Subzones in wine: yes or no?
A few days ago the Rioja wine region has decided to divide the territory in subzones. So here is my reflection on the utility and problematic regarding subzones
Advantages and problems in dividing a wine region into small portions with similar characteristics: the subzones. Journalists talk about this, the more traditional wine lovers ask for these as an instrument to preserve the “purity” of their favourite wines, but in truth there are some international wines such as Grange, the Australian “first growth” for which, each year, grapes from different vineyards and different zones. It is legitimate to ask then if the subzones offer real advantages then, or if they complicate the work for the Italian producers already bound by a long list of rules and a lot of bureaucracy. In Montalcino, for example, many wineries use grapes coming from different zones of Montalcino and it is exactly because of these blends of slightly different characters that a particular style comes out that distinguished this brand. In 2012 Kerin O’Keefe editor and taster for Wine Enthusiast
launched the proposal to divide the Brunello territories into 6 zones, and initiated a great debate.
In Montalcino e cultivate 2.100 hectares of Vineyard used for the production of 9 million bottles of Brunello. The territory seems to be a small one; especially too small to be broken up, however there are those who are adamant that the subzone method is to be followed. Barolo has a surface of 1900 hectares of vineyards, for a production of about 13 million bottles per year. In this territory the division has been found in the definition of historical districts (for example Cannubi) and the analysis of the vocation of the territory that began at the end of the Nineteenth century and continued with the coordination of the Regione Piemonte, so as to form boundaries that are administrative, agronomical and agreements, in respect of previous situations, that set off ferocious conflicts.
The sub zone method has one advantage and three problems to consider. On one side it allows buyers and wine lovers to delimit areas theatre homogenous making the search for similar wineries a lot easier.
On the other side this system might compromise the commercial potential of the wine region by reducing the “critical mass” of its bottles , that might now already be few , to
face the great markets and the foreign competition. For example Pomerol, has 785 hectares of vineyard and is inside the Bordeaux zone with 105.000 hectares of vineyard. If we consider that the entire Tuscan region has 60.000 it quite easy to understand that the subzones are the present day appellations except for Chianti that has, inside some delimited areas.
Similar case in Rioja with 57.000 hectares of Vineyard and a production of over 3000 million bottles per year. The government ruling office for this appellation is working on a project to allow subzone, village names and Vineyard names on the labels. This is a reaction to the exiting of Artadi, the prestigious brand, from the appellation, and which has made the fellow producers reflect on the subject of excessive volumes produced.
The second problem regards global warming and the changes that this has created in the vocation of territories. The most sensational is a worrying case for Champagne
producers and at the same time a joy for those who own vineyards the other side of the Channel where these are increasing day by day. But the quality potential of vineyards is changing all over the world, and in such cases of evolution it is difficult something like zoning, which should give stability. This is the case of the Northern side of Montalcino, where Casato Prime Donne stands, which is favoured by the new climate and it is exactly for this reason the now level of excellence are reached. To admit this evolution is very difficult for the Champagne producers and not only for them.
There is also the “philosophic” problematic that comes from immaterial factors. In fact not always does fame surge from the soil, the microclimate… the terroir in other words. There are other important elements involved, completely different to wine or climate <<why does a Vineyard or subzone become famous in time? It is not easy at all to give an answer. If the Prince of Conti had not created a war so as to donate his favourite that land in the municipality of Vosne Romanèe, the vineyard called “Romanèe Conti” would now be so famous? If they hadn’t gifted the chancellor Metternik with Scloss Jhoannisberg for his work at the Vienna congress, that hill would have represented for ages the excellence of the Rhine? >> writes Lorenzo Tablino.