Wine Labels – an indication of Terroir?

Posted by Peter Koff MW on 21st Nov 2018

We have talked about terroir in these pages previously. Briefly, we described terroir to be that “somewhereness” of wine, that specific piece of dirt, that imbues a wine with unique, special and sought after characteristics. So how do wine labels relate to terroir? Do wine labels display a complete belief in terroir, or can wine labels actually help us to develop a more accurate definition of terroir? This article is the first in a series that will relate a country’s or a region’s labeling laws to the lofty concept of terroir, the notion, that like beachfront property, the planet has only a finite amount of fine terroir. If you have it, you are blessed, as it produces the best wines that sell at the highest prices and the land too is worth great sums of money. If you don’t have it, well tough, you are relegated to doing the best you can in the shadow of the revered plots!

Today, I will discuss terroir in the context of the wine labels of the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany in Italy. I will briefly deconstruct the regulations to see how faithfully they hew to the notion that the wines are imbued with a special “somewhereness.” To be sure, it must be stated that terroir is rarely specifically mentioned in labeling regulations; it is however a powerful underlying assumption. Chianti Classico is essentially the historic center of Chianti production and is that territory that lies between the towns of Florence and Sienna. A bottle of Chianti Classico can be recognized by the presence of the logo of the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico (the growers association), a black rooster, the Gallo Nero, on the label. Chianti Classico conforms to the highest appellation level in Italy, that of DOCG, which means that the wines are from a specific region, that the production, quality and typicity are controlled in numerous ways which include in this case, but are not limited to:

  • Permitted grape varieties, at least 80% Sangiovese
  • Planting density
  • Irrigation oversight
  • Permitted maximum yields
  • Minimum extract
  • Alcohol levels
  • Acidity levels
  • Release dates
  • Aging requirements
  • Even bottle shape!
  • Organoleptic characteristics, which means the wines must be tasted!

Within the Chianti Classico rules, there are also 3 levels:

  • Annata: Minimum 12% alcohol, may be released on October 1 of the year following harvest
  • Riserva: Minimum 12.5% alcohol, must be aged for at least 24 months from January 1, following the harvest
  • Gran Selezione: Minimum 13% alcohol, must be aged for at least 30 months from January 1, following the harvest. In addition, the grapes must be from a single vineyard or from a selection of the estate’s best grapes.

So, is the DOCG as it refers to Chianti Classico, a terroir driven classification? Certainly, it is a quality driven classification and the Grand Selezione wines now come close to specifying the source at the level of a single vineyard. A great deal of this is, in my opinion, more marketing oriented, as to be fair, are many, if not most, classifications. The Consorzio members want to be sure that there are meaningful quality requirements in place and that consumers can have a level of confidence in the authenticity, taste characteristics and typicity of the wine. This makes marketing easier and supports higher prices. But look at the regulations. The producers are told what grape varieties to use, how to plant the vines, how to manage their vineyards and, in broad terms, how to make the wine. In essence, at best, the regulations are instructing the producers that to best reflect their terroir, they must make wine in accordance with the regulations! If terroir was truly paramount, would regulations not be completely laissez-faire; in essence, do what you want, don’t manipulate too much and let the dirt talk!?

Over the years, in certain parts of Italy, bold and self-confident producers have defied DOC and DOCG regulations in the interest of producing better wines, believing that the regulations were an impediment to the production of their finest wines! The so-called “Super Tuscan” phenomenon began a couple of decades ago when some winemakers felt the need to add, for example, international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, in greater than permitted quantities, to make better wines! These wines could only be labeled as Vino da Tavola, table wines and yet they were very often the most expensive wines of the estate. The effects of this development will be discussed in a future article. For the record, it is my opinion that the finest, most subtle, most complex, most nuanced wines in Chianti Classico are those with the highest percentages of Sangiovese and tiny amounts, if any, of the international varieties. I discussed this in a previous blog.

So, what we see here is a regulatory framework that tacitly recognizes the influence of man on the concept of terroir. It does draw on many, many years of experience and tradition of how to coax the best from the terroir but ultimately, it falls short of a pure notion of terroir!


Want to taste terroir Sangiovese?

Click on the bottle below.

Selected by Peter Koff MW


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