In June 2021 producers in Chianti Classico decided to divide the region in into 11 subzones or Unitá Geografiche Aggiuntive (UGA), which translates to additional geographic units. The UGAs still need to get approval from the Ministry of Agriculture which they hope will be given before the end of this year.
For the supporters of this move, providing more information about the region’s best wines will help to attract more customers and possibly higher prices.
In the key export market of the US, however, at least a few leading distributors and retailers remain to be convinced that UGAs are going to achieve those ambitions. Some also point out that Gran Selezione, the designation for the top tier of the region’s wines has not – yet – been as successful as was anticipated when it was launched eight years ago.
Breaking up the Region
There were previously eight subzones in the Classico region and Giovanni Manetti, the president of Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico and the owner of Fontodi, has earned local producers’ respect for pushing through the new appellations which seek to provide more information about the subregions. Similar subdivisions are eventually expected to follow for other types of wine produced in the Chianti regions.
Manetti and his fellow producers have been focused on the UGAs since last year and he says they have “presented them already in few events across the US. So far, the reception has been more than favorable.”
He adds that the US market continues to show greater interest “in getting to know more and more about the origin of the wine… and with the UGAs we can even be more precise and accurate when talking about these more homogenous areas in which our territory is now subdivided.”
Details and Initial Reactions
The new sub appellations will only apply to Gran Selezione bottlings which account for approximately 6% of the area’s total production. The wines will need to be made from least 90% Sangiovese and aged at least 30 months before release.
However, many U.S. retailers and importers aren’t convinced the UGA introductions will help to further educate consumers or drive sales for the Gran Selezione wines. While the additional information may provide more value, it may not change the perception of the wines, notes Cesare Martini, the Italian wine buyer for retailer Gary’s Wine & Marketplace which has four locations in New Jersey and one in the Napa Valley.
Other retailers lamented that the regional boundaries hadn’t been drawn up sooner. “If they had adopted these new rules 30 years ago when the public was interested, it would have had a greater impact,” notes Greg St. Clair, the Italian wine buyer for the three-location California retailer K&L Wine Merchants.
Curiosity or Confusion
The jury is out over whether the new subregions will serve to further educate or befuddle consumers. Umberto Gibin, the owner of the San Francisco-based Perbacco and Barbacco Italian restaurants, thinks the UGAs may run the risk of confusing consumers who are not well educated about the Chianti region.
What is more, the region is “confusing for consumers already and most consumers tend to producer-loyal and not necessarily looking at subzones,” adds Brahm Callahan, the corporate beverage director of the Boston-based Himmel Hospitality Group.
A handful of importers tend to agree. Brian Larky, the Napa-based founder and chairman of Dalla Terra Winery Direct, an Italian wine importer notes that only “a small percentage of consumers will notice and care, more trade will… In the end it is all Greek to consumers.”
The View from Tuscany
Manetti, the head of the consortium, begs to differ. He adds that the UGAs “will help highlight even more the bond between the wine and its territory,” by avoiding confusion between Chianti and Chianti Classico, as the UGAs are only connected to Chianti Classico. He adds that the 11 UGA regions “are already world famous among Italian wine enthusiasts and travelers from all over the globe.”
The Pricing Game
The launch of the UGAs coincides with continuing cost increases for producers in an Italian region that – as elsewhere - are forcing producers to raise prices. Hopefully, for supporters of the new zones, the focused regionalization will justify higher price tags.
Some US industry veterans aren’t sure any type of additional geographical labeling will make the wines sell at a higher price point. “There seems to be a cap [on the price] for most consumers when they think of Chianti, let alone Chianti Classico, that they will spend,” notes St. Clair, adding that even $50 a bottle is a high price point for many buyers.
Perbacco’s Gibin cautions the Gran Selezione wines may already be at the top of their price range. He notes that, “the 11 UGAs already produce the most expensive Chiantis and arguably the best.” However, he concludes that “the majority of consumers will never know the difference,” so unless they understand the distinction they will go for the less expensive Chiantis.
So, playing the pricing game may not end well for Gran Selezione producers. “Framing [the UGAs] as a sales category or an intention to charge more is problematic,” shares wine director Carlin Karr of the Boulder, Colorado based Frasca Food & Wine Italian restaurant group headed up by Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey. She adds that attempts to charge more are “a big part of why the Gran Selezione category has struggled since its launch in 2014.”
Some retailers welcomed the new appellations and thought they would teach consumers more about the subtleties of these sub regions. “There will always be a core group of aficionados of the region that will be eager to see the new labels in place and to start exploring these new delineations,” shares Jasper Russo, the director of education for the 106-location, Texas-based Twin Liquors retail stores.
He continues to share that, “Our staff will use the new labeling as a point of differentiation amongst the many labels in the marketplace.” He also thinks that the new regulations will “spur producers to innovate and refine their offerings to reflect the changes codified in the new regulations. The best producers will no doubt embrace the changes and give us top product to offer our customers.”
Manetti agrees, noting that, “the UGAs will bring more clarity in explaining the various nuances that one can find among the Chianti Classico wines.”
Time will tell if this is the case for Chianti Classico producers in a market that continues to be inundated with fine wine.