Castello di Brolio – the resurgence of a great Chianti estate

I seem to have become a bit obsessed by Italian wine of late and there is nothing wrong with that. The country has a great deal to offer, hundreds of indigenous grape varieties, dozens of wine producing areas, every imaginable style – some uniquely Italian – and everything from  honest, everyday wine to some of the grandest fine wine producers in the world.

In the last couple of years I have enjoyed many trips to Italy and tasted many good – and great – wines. However recently I was invited to a wonderful wine dinner and tasting in London as a guest of Baron Francesco Ricasoli, one of the grandest Italian producers of them all.

Brolio Castle and some of its vines.

The Ricasoli family are very old and emerged as feudal lords from Lombardy in the times of Charlemagne. They settled in Tuscany in the area now known as Chianti – perhaps it was then too as the name is thought to be that of an Etruscan family – more specifically what is now the Chianti Classico. The family took ownership of Brolio Castle in 1141 and have been there ever since, which makes them officially the oldest winery in Italy  – quite an achievement when you consider that the castle marked the border between Florence and Siena. I found it extraordinary to be having dinner and chatting away with a man whose direct ancestors would have had dealings with the Medici family and be involved in the intrigue and violent politics of Florence in the Renaissance.

From a wine point of view though his most important ancestor, in modern times anyway, was Bettino Ricasoli, 2nd Baron Ricasoli. Born in 1809, Bettino eventually became the Tuscan Minister of the Interior and was instrumental in pushing for the union of Tuscany with the Kingdom of Sardinia (Piemonte) that took place in 1860 and established the Kingdom of Italy. He went on to serve two terms as Prime Minister of the newly unified Italy.

As if that was not enough for one lifetime, Bettino also made an enormous contribution to the history of Chianti.

Wine map of Tuscany showing the location of Brolio Castle – click for a larger view.

The wine had been around for centuries, indeed Henry VIII was known to drink it, but originally it was only made in the area called the Chianti Hills just to the north of Siena. Indeed the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de’Medici, issued an edict creating the boundaries of the region which today broadly correspond with those of modern Chianti Classico. Brolio is at the heart of this region, in Gaiole in Chianti some 10 km north east of Siena.

The idea of what constituted a Chianti wine seemed to be somewhat fluid in those days. Indeed there is some evidence, as with Rioja, that it was a white wine in the past. It was not until Bettino had finished his stint as Prime Minister that he was able to bring some clarity to what Chianti actually was. He had worked very hard at restoring the Brolio estate, replanting and experimenting with what grape varieties really suited the land and making the best expression of Chianti that he thought possible. In the end he settled on a blend of three grapes, Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Malvasia, or Sangioveto, Canajuolo and Malvagia as they were known back then and sometimes still are locally.

Just as an aside, in those days it was normal to grow lots of grapes together, to pick them together and to vinify them together too as a field blend. Such wines that included white grapes were much paler and lighter than most red wines of today. I was fortunate enough to taste a wine made in this fashion at Thomas Jefferson’s estate in Monticello, Virginia and it was a real eye opener to wines of the past.

So after decades of research and winemaking Bettino finally wrote down what he had learned and sent it in a letter to Professor Cesare Studiati at the University of Pisa in 1872:

‘…I verified the results of the early experiments, that is, that the wine receives most of its aroma from the Sangioveto (which is my particular aim) as well as a certain vigour in taste; the Canajuolo gives it a sweetness which tempers the harshness of the former without taking away any of its aroma, though it has an aroma all of its own; the Malvagia, which could probably be omitted for wines for laying down, tends to dilute the wine made from the first two grapes, but increases the taste and makes the wine lighter and more readily suitable for daily consumption…’

I find it fascinating that even then he knew the Malvasia diluted the wine – softening it to make it drinkable – and could be left out if you wanted to age the wine instead. Malvasia is no longer a permitted grape for Chianti – although it is still grown in the region for other wines – all the grapes used in Chianti must now be black.

Today the estate is the largest in Chianti Classico – 12000 hectares in total with 236 hectares of vines and olive trees and it might all seem rosy, but that is only because of a great deal of hard work and foresight.

The charming Baron Francesco Ricasoli.

