

*          *          *
In addition to Tom Maresca (Tom’s Wine Line), I am indebted to Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages, Consorzio Chianti Classico, and the Consorzio Rùfina for help unraveling the intricacies of the UGAs and the TerraElectae.  And to Ian D’Agata because he’s the expert.

Email me your thoughts about Italian wines in general or those from Chianti Classico or Chianti Rùfina in particular at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter and Instagram@MichaelApstein

September 7, 2022