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Posted: Monday, June 02 2008. 13:29

Taste of IL Blu from Brancaia: 1994-2005

At a vertical tasting of twelve vintages, Martin Kronenberg, owner of the Tuscan winery Casa Brancaia, presented 12 vintages of their Super Tuscan IL Blu at Hotel Imperial in Delhi, where Subhash Arora was present.

Cheers to IL Blu, says Martin Kronenberg
Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Brancaia…what do they have in common? 'Their top quality aside, they represent different geographic regions,' explained Martin. 'Many Etruscan villages in Tuscany have names ending in  ...'aia'. So the wine producers use these names for their wines.' No wonder one of the wines from this top Chianti Classico producer is also named Ilatraia.

Chianti Classico and Maremma

Every quality producer in the Chianti Classico area worth his Chianti has two attributes in common. He or she must produce a Super Tuscan and must have some property bought recently in Maremma.

Widmers are no different. IL Blu is the Super Tuscan label from Brancaia and Brancaia in Maremma is their estate in Maremma, which signifies that Martin and his wife Barbara Widmer had arrivati.

Being awarded Tre Bicchieri ,the most coveted award from Gambero Rosso for all but one of the IL Blu vintages tasted from 1994-2005- the Due Bicchieri 2002, which was a very tough vintage throughout Italy and most of Europe due to unprecedented rains, certainly gives them that luxury and privilege.

Brancaia is born

Barbara's Swiss parents Brigitte and Bruno Widmer were in Italy in 1981 when on a touristic visit to Tuscany, they fell in love with the landscape and decided to buy a property where they could have a farmhouse and a weekend getaway, a 5-hour drive from Zurich where they were living, says the son-in-law Martin.

But there was a hitch. The ruins of the building they had set their hearts upon, came with the vineyard estate of 8 h/A; take it or leave it. They took it, without knowing what they would do with so much area, not an easy task in those economically difficult times for the region.

With the help of a friendly neighbour, they undertook viticulture and thus was born a Chianti Classico. The year was the Orwellian Nineteen Eighty-Four. Tuscany was picking up after going through a rocky period; Super Tuscans were the latest fashion in the US when, lo and behold! Their 1983 Classico won the Top award at a major Chianti Classico blind tasting!

Brancaia in Expansion

Barbara Widmer- Kronenberg with her babies
There was no looking back. Another estate named Poppi was added in 1989, making it a comfortable 30 h/A for the Widmers. They were also able to get permission (Italian bureaucracy can be as excruciatingly painful as in India!) to build a common cellar.

Meanwhile, their daughter Barbara, who was an architect, weighed the options and realised that she might not make it to the top in her profession and chose instead to become a winemaker. She even studied winemaking and enology in Zurich.

She was the mid-wife for the Chianti Classico baby born in 1998- and has been producing one every year since.

The property in Maremma was acquired in 1997; the most hyped up year for Tuscan wines by the Americans and the British but in fact, not as great as perceived, admits Martin. Located near Grosseto, about 12 kms from the sea, in the Morellino di Scansano appellation zone, this 120 h/A estate produces the Ilatraia.

But IL Blu was at the center stage at the vertical tasting of 1994-2005 at Hotel Imperial this afternoon.

The True Blue Super Tuscan

IL Blu is a Super Tuscan made with Sangiovese in the majority, blended with Merlot and Cabernet. Initial years saw 55% of Sangiovese, 40% Merlot and 5% Cabernet, which continued with Barbara's first vintage. But she decided to make a switch of 5% from Sangiovese to Merlot, making it slightly softer and a bit more luscious. The blend continues to have 50% Sangiovese and 45% Merlot since 1999.

With this background, we plunged into the Blu world of Brancaia, with 12 glasses pre-poured at the perfect temperature of around 16° C, with duly decanted and bottled back liquid under the supervision of the French, Hotel Imperial sommelier, Stephan Soret.

Martin did comment before the commencement of the tasting that the company philosophy was not to produce wines for tasting but wines that could be enjoyed with or without food, preferably the latter. One sip should lead to the next and the next, till the next bottle beckons.