In the 1960s the Ricasoli family sold their name, their brand, to Seagrams. They managed the vineyards and sold the wine to Seagram who marketed it around the world. It may seem strange today, but at the time it made total sense. Many fine wine regions were struggling, astonishingly both Chablis and Côte Rôtie almost disappeared at that time, and Chianti was going through a hard time too. The wines had lost their reputation for quality and many producers had lost confidence in their grapes and their land – this was the time when some Chianti makers saw their future in Cabernet and Merlot and the ‘Super-Tuscans’ were born.

The Seagrams deal saved them at the time, but undermined their history and reputation. Baron Francesco Ricasoli took over the family business in 1990 and decided to put that right. The first thing he did was extensive replanting to ensure the quality came right in the vineyard. Then when Seagrams sold out to Hardy’s in 1993 he was able to buy the family brand back. From then on the focus has been on quality and re-establishing the prestige of their brand.

Brolio Castle.

Francesco was not a winemaker by trade, but a professional photographer, so since 1990 has been operating outside his comfort zone in many ways – although frankly it doesn’t show. He is assured, charming, deeply knowledgeable about his land and I could have listened to him forever. He introduced his wines with modesty and was keen to emphasise that he had built a team to make this project work, but you could hear the pride in his voice when he told us that in 20 years Ricasoli went from being almost forgotten to being regarded once more as a great estate.

Key to the progress they have made with their wines is their zoning project. This is a study in collaboration with the Experimental Institute for the Study and Protection of the Soil in Florence, which is mapping each parcel of vineyards by soil and climate to ensure that the correct grapes varieties are planted where they should be and on the most suitable rootstock.

The tasting was held at Pied à Terre in Charlotte Street in London and the food was an exquisite backdrop to these wonderful wines.

The aperitif:

2015 Torricella
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

This was our aperitif and it was a  blend of 75% Chardonnay blended with 25% Sauvignon Blanc. The Chardonnay was aged for 9 months in used barriques and tonneaux on the lees. the sauvignon was aged on the lees in stainless steel for 9 months.

This was a terrific wine with a lovely, beguiling, balance of richness and texture with freshness, acidity and minerality. I have had a few wines over the years that blend these two grape varieties together and they always seem good to me, so I often wonder why more people don’t don’t do it. This example is very fine – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £17 per bottle from:
Fareham Wine Cellar and Slurp.

Served with Roasted quail, baby beetroots and wild mushrooms:

2013 Casalferro
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

A single vineyard Super-Tuscan wine that has been produced since 1993. It was originally pure Sangiovese, but is now 100% Merlot. The vineyard is south facing and the soil is chalky clay. The different blocks were aged for between 18 and 21 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux before blending.

I am not always a fan of Merlot, but this was delicious stuff. The colour was deep, vibrant and plummy, while the lifted nose offered mocha, chocolate, plums and coffee with a touch of earth and even a whiff of the Mediterranean. The palate was smooth, creamy almost with light grainy tannins, vanilla, rose hips, plums and a dusting of cocoa. The flavours really build in the mouth and it is very long. It was a great match – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £40 per bottle from:
Tannico and Just in Cases.

2006 Casalferro
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

This was the last vintage that blended 30% Merlot and 70% Sangiovese together, from 2007 Casalferro has been pure Merlot. The wine was aged for 18 months in French oak barriques.

Beginning to show its age with a tawny rim and a briny, balsamic dominated aroma together with leather, earth, dried fruits and strong coffee. The palate was very soft, yet savoury and earthy with something almost medicinal about it. The tannins and the fruit were smooth and velvety and the acidity, presumably from the Sangiovese, kept it youthful and bright. This was magnificent with the quail meat, especially the crispy roast quail legs – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £40 per bottle from:
Hedonism Wines.

Served with venison, celeriac, watercress, sprouts and chestnuts:

2013 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

This wine, now labelled as Gran Selezione – the first eligible vintage was 2010, is the Grand Vin of the estate. Gran Selezione is an attempt to firm up the quality credentials of top Chianti Classico. Historically the Riserva wines were the pinnacle of production, but normal Chianti Classico could be aged longer in wood and be labelled as a Reserve, so nothing really set the wines apart as being great quality.

Gran Selezione wines must be made from estate grown fruit, not bought in. The minimum alcohol must be 13% compared to 12.5% for Riserva. The wine must be aged for 30 months, compared to 24 months for Riserva. There is some controversy around the adoption of this new system, but I can see the point of it.

This 90% Sangiovese, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot blend is made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 21 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux – 20% new.

