Chianti Classico – quick facts
Region: Tuscany, between Florence and Siena
Production zone: 47km from north to south, comprising 70,000 ha. Of those 70,000 ha, 9,800 is under vine, and about 6,800 ha is used in the production of Chianti Classico. Almost two thirds of the total hectarage are forest, while the rest is olive groves.
Maximum altitude for vineyards: 700 metres above sea level.
Main grape variety: Sangiovese, which has to make up at least 80% of Chianti Classico Riserva and 90% of Gran Selezione.
Earlier this month, Lucy Britner explored Chianti Classico’s 11 Unità Geografiche Aggiuntive (UGA) – or additional geographical units – to assess how the system will benefit the region. She spoke to producers about UGAs, the harvest and climate change
As we drive around Chianti Classico, Alessandro Masnaghetti periodically leaps from the minibus to pull chunks or rock from the side of the road, in order to demonstrate the changing make-up of the land.
Masnaghetti has written Chianti Classico: The Atlas of Vineyards and UGAs, and as he passes crumbling flakes of shale around the bus, he talks about the UGA, which certifies an area of origin for grapes. “It’s a gamechanger,” he says. “A major breakthrough in the history of Chianti Classico that you can compare with the introduction of the DOC system back in ’67, because finally, in my personal opinion, it’s moving the attention from the ageing process and grape variety to the territory – that is the true treasure because you can’t find it anywhere else in the world.”
He says the UGA system will move questions away from ones about ‘time in wood’ or ‘percentages of Sangiovese’ in a wine, for example.
The system, affectionately known as ‘ooga’ by most of the winemakers we meet, comprises 11 territories. For now, the use of UGA is limited to Gran Selezione wines and was permitted on labels from July this year. The aim, the Consorzio says, is not for UGA wine to be considered a higher quality than a Chianti Classico without one, but more a way to certify origin.
The UGAs are Castellina, Castelnuovo Berardenga, Gaiole, Greve, Lamole, Montefioralle, Panzano, Radda, San Casciano, San Donato in Poggio and Vagliagli. They are characterised by the landscape and soil types. For example, Lamole, in the central east of the region is the smallest and it is known for uniformity of soils, high altitudes and predominantly westerly exposure. The wines here are usually more floral, with a less intense colour.
Over three days, we visited a range of Chianti Classico producers, from the large (in an actual castle), to the up-and-coming (kids’ toys, tractors; toddlers and piglets on the loose).
At the picturesque Casa Sola in westerly UGA San Donato in Poggio, owner Matteo Gambaro is excited the scheme will allow producers to “present something with a territorial identity”.
“The UGA gives a fingerprint of the area,” he says.
For Treasury Wine Estates’ Castello di Gabbiano (the castle), in the northwestern San Casciano UGA, winemaker Matteo Dami believes the system will help with the long-term understanding of the area.
In the south westerly Castellina UGA, we meet young producer Giacomo Nardi at his namesake winery, complete with next generation winemakers still currently toddling around alongside cows, pigs and the famous Chianti Classico black roosters. Nardi believes that the UGA system “is not a race”.
“If producers use it to say ‘I’m better than the other UGAs’, that’s the end. It’s about different soils, climates – this for me is incredible and why it’s important – it’s about representing each part of the land.”
And at Villa Calcinaia, in the north-central Montefioralle UGA, owner and real-life Count, Sebastiano Capponi adds that there is potential for the system to go further. “The project brought to the board was for more UGAs,” he says. “But this is a good start. I want it to be like Burgundy in 50 years’ time.
“If you open a crack in a dam, water will do the rest,” he says.
Speaking of water, as we drive around the region, we routinely cross dry riverbeds and talk turns to the unseasonably warm weather – it’s 30 degrees in early October.
