A Good Start: Chianti Classico UGAs

“Smell the air! See the light! It is different! This is different! Look!” A beaming Alessandro Masnaghetti, aka the Map Man and Vinous cartographer, asked this of me—plus a few other wine writers—as we set out to experience Chianti Classico. The region is one of Italy’s most prized DOCGs, but within it are multifold nuances. From aspect to elevation to alberese vs galestro soils, Chianti Classico has myriad states of being. You gotta look around. We stopped at so many spots that we were late to our next appointment, but Masnaghetti wanted us to see, to breathe, to FEEL the differences in the region. And he did all this while gesturing with a somewhat smoked cigar. And it was unlit (emotional support cigar?), so we were still able to soak up the sites, not to mention smell the air. Italy is always an adventure, full of characters and plot twists. Come with me. The recent formation of the Chianti Classico UGAs is part of the reason I was exploring the area. UGA stands for Unità Geografiche Aggiuntive. In English, that’s Additional Geographical Units. It’s hands down the least sexy moniker I’d expect Italy to coin, and yet the rigor turns me on. Italy is thorough. The UGAs are eleven (for now) more specific parts of Chianti Classico with boundaries drawn on a variety of criteria including not just terroir, but history and tradition. They do not (necessarily) correspond to a style of wine, but reflect an ethos of the people and land it came from. To use the UGA name, the wine must be a Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, meaning they come from a single estate’s vineyards. A Gran Selezione bottling is already more regulated than baseline Chianti Classico. It is aged a minimum of 30 months starting the January after harvest, has a minimum of 13% alcohol, and is made up of 90% Sangiovese—all higher requirements than the rest of the denomination. Adding a specific UGA to the label ups the ante on specificity. Italy is keen on specificity. So hyper-specific and loyal is one area of Italy to another that there’s a town that wouldn’t acknowledge the person with the 32 ticket at the market because the number 32 was associated with a bus that led to their rival village. Or so Sebastiano, aka Conte Capponi of Villa Calcinaia, recounted at lunch (I lunched with a Count! Clearly I’m not over it), my first day in the region. It’s counterintuitive, but the formation of the UGAs seems to me like an attempt at localism, BUT in order to bring people in the region together. And it’s just the beginning, said many of the winemakers I spoke with. Or rather, “It’s not a perfect tool but it’s a start,” was how Masnaghetti explained the UGAs. The current UGAs have been approved by the Members‘ Assembly of the Consorzio, the body that represents the DOCG wine production and DOCG Wine Producers, albeit the Italian Ministry of Agriculture still needs to sign off on it. If all goes as is hoped, new releases will be able to bear a UGA on the label. As Gran Selezione wines are aged 30 months, that means that after July 1, 2023, the 2020 vintage or any earlier vintage of Gran Selezione able to prove it was produced in a single UGA could include it on the label. Oh, and what ARE the UGAs? Clockwise, roughly from the northwest, they are: San Casciano, Greve, Montefioralle, Lamole, Radda, Gaiole, Castelnuovo Bererdenga, Vagliagli, Castellina, San Donato in Poggio, and Panzano. I arrived in Tuscany as a bit of a UGA skeptic, although I now hope it is approved, so if for nothing else, I didn’t just explain all that in vain. Moreover, after talking to various winemakers, getting Masnaghetti’s tour, and most especially, after speaking with Giovanni Manetti, President of the Consortium, I found myself understanding why they wanted the UGAs. I think they should be able to do it for themselves, if no one else. The establishment of UGA’s is something the winemakers have been rallying for around 30 years. Even now, with the lines now drawn and the motion nearly approved, “We need a lot of time. We need to produce good wines, and pay attention to what we give the people…it’s not easy, it’s very complicated” explained Alberto Albissetti of Castello della Paneretta—one of my favorite visits given both the quality of the wine and the fact that their chapel was where people brought bread to be blessed, back in the middle-aged day. And if there is anything I love nearly so much as wine, it’s bread. Plus there was a vineyard dog named Greta. My kingdom for a good vineyard dog, cat, or even peacock. I digress. The point is that everyone in Chianti Classico seemed to be excited that they were getting somewhere, even if they had miles—or even better in metric land—meters to go. Everywhere I went, the vintners were proud of their corner of the sky. The region this most resonated with me was Radda, where I five hundred percent felt the wines resonate with terroir. Maybe it was simply that it was my fourth day in, and it had taken me that long to start picking up on the nuances of Chianti Classico? We’d been hustling from one UGA to another, so maybe I just needed to get calibrated. But it was in Radda where it first really hit me how much a subsection of the region as a whole could be felt in a simple glass of delicious grape juice. It was also in Radda where we had a long talk about the UGAs with winemaker Roberto Bianchi at Val delle Corti, held while I gave vineyard cat Finn ear scratches. “We had to start somewhere,” he said and pointed out that a rising tide for one Radda winery was a net positive for everyone, and might help the winemakers share with each other. In a region like Radda, which has a sense of isolation from the rest of the region, teamwork could be helpful. This concept was reiterated by Manetti, who said “Every village is a community with roots…there’s always a local association of vintners…they taste each other’s wine. If they think someone’s isn’t great, they go back and work to make it better.” The purpose of the UGAs isn’t about competition or rivalry with the other UGAs. After telling Bianchi that we’d come to Radda from Castellina, where we were absolutely delighted by Pomona, a winery where Dr. Monica Raspi creates truly unique jewels (and were equally delighted by vineyard dog Zoe, who insisted on sitting on the foot of whoever would stay still), Bianchi said of our enthusiasm for her, “We know Monica is producing different wines. We are proud.” The UGA’s are for the betterment of each specific territory, but also for Chianti Classico as a whole. There are changes multiple people cited