I'd drink to that!

VERTICAL TASTING IL Blu- 1994-2005

IL Blu 1994

A few of Brancaia labels
Despite the literature classifying it as an IGT Rosso Toscana, the bottle told another story. Until 1994, top producers were obliged to conform to either DOC or DOCG like Chianti Classico, or label  their wine as Vino da Tavola which the bottle label correctly indicated.

A brick red colour with an orange hue gives away the old age of the bottle. Typical Sangiovese aroma with a light varnish touch, balanced acidity and firm tannins make this wine still alive though not in the prime of life.

IL Blu 1995

Brick brown red colour, the wine dies on the palate. It was not a great vintage as Martin points out. Earthy flavour, the wine has gone over the peak

IL Blu 1996

Colour is still dark cherry colour, it is fresh and full bodied wine with complex flavours  of raspberry and cherry and a long end.     

IL Blu 1997

This was the vintage that was a great year for Super Tuscan wines, which put Tuscany on the world wine map. It is a key vintage for Brancaia too. The wine is still closed a bit, but the Sangiovese sweetness impresses on the palate. Aromas are bold and complex. There is good harmony between tannins and acidity.  

IL Blu 1998

This is the first vintage crafted by Barbara. It has fresh fruit aromas and slimmer body than the '97. Tannins are a bit strong but well rounded. Flavour gets better in the glass after 15-20 minutes. Cherry flavours and spices abound. 

IL Blu 1999

Fresh fruit aromas of cherries and stewed prunes. Solid body but slim and elegant wine. Tannins are quite velvety and flavour is persistent on the end. A wine that will continue to mature for the next few years. Martin tells us it will drink well till 2016.

IL Blu 2000

Not an unusual year. Winter wasn't really winter and spring was not rally spring. Floral aromas. Medium to full body with fine tannins and a long, pleasant end.

IL Blu 2001

Lovely bouquet of ripe berries and toasted oak. Inky colour. Very well structured, rich and full bodied. Great mouthfeel, with the full flavours going right till the end, leaving a lasting impression of sweet vanilla oak and plums.

This turned out to be my most favourite wine of the afternoon.

IL Blu 2002

This was a universally poor vintage for Tuscany with rains in August and September. Many producers could not make good quality. But apparently Brancaia was not hit too badly and they were able to produce a full-bodied wine with smoky aromas of black fruit with a spicy layer. It had slightly chocolaty flavour with integrated tannins. Very long and complex smoky and spicy finish. This is the kind of wine which shows what a good producer can do even in a bad vintage. This wine is easy drinking, not to age.

IL Blu 2003

Harvested earlier, due to intense heat that year. The full bodied wine has a lot of character with slightly higher alcohol at 13.5%. Dark and chewy, lots of berries on the palate with minerals in the background.

IL Blu 2004

This has been a classic vintage in Tuscany. Though the wine is still young with the classic ruby red colour, it shows spices on the palate with a fruity and floral nose reminiscent of roses. Undertones of cherries and blackberries on the palate with an exceptionally long length. The velvety balanced tannins make this wine a delicious wine with proper food and can be enjoyed even now, after decanting for an hour and letting it breath in the proper glass while enjoying with the meal.

IL Blue 2005

Service for 4- Pre-poured 12 Vintages of IL Blu
Bottled only last year, this wine is not ready to drink yet. But it is a fruit forward wine with oak presence still domineering. The coffee flavour makes it a bit complex. Subtle aromas of minerals and cherries, The full-bodied wine has refined tannins and a long finish.

This was a 12- vintage vertical tasting, apparently, first of its kind in India. According to Martin, the young Super Tuscans should be decanted for 30-60 minutes before serving and are best enjoyed with serious food, like steaks and the Tuscan Osso Buco, which is unfortunately easy to find in India, but I could suggest sikandari raan, rack of lamb or even light marinated mutton kebabs to go with these wines.

The Challenges

Martin rightly brought out the two challenges being faced by good Super Tuscan producers today. The biggest challenge is with people wanting fine wines that can be drunk young and Super Tuscans take a