“The climate is completely unusual for this area, for this period of the season,” says Masnaghetti, as we begin to focus more on climate change, this time adjacent to a crumbly yellow-coloured marine sand bank. “What is going to happen, I don’t know. I can say that what is happening now is something, in my opinion, very positive. The role of the vineyard and the people who work in the vineyard is becoming more and more important. I’m quite sure this year is going to be a very good year. I suppose the quality of the grapes is excellent, but I’m quite sure that if we had this kind of climate 15 years ago, the results would not be so good because the knowledge at that time, and the experience to manage such unusual vintages like this one was not there. People were not prepared to manage this kind of climate.”
While it might be hot in October, the weather was extreme in other ways during the late spring and early summer.
“It started off in the worst possible way because it rained so much in May and June,” says Alessandra Bindi Sergardi, owner of Mocenni Estate in the southern UGA of Vagliagli. She talks about the various challenges across the Chianti Classico region, including places where it became impossible for producers to get into the vineyard in a tractor, because they sank into the mud.
“Many producers have lost 30-40% of their crop. We were lucky because of the land we have. We didn’t lose anything but there is something to be said about more stress and damage – some vineyards were almost paralysed by the stress. It depends a lot on the age of the vineyard – the older they are, the better they reacted because they know how to handle the stress.”
Consorzio Chianti Classico president Giovanni Manetti, who was harvesting grapes at his Fontodi winery in central UGA Panzano, estimates the harvest will be down around 20% for the region. But he adds that the ripening process “finished in the perfect way” with hot days and cool nights, pointing to a good quality crop.
Talking about earlier in the season, he mentions heavy rain, followed by high temperatures. “During the flowering, we lost something in terms of coulure – and the mildew was very aggressive. Everyone lost something, both conventional and organic.
“But mildew affects only the quantity, not the quality. Sometimes it exalts the quality because you reduce the number of clusters or the size of clusters. The harvest is potentially really good – we have to wait for the end of fermentation of course, but potentially it’s really good, probably excellent.”
He says mildew was a problem “from Sicily to Bordeaux” this year, adding that it is one of the effects of climate change.
“If you look back at the last ten years, we’ve probably never had such a long line of great vintages – the average quality was very high. We never experienced that in the 70s, not in the 80s or 90s.
“Quantity is the main problem. In the last four years, we’ve always produced below the average in terms of quantity, because of the frost, the hailstorms, heat, drought…”
Manetti echoes Bindi Sergardi with the sentiment that older vines coped better with 2023’s extreme weather, using both experience and deep roots to their advantage. And Bindi Sergardi also highlights newer Sangiovese clones that are more suited to the climate.
At Cantina Castelvecchi in the central-eastern Radda UGA, hospitality manager Francesco Bonini says they have lost around 20% of production, but he also adds that the quality is expected to be “really, really high” thanks to recent warm weather.
“It’s really important to reach the technological maturation – the sugar content – but most of all for us, the phenolic maturation is fundamental because if we want to macerate for more than 40, 50 or 60 days, we can’t do this with a seed that is not perfectly mature.”
And at Villa Calcinaia, Capponi says his harvest was down 50% due to frost, rain and resulting mildew.
He is also acutely aware of the effects of climate change, and he says in 2004, it would take until February or March the following year for grapes destined to make sweet wine Vin Santo to reach the desired sugar levels. “Now, by the second week of October, they will be ready for pressing,” he adds, as we walk through a barn strewn with bunches, drying on the racks.
Capponi has been organic in the vineyard since the early 90s, and in the winery since 2014. According to Consorzio president Manetti, some 52.5% of Chianti Classico vineyards are organic, with a further 20% in conversion.
One of those in conversion is Casa Sola.
“We’ve always acted as organic,” says owner Gambaro. “Now we’re in conversion, which takes three years, and we have done two.”
There have been some suggestions that warmer weather can make organic conversion more straightforward, but Chianti Classico producers say climate change is more about managing extreme weather, which isn’t just about heat.
“Climate change hasn’t helped with becoming organic,” says Gambaro. “It’s getting more complicated, and we find it hard to manage the extremes – when it’s hot, it’s super hot and when it rains, it’s super rainy.”
One thing’s for sure, there’s no getting away from climate change. But as Masnaghetti says, the experience in the vineyards is paying off. And that experience will no doubt contribute to the fingerprint of each UGA.