that they’d like to see as the UGAs evolve—hence why this is only the beginning. Many want a UGA to be applicable to more than just Gran Selezione. Manetti explained that they started with that requirement as a sort of control factor—being a Gran Selezione limits potential spins on a wine, particularly in terms of varieties used, which Manetti thinks will help each region develop their own unique expression of Sangiovese. But nearly everyone I spoke to would love for Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva to be able to sport a UGA on the label too. Another change many desired was the addition of more UGAs, that is, breaking up some of the larger ones into unique parcels. This certainly makes sense to me, as some regions seemed to have a distinct style, and others seemed to have many styles. Masnaghetti envisions them topping out at 15-20 UGAs. After hearing one after another winemakers’ enthusiasm for the UGAs, I ultimately think if they want them, they should have them. My one concern is how soon all this will translate to helping the average consumer. If it’s not the RIGHT information, it may just be extra words that make a label seem even more complicated to someone less schooled in the nuances of Chianti Classico. For comparison, I think of German labels, laden with information as they can be, are great, but the casual drinker needs a manual to get through them. All the same, I appreciate them, and once you learn the basics they are manageable—or maybe it is naïve of me to say that. I think I wrote this piece covering the various Pradikatswein categories, in a Riesling-fueled fugue state. I went back and read it later and worried I’d probably repelled doubters from getting into sweet Riesling given how much lingo I was throwing around. Will the UGAs be helpful to the consumer? Given that it still is a bit vague in terms of style and quality, not necessarily for everyone. But to those who want to know more? Yes. It’s one more bit of information to have, to know, and to use. I think it could do more good than harm. My bestie Conte Capponi (still not over the Count thing) put it aptly—they are stepping stones for connoisseurs. And it is just the beginning. So, what to drink now, whilst we await the finalization of the UGAs? I made my notes and checked them not twice, or rather more like twenty times as a good compulsive writer does, and here I have some of my favorite things I drank while in Chianti Classico. More on them below. Okay, here are some favorite dry wines I tasted, a good way to start! Villa Calcinaia Chianti Classico Riserva From Montefioralle! The nose is pretty and full of red fruits of all sorts. On the palate, the tannins are textured, and I get an oregano herbal underbrush. It is very pretty but just muscular enough. And finishes with a hint of licorice, which I adore. 2018 Pomona Riserva Chianti Classico Depth galore! Moody. Hints of balsamic, dark fruits, violets, and umami spread across the tongue along with florals, thyme and rosemary. The tannins are expansive, and while they grip, they also travel, bringing aromatics and flavors with them. It’s charming. 2019 Rocca delle Macìe Riserva di Fizzano Gran Selezione Chianti Classico The requisite 90% Sangiovese plus 10% of the lesser-seen Colorino. I made note of exceptionally velvety tannins and notes of earth and ripe red plums and something almost green peppery. Val delle Corti “onydanse” Created in homage to France! A Cabernet/Merlot/Sangiovese blend, it is not able to be labeled as Chianti Classico but don’t call it Super Tuscan. The nose speaks French, giving pencil lead and juicy red fruit, but the palate is Radda, and blossoms with floral notes and assertive but integrated tannins. 2020 Fattoria Poggerino Chianti Classico Made from 12 different Sangiovese clones! Smells like roses, red fruit and menthol. It’s very energetic-almost candied but with dry fruit flavor undercurrents. Quite elegant, and what I’d drink when I wanted a wine that is easy and complex at the same time. 2019 Castello della Paneretta Chianto Classico The nose alone is rich and spicy. It tastes of red fruit and feels like Christmas, with a bit of cedar and spice. It spreads broadly across the tongue, very mouth filling, with a finish not super long but not short. This wine feels like a friend or family or a family friend. Familiar. 2019 Fontodi Flaccianello della Pieve Colli Toscana Manetti said that since this is not a Chianti Classico, I shouldn’t say it was the President of the Consortium pouring it for me, but I’ve included other unclassified wines and cannot resist adding this one. If anyone asks, he was pouring only Classico, and in a fit of thirst, it was I who sabered a bottle with a fountain pen so I could taste it and take notes. It is thrilling to smell, going at savory and deep red fruit, and also purple plums. It gives black cherries, almost reminding me of Luden’s, for those of us who pretended to have a sore throat in order to be given them, along with hints of mint, chocolate, blackberries, and…it’s just so complex. It is cheerful and serious at the same time. All smoothed over with velvet tannins. NOW FOR VIN SANTO! Arriving in Tuscany when I did, wineries had rooms filled with drying grapes hanging from the ceiling like raisin-clad stalactites. Waiting to be fermented and aged a long, long time before becoming the lusciously sweet gems they are. PLEASE, don’t dip things like biscotti in them. More than one winemaker admitted they serve Vin Santo in glasses with narrow tops to prevent such shenanigans. 2017 Castello di Querceta Vin Santa del Chianti Classico It’s soooo good. And it IS dryer than most Vin Santo wines, with something savory to it to boot. The sweetness reminds me of dark sugar but then laced with lemon peel. Both are sweet without being overly over. Vin Santo for the ages. 2012 Ricasoli Castello di Brolio Vin Santo di Chianti Classico Holy heck it’s good. Caramel and dank in all the right ways. It thoroughly cloaks the tongue with citrus and honey plus brown sugar and flowers. One of those “I can’t quite explain it” treasures. Give it a go. 2012 Castella della Paneretta Vin Santo del Chianti Classico The deep amber hue pulls you into a cloud of stone fruit, myrrh, and pecans. All that on the palate plus vanilla-caramel candy with acidity that finishes with toasted pecan and candied lemon peel. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Explore Vinous' collection of narrative maps from Antonio Galloni and Alessandro Masnaghetti. Want to read more from Ellen? 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