Devil’s Advocate: Why Franciacorta's 134 Subzones May Make Commercial Sense

Franciacorta is the latest region to break itself up into subzones. At first glance, this seems too complicated — but Robert Joseph suggests there may be method behind the madness.

Reading time: 4m 15s

Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate
Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate

Franciacorta now has 134 subzones. Chianti Classico has 11. Lodi in California has eight. As US writer W. Blake Grey noted, this trend towards dividing and sub-dividing vineyard regions into ever tinier areas seems ridiculous. Very few Italians could name their country’s nearly 400 DOCs and DOCGs, much less the subzones.

This isn’t just an Italian problem. New DOCs, DOCGs, AOPs, California AVAs, Australian GIs and Moldovan PGIs seem to appear almost weekly, like new blooms in a meadow full of wildflowers.

The people behind these certifications seem to believe they have created a ‘brand’ that will, by its very existence, attract interest and sales. They don’t understand that a real brand has to be so trusted that consumers will actively seek it out and, probably, pay a premium for it.  This is only achieved by gaining recognition from credible opinion-formers, by clever and usually costly marketing, or by reliable performance over time.

It is not hard to name many wine regions where none of this is true. At best, they may boast a well-respected producer or two, and possibly a page or two in the local tourism brochures.

So, why do it? Why go to the trouble of creating all these appellations and subzones?

Bragging rights

First, there’s the intellectual and academic satisfaction of setting oneself apart from one’s peers. It’s like exploring family history, drawing up a family tree, and possibly even going as far as to commission a coat of arms. If one can do this as an individual, isn’t it even more fun to do so for an entire village or set of villages?

Then there’s the associated pride and bragging rights for the lucky grape growers and winemakers who get to print a new word on their label. It’s easy to deride this, but if it matters to them and it doesn’t hurt anyone else, what harm is it doing? And if a few cartographers, lawyers, and printers have pocketed a few euros or dollars along the way, so much the better.

The appellation/subzone creators will be supported by journalists looking for something new to write about and a small number of wine geeks who prefer spending their leisure time poring over soil maps and newly updated wine encyclopedias than reading novels, watching movies, or going out eating, drinking, or dancing. And then they'll mostly fade into the background.

So, yes, W. Blake Grey is correct in implying that very few people outside the immediate regions going down this path notice or care.


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Making commercial sense

There is, however, a way for these designations to create real commercial value – for wine producers and markets who understand story-telling. A big challenge for any winery that hasn’t been good or lucky enough to win medals or scores is how to justify charging a bit more for its wines – especially when competing with neighbours with lower prices. In many European regions where bottles leave the cellars at around €5 or less. even an extra euro or two would make a big difference.

The classic approach is to create a ‘reserve’ cuvée that may have simply spent a bit of time in a new barrel. Alternatively, and possibly at a lower cost, there are the vineyard-designated wines, named after some kind of feature — a tree or a lake for example — or wines that simply have the name of a cute daughter or haughty ancestor. None of these wines will necessarily be better than the others or the winery’s main offering, but they will each come with some kind of story that sets them apart and might, for no good reason, somehow justify that more premium price.

Persuading visitors to spend a few minutes comparing two or three subtly different versions of the same thing and complimenting them on the acuity of their comments may inch the winery closer to a sale and possibly even a valuable post on Instagram.

Offering the pricier wines may be commercially useful in itself: even if the higher price deters buyers, it may make the standard wine more attractive. As LVMH demonstrates daily, the best way to sell a $10,000 handbag is to put it alongside one costing $25,000.

Wines with stories

Even if critics are unable to identify the subzones or even to tell them apart with any reliability in a blind tasting, the wines will have identities that allow their producers to spin a yarn about how subzone X is always the first to see the sun, or the last to be harvested. There may also be visual aids in the shape of jars of soil and rocks labelled with the vineyard name, and possibly a video of its vines being pruned.

The audience will nod appreciatively and, when prompted, possibly even detect the extra note of apple or peach that is supposedly associated with that particular piece of land. Some will buy a bottle or two and a few might even carry home a mixed six-pack of three different subzones. Will they ever open them on the same occasion for a comparative tasting? Almost certainly not. Franciacorta is for drinking not for analysis. And the same, for most people, is true of almost every other wine and region.

All of this may strike some readers as cynical, and it may not sit easily with producers who simply want to produce a single wine that tastes good and offers great value for money - or for the critics or wine drinkers who’d like to buy it. But that’s how the rest of the commercial world works. It’s why companies in the fashion business have so many brands selling similar products at very different prices. And it’s how, in 2015, Australia’s Federal Court came to fine the pharmaceutical giant Reckitt Benckiser A$1.7m for misleadingly claiming that identical, but differently packaged, Nurofen ibuprofen tablets targeted back pain, period pain and headaches.

Producers don’t make this kind of health claim for their wine, but many routinely sell the same liquid at different prices – in bulk and bottle. If legally sanctifying a few subzones that do have their own, subtly different, soils and microclimates can help to boost the profitability of an industry whose members are often working on very tight margins, I’m all for them. Even if I might not be rushing to buy one of those tasting packs.


When a host says 'can I get you a drink?', they're rarely offering No-Lo wines or sparkling tea. Robert Joseph suggests that, despite not containing any alcohol, these are ‘drinks' too – and deserve rather more recognition than they're currently given.

Reading time: 3m



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