The nose offered bright plums and pomegranates together with rich earth and mocha notes. The palate was supple, youthful, joyous and delicious with fine grain tannins, sweet red fruit and a harmonious feel. I could drink it now, but it really needs time – 94/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £40 per bottle from:
Waitrose Cellar, Tannico and Millésima.

2008 Chianti Classico
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

This 80% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot blend is made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 28 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux – 20% new.

2008 is not considered a great vintage, but Francesco is very fond of it and wanted to share it with us. I am glad he did, I thought it was terrific.

The age is beginning to show here with more toffee, caramel and balsamic, soy sauce and general umami note The palate was very supple, very smooth with nice freshness, dried fig fruit, mushrooms, smoky coffee and caramel flavours. The finish was long, savoury and saline with a touch of mocha and cedar too. A beautiful wine ageing gracefully – 93/100 points.

2003 Chianti Classico
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

One of the hottest vintages to date, this was a blend of  Sangiovese with a little cabernet sauvignon. The wine was aged for 18 months in French oak barriques – 65% new.

The age shows here, but it is very good. the nose is earthy, mushroomy, truffles, meaty, dried figs and rich coffee, even a touch of stout on the nose. The palate is again very supple with sweet dried figs, almost no tannins and a meaty, savoury richness that makes it great with food – 93/100 points.

Served with the cheese course:

2013 Colledilà Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

This wine is a site specific, pure Sangiovese Chianti Classico that is now labelled as a Gran Selezione. In effect it is a Cru from a vineyard on the estate that sits at 380 metres above sea level and faces south west. 

100% Sangiovese made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate on the Colledilà block, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 21 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux – 40% new.

I am not always wowed by the top wines of an estate, but this really seduced me. What’s more it was from a difficult vintage with lots of hail. It was fragrant, floral, perfumed with sweet red fruit, mocha and a touch f tobacco. The palate was smooth, supple, smoky with fine grain tannins, ripe red fruit and a beautifully fresh, lightly flesh and succulent mid weight to it. This was stunning wine and I would add that the label is utterly beautiful too – 95/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £50 per bottle from:
Hedonism and Millésima.

2010 Colledilà Chianti Classico
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

100% Sangiovese made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate on the Colledilà block, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 18 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux.

Showing some lovely bottle age, this is much more savoury and meaty with dried fruit, walnuts and coffee aromas, even some toffee. The palate is wonderfully cohesive with an underlying freshness balancing the richness and binding it all together. The tannins are supple and there is a dried fruit and savoury, earthy flavours and a sense of purity about it that makes it sing. It was magnificent with the Comté – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £32 per bottle from:
Vintage Wine & Port.

Served with the petit fours:

2007 Vin Santo
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

This blend of Malvasia and  Sangiovese is made from late harvested grapes that are then dried over the winter to concentrate the sugars further.  The juice is then fermented and the wine then aged for 4-5 years in French oak barriques.

This was the colour of Malt Whiskey and had a nose of cinder toffee, caramel, oranges, dried apricots together with a whiff of old books, leather, pipe tobacco and coffee. The palate is a wonderfully sumptuous blend of sweet and sour with chestnut, coffee, dried fig, maple syrup and concentrated apricot fruit. The finish is firm and surprisingly unsweet with great acidity and balance. The end is almost savoury and salty with reminders of Sherry, Sauternes and Madeira on the nose and plate – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £33 per half litre from:
Hennings Wine.

The whole evening was a memorable experience of good company, excellent food and magnificent wines. If you want to see what Chianti can be, do try one of the wines from Castello di Brolio Barone Ricasoli, they are quite a revelation.

The wines that I have written about here are the pinnacle of Barone Ricasoli’s production. If you want to dip a toe in the water and try their wines without quite such a large price tag, then they make many other wines including their superb Barone Ricasoli Brolio Chianti Classico Riserva, their excellent Brolio Chianti Classico  – also here – and the Waitrose in Partnership Chianti Classico, which is very good and great value for money.

Barone Ricasoli wines are imported into the UK by John E Fells.

Barone Ricasoli wines are imported into the US by Domaine Select & Liber Selections,

Tuscany – a short travel guide

The weather is getting better and many of us are turning our thoughts to travel. Every now and again I write wine travel articles for my friends at the excellent 3D Wines Experience wine club and they print them in their Uncorked Magazine. Well, I thought that some of my readers here would enjoy them too, so I will publish them on here in a slow trickle.

