Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Barone Ricasoli: The Past & Future of Chianti Classico

Established in 1141, it may be the oldest winery in Italy, the second oldest in the world. In 1141, the family of Barone Ricasoli was granted the Brolio Castle and it became a powerful stronghold for Florence, later helping defend the land against Siena. Wine making was one of their first pursuits and it has continued throughout the centuries. In the late 17th century, their wines were being traded all over Europe. It is easy to say that wine seems to be the sap in their family tree.

The most famous member of this family was Baron Bettino Ricasoli (1809 – 1880), also known as the "Iron Baron." In 1861, Bettino became the Prime Minister of the newly formed Italy. Though known as an adept politician, it was his intense research and study of wine that gave him renown. He created the basic formula for the Chianti blend, 70% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo (to smooth the tannins) and 15% Malvasia bianca (to make it more drinkable when fresh). This basic formula, with some slight revision, was eventually codified into law in 1966. Thus the name Ricasoli is rich with history and reputation, setting a high precedent for future generations. That is a precedent that the current Baron of Brolio intends to live up to and make proud.

It was a pleasure to meet Francesco Ricasoli, the 32nd Baron of Brolio, who was intelligent, personable and passionate. He possesses a potent drive to elevate the winery to new heights. Until the advent of World War 2, Barone Ricasoli was considered by many to be the most impressive winery in the region. But, during the 1970s, when the family was undergoing significant financial issues, they had to sell the estate to the Seagram Company. Yet the family's finances rebounded and in 1993, they were able to purchase the estate back. Since then, Francesco has replanted the vineyards and updated almost everything, setting the winery on a path to the future. The estate has 1200 hectares, with 240 under vine. Francesco stated that their biggest challenge right now is to regain the top spot in Chianti Classico, to once again become a benchmark.

Francesco, like many winemakers in Chianti Classico, believes wine is made in the vineyard not the cellar. He stated, "Most important thing is outside, the vineyard" and continued with "In the cellar, you can only ruin it." He also believes that Sangiovese is very difficult to grow, a "bastard" grape that is "like a spoiled woman."  But it is also "very intriguing" and can be "extremely elegant."  It still needs plenty more study and research, to delve into all its secrets. The winery currently uses 5-7 Sangiovese clones, as they like blending the clones, each which presents different characteristics. Next year, Ricasoli will submit a couple of new clones to the Italian Ministry of Agriculture for official recognition.

Francesco definitely sees research and study as the path to the future, not only for his winery, but for all wineries. He believes that modern viticulture needs more answers and that knowledge is the key to success. In that regard, he hired the Consiglio per la Ricerca e la Sperimentazione in Agricoltura (CRA) to conduct an extensive, scientific study of the zoning of his estate, probably the first time such a study has ever been conducted in Italy. The study addressed many issues, assessing each vineyard by its soil, microclimate, altitude, exposure, grape, and much more. After three years of study, the CRA has issued their report, and the map pictured above is part of those results. These results should help Francesco improve the quality of their vineyards, and thus his wines. Francesco has not discussed the results much with any other winery yet, though he is considering publishing the report in the future.

Though the vineyards use some organic methods, it is not 100% organic and that is not their goal. They rarely use chemicals, less than once a year, but they want that option if necessary. Francesco said, "I laugh at natural wines" and that "Balance is the key. Extremes are always dangerous." He prefers wine of elegance not muscles, criticizing those wines which are much too powerful. The winery currently produces 2.5 to 3 million bottles annually, and all of their wines are available in the U.S. Their biggest markets are Northern Europe and North America, with Japan being their largest Asian market. They were also one of the first Italian wineries to use QR codes on their bottles and while I was in Chianti Classico, I noticed several other wineries doing so.

Ricasoli produces both traditional and modern style Chianti Classicos, as well as some IGT wines. They also produce two single vineyard wines, a Sangiovese and a Merlot. My preference were their more traditional wines though I liked some of their modern wines as well. Francesco, while being up front about the exact grape percentages in his wines, stated he disliked talking about them as he felt it was more about chemistry than wine. He also felt that knowing the percentages might interfere with the enjoyment of the wine, which is a sentiment I have heard before from a few other wine makers.

The 2011 Torricella IGT ($22-$24) has been a proprietary name for over a century, and used to be made with Malvasia bianca. In 1994, it was changed to Chardonnay and then in the last few years, some Sauvignon Blanc has been added. For this vintage, the blend was 80% Chardonnay and 20% Sauvignon Blanc, and each grape was fermented separately. The wine was fresh and crisp, with prominent grapefruit and citrus flavors and a bit of minerality. It reminded me much more of a Sauvignon Blanc than a Chardonnay, and would be a nice summer wine.

The 2010 Brolio Chianti Classico ($24) is more of a modern style, their "bread and butter" wine. At the winery, we were told the wine is a blend of 80% Sangiovese and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, though the website states it has 15% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. It has bright flavors of red fruits, cherry and strawberry, with some vanilla and spice notes. The tannins are smooth and it is a wine with some power, though not overly so, possessing a good balance. Though I prefer a traditional style, this was one of the best modern style Chianti Classicos that I tasted.

My favorite wine of the tasting was the 2008 Colledila Chianti Classico ($50s), a single vineyard Sangiovese produced in a more traditional style. This is only the second vintage of this wine, and Colledila is the name of the vineyard, a small, 7 hectare plot. Only about 14,000 bottles are produced annually. This was a superb wine, elegant, complex and compelling. It has an intriguing melange of flavors, cherry, violets, spice, herbs and a little earthiness. Great acidity and a lengthy, satisfying finish. A perfect wine to accompany a fine meal, from pasta to beef, and I bought a couple bottles to take home with me.

The 2008 Castello di Brolio Chianti Classico ($55) is a blend of 80% Sangiovese, 10% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is not made every vintage, and they skipped the 2002 and 2009 vintages. It seems to straddle the line between traditional and modern, being both elegant and rustic yet also has more dark fruit flavors, such as ripe plum, with strong vanilla notes and underlying spices. It is more tannic and is definitely a food wine that might benefit from a bit more aging. I enjoyed this wine, though my personal preference is still a more traditional style.

After the tasting, we had a chance to tour Castle Brolio, which has been damaged many times over the centuries, and thus rebuilt. One consequence is that it possesses various architectural styles. It was an important battleground in the wars between Florence and Sienna.

One of my favorite spots in the castle was the armory museum, a collection of swords, guns, armor and weapons that had been acquired over the centuries.

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