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Baron of Brolio in Tuscany

Posted: Monday, 26 November 2012 13:02

Passing By: Baron of Brolio in Tuscany

November 26: Baron Francesco Ricasoli, owner of Castello di Brolio, the biggest and one of the oldest Tuscan family wine producers known also as Barone Ricasoli in Gaiole in Chianti, made a brief stop-over in Delhi on his way back from China to meet his importer Mohan Bros. and some important clients when Subhash Arora met him over an exclusive dinner at the Sevilla Restaurant at the Claridges Hotel to catch up.

Click For Large ViewFrancesco Ricasoli is a man in a hurry. He wants to bring back the old lost glory of Chianti wines and that of his family owned winery Castello di Brolio that has had a history of winemaking in the family for 8 centuries till his father had to sell out in the early seventies due to tough financial times. It changed hands with even Seagram’s once owning it and increasing the quantity at the cost of quality, he says. He bought it back in 1993 with the help of his father Bettino Ricasoli. With the help of the Tuscan renowned consultant winemaker Carlo Ferrini, he has constantly improved on the quality of his wines. ‘To me 10 years ago was like 40 years ago,’ he says while admitting his grandfather had made a lot of mistakes that might have resulted in the unfortunate sale that kept the estate out of the family hands for a couple of decades.

‘My family was exporting bottled wine in the 17th century to UK,’ he adds proudly as he looks at my G-12 Canon and says, ‘this is a beautiful camera.’ Knowing that the 32nd in line Baron has been a professional photographer before immersing himself into the running of Brolio, set the tone for an informal chat as always with the man I meet often in Italy but did so for the first time in India.

A direct descendent of Baron Bettino Ricasoli, the two- time Prime Minister of Italy who developed the formula for producing the red Chianti Classico wine in 1872 with Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Malvasia, he justifies the formula. There were so many small farmers in Chianti area at that time having white grapes that they did not want to uproot them all. Elaborating on the DOC laws that came into being in 1966, he says the growers lobbied hard to include them in the appellation at that time as well. The new laws prohibit the use of white grapes.

Chianti Classico vs. Brunello di Montalcino

While admitting that the image of Chianti went South in the seventies, he not only feels Chianti Classico wines have improved tremendously, but that his estate is considered one of those estates that have helped bring up the level. More and more producers are making terroir wines now to show the character of the terroir, he tells me. Quite a fan of Sangiovese, he is confident, ‘100% Sangiovese (which was not allowed earlier as Chianti Classico docg and producers had to label it as IGT) we produce in Tuscany now is as good as Brunello di Montalcino even as they are able to command better price. We are in fact better than them. We are more like Pinot Noir of Burgundy while they make over-extracted and powerful wines that need longer aging,’ he says with a tone of confidence that is sure to ruffle a few feathers in the nearby Montalcino.

Osteria but no agriturismo

Brolio has a beautiful restaurant affording an excellent view of the greens around and is now fully owned by the winery. But Francesco has no plans of adding rooms or letting out the rooms in the Castle. ‘We used to rent rooms before in the 60s but now everybody is doing it. Besides, we are in the wine business and not in tourism. So we like to focus on winemaking. The restaurant does not earn us profits - it’s not easy to run a restaurant on that basis. But this is a service for our visitors, around 40,000 of whom visit us every year. We have a staff of 12 looking after the visitors who have various tasting options to choose from,’ adding ‘this is also not very profitable as a business but helps us indirectly as we believe it increases our wine sales.’

No Screwcaps for Chianti Classico

Click For Large ViewItaly has recently allowed the use of screwcaps on the DOC and DOCG wines subject to the wine consortiums allowing it if their members so desire. Ricasoli is very clear about the issue. ‘We will never let the proposal go through for the Chianti Classico wines. They are ok for the young wines like the Chianti we are tasting today, but for serious wines that age well, we shall not ever approve of using screwcaps,’ says the producer clocking 200,000 cases a year, thus making it the biggest family-owned Chianti producer. Interestingly enough, he is also making bag-in-the-box IGT wines for the Scandinavian markets.

Chianti vs. Chianti Classico

During my visit to the Tuscan Tastings in February every year, one of the hot topics of debate and discussion is the projection of difference in quality between the Chianti and Chianti Classico which is more of a terroir driven wine and has a distinct personality in the hands of good producers and naturally is more expensive, making the novices hesitant to put their hands in the pocket for the Classico. But the Baron disagrees vociferously. ‘Wine connoisseurs know the quality producers and the Classico wines well. For instance, our Castello di Brolio (the name synonymous with the winery as well as their top Chianti Classico wine) is as good as a Riserva but we don’t call it as such and don’t even mention it boldly on the label. Our customers just know and understand the Castello!!’

Soil, Soil, Soil

Baron Ricasoli is a strong believer in the soil deciding which grapes would grow best and where. He had a zoning study carried out a few years ago in his property. The study looks at the various pockets in his 230 hA of vines and scientifically would guide on which varieties would grow best. Perhaps a first in Tuscany, this study is expected to come out very soon. Like many other producers, of course, Brolio vinifies grapes harvested at different times - about 200 lots are vinified individually and blended later.

He has the latest lab equipment and in fact boasts of owning an expensive HPLC equipment to determine the purity of the grape. ‘We get samples from about 25 wineries from Sicily to Montalcino for testing,’ he says.

Tasting Wines

Baron Francesco Ricasoli is quite optimistic about the Indian market despite the high taxes. He has recently introduced Chianti made from grapes purchased from the nearby growers in the Siena hilly areas and fermenting them in the winery. A quick taste of the wine and I knew this one could be a winner for the Indian market. Though it is not priced yet but if in the range of Rs.1200-1400,  would be a good value-for-money wine. The 2011 Chianti we tasted is a young medium bodied wine with good concentration and fruity flavours with spices lurking in the background. ‘If it has our name, we must be proud to sell it,’ he says, justifying the slight premium over the existing Chiantis.

The Brolio Chianti Classico 2010 and the Riserva 200 were already going up the quality ladder as we tasted in that order - a good example of Sangiovese and how it can be well rounded with Canaiolo, Merlot and Cabernet. But the highlight of the evening was a vertical tasting of Castello di Brolio 2008, 2006, 2001 and 2000 uncorked specially for me to share how the vintages evolved and what a pleasure it was!

The 2000 was still drinking quite well and the 2008 was a bit too young though the pepperoni in the thin crust pizza, my favorite at Sevilla, mellowed the tannins in the mouth. But the honours were shared between 2006 - a classically excellent vintage for Chianti Classico and 2001. I took the liberty of tasting the wines with the pizza, which might be rather uncommon, but to me the combination of pepperoni with Chianti Classico makes it a great combination and the two vintages were a perfect example of a perfect match - though I found myself pouring more of 2006! I’d say this was the queen of the evening.

Back to China

Click For Large ViewComing to India after a visit to China, Francesco was quite upbeat about the country where he has tied up with Summergate, one of the top importers and plans to go back again in December. ‘We aim to be number one in our category in whichever market we are in,’ he says and going back to China soon after the current visit is a pointer to his commitment. One hopes his importer Mohan Bros. is as successful in India as well and would need him to come back and help him address the market and get it to the top two in the import of Chianti Classico in India. The ever improving quality of wines from Castello di Brolio will find many takers, sooner or later.

Subhash Arora

For a couple of extensive and related articles, please visit
Barone Ricasoli : A Baron and a Classico Wine in Chianti
Baron of Brolio- Big getting Better

       

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