My first piece for 3D Wines was about Tuscany and while it isn’t comprehensive it does cover a good swathe of lovely places in Tuscany’s, so I hope that it comes in handy for some of you.

Wine map of Tuscany – click for a larger view.

Tuscany has been attracting visitors for hundreds of years. It has everything from sun, sea and sand to some of the most romantic towns and cities in the world. It is a place that you can visit time and again and yet always find something new to excite you.

Tuscany is home to many famous wines, but Chianti remains its beating heart. The term Chianti was first used to define the hilly area area around Radda, Gaiole and Castellina and is thought to have been the name of an Etruscan family. This is the heartland of Chianti, where it all began and today it’s the core of the Chianti Classico D.O.C.g., but the whole Chianti area is worth exploring.

Castellina in Chianti.

Castellina
Castellina in Chianti is small and still has the feel of a mediaeval walled town. It is a joy to wander along the charming main street – Via Ferruccio – and the Via della Volte, an amazing vaulted, passage now home to shops and restaurants. The main square – Piazza del Comune – is dominated by the Rocca di Castellina castle which houses the Museum of Etruscan Archeology. This is a real gem and if it whets your appetite to learn more about this ancient culture, there is the stunning Etruscan tomb of Montecalvario a few minutes walk away.

It can be very hot here, so some amazing, homemade ice cream from the Antica Deliza Gelateria is highly recommended and almost reason enough to come to Castellina – do try the lemon and sage. If you need something more substantial the Antica Trattoria la Torre serves very good traditional food and is right in the main square.

Hotel Colle Etrusco Salviolpi.

Ristorante Albergaccio di Castellina.

Just outside the town is the Hotel Colle Etrusco Salviolpi an old country house turned into a welcoming B&B hotel complete with swimming pool, while the nearby Ristorante Albergaccio di Castellina provides high class Tuscan food and a wine list to match.

The rolling hills of the Colli Senesi.

Siena
Chianti Colli Senesi, as you might imagine is produced in the hills around Sienna. Once Florence’s equal as a city state, Siena ultimately lost out politically to its rival in the north, but in every other respect is by far the winner. Siena was never the centre of Renaissance intrigue, or Italy’s capital and so it remains small, with just 53,000 people its population is barely a seventh of Florence. This amazing, compact city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose buildings are almost all the same colour – terra di Siena or ‘Siena earth’ which makes it seem very beautiful.

Piazza del Campo Siena.

Do spend some time in the Piazza del Campo, this huge piazza is used as the racetrack for the Palio horse race twice a year and is lined with cafés, restaurants, gelaterias and market stalls. Make sure that you climb the Torre del Mangia, the bell tower overlooking the Piazza, heavy going in the heat, but the view is worth it as the whole city opens up before you.

The Duomo, or Siena Cathedral, is not only stunning in itself as it contains bas-reliefs by Donatello, but the site also includes the Museo dell’Opera dell Duomo which houses masterpieces such as Duccio’s Maestà. Once you have absorbed all the art another panoramic view awaits you from the terrace of the Il Facciatone tower.

Every Wednesday there is a lively market around the Fortezza Mediceana, where food, wine, antiques, animals and clothes are all for sale and it is a great place to watch the locals going about their lives.

Torre del Mangia Siena.

As you might imagine Siena is bursting with places to eat and it is hard to make a mistake, but my favourite is the Grotta di Santa Caterina di Bagoda which has been run by former Palio jockey Pierino Fagnani since 1973. This place is wonderfully atmospheric and fun with a great wine list and a very traditional menu. Try Pici – a thick hand rolled spaghetti which is only made in Siena and often served with a rich wild boar sauce. This would also be a good place to try some Panforte for dessert, with a glass of Vin Santo perhaps?

Looking down on the Piazza del Campo Siena.

Staying in Siena isn’t always easy as the hotels are usually very old, small and lack air-conditioning, while many of them are up several floors with no lift. The Hotel Duomo is pretty central, air-conditioned and has wonderful views from most rooms, but like many hotels in Siena it does lack parking. If you are seeking something more luxurious then the 5 star Grand Hotel Continental Siena occupies a magnificent 17th century Palazzo once owned by Pope Alexander VII. What’s more their Enoteca SaporDivino is a superb wine bar in the cellar that has to be experienced.

Florence.

The Duomo in Florence, beautiful by day and night.

A colourful procession in Florence.

Further afield – Firenze
I suppose that Florence must be at the heart of many trips to Tuscany, so I should mention some of my favourite delights to be found there. Harry’s Bar was opened on the banks of the Arno in 1952 by a friend of Giuseppe Cipriani who created the original in Venice and it appears to be unchanged. It is so elegant and cosmopolitan that as you sip your Bellini you half expect Clark Gable to appear arm in arm with Marilyn Monroe.

More traditional fare is available at the nearby Cantinetta Antinori which is housed on the ground floor of the ancient Antinori family palazzo. This beautiful place offers a small menu of classical Tuscan cuisine together with an enormous list of wines made by Antinori and their friends throughout the world. You can even try all their Super-Tuscans by the glass.

Trattoria Marione

Both of those are delightful and swanky and perfect if your wallet is full, but if you are after some good food and charming local colour on a tighter budget then the wonderfully bustling Trattoria Marione is nearby in the Via della Spade. The check table cloths, Chianti flasks on the tables and salamis hanging over the bar might make you think it’s a tourist trap, but I have only ever known locals to be in there and they always seem to be happily tucking into wonderful traditional Tuscan food in abundance – try the tagliatelle sul Cinghiale – tagliatelle with wild boar.

Florence is also known for its colourful Fiaschetteria or Vinerie, traditional wine bars that are often no more than a hole in the wall. The upmarket Enoteche are a more salubrious update on the theme, often quite smart and serving an array of wine together with stuzzichini, snacks or appetisers of Crostini, Salami and Affettati – mixed cured meats.

Piazza Napoleone, Lucca.

Walking Lucca’s walls.

Lucca
Far from being filthy, Lucca is a delightful walled town a little north east of Pisa. You can walk all around the walls and see the town before you venture in to the maze of winding streets, some of which look as though they are stuck in the Renaissance, while others like Via Fillungo boast an impressive array of luxury shops – as with Florence jewellery and leather goods are the things to buy here. The oval shaped Piazza Anfiteatro was once the ancient town’s Roman amphitheatre. This is a beautiful space and it is wonderful to soak up all the history for a while in one of the many bars.

Lucca from the air – you can clearly see the walls and fortifications – click for a larger view

Lucca boasts one of my favourite family run restaurants. The Trattoria da Leo has been in the Via Tegrimi since 1974 and is a delightful place to enjoy delicious, simple Tuscan food and while away an hour or two. It is an unpretentious, but totally genuine place that lists just two wines, both red – Vino Toscano at 12.5˚ in either quarter or half litre carafes or the local Vino Colline Lucchesi in bottles.

If you find yourself in need of intellectual stimulation, Puccini was born in Lucca and his house in the Corte San Lorenzo is now a wonderful museum. After which you surely deserve an ice-cream and luckily the Gelateria Santini Sergio is nearby and has been making superb gelato on the premises since 1916 – do try the chocolate and orange.

Just go there
There is so much to enjoy in Tuscany that nothing can really do it justice other than going there and seeing these places as well as Pisa, San Gimignano, San Miniato, Livorno, Pistoia, Elba, Montepulciano, Montalcino and all those other little towns you would stop in along the way and remember for ever more.

Not only is everywhere a feast for the eyes, but every corner of Tuscany is home to something that you can actually feast on. Internationally famous wines, local wines, superb olive oils, honey, hams, cheeses, salamis, mushrooms, meats, herbs, breads and sweets abound – no wonder I am so drawn to the place.

Useful Addresses:

Antica Trattoria la Torre
Piazza del Comune15
53011 Castellina In Chianti
+39 (0) 57- 774-0236

Albergaccio di Castellina
Via Fiorentina, 63
53011 Castellina In Chianti
+39 (0) 57-774-1042

Grotta di Santa Caterina di Bagoda
Via della Galluzza, 26
53100 Siena
+39 (0) 57-728-2208

Harry’s Bar
22R Via Lungarno Amerigo Vespucci 
Firenze, Toscana 50123 
+39 (0) 55-239-6700
Cantinetta Antinori
Piazza Antinori 3
Firenze, Toscana 50123
+39 (0) 55-292-234

Trattoria Marione
Via della Spada 27R
Firenze, Toscana 50123
+39 (0) 55-247-56

Trattoria da Leo
Via Tegrimi 1
Lucca, Toscana 55100
+39 (0) 58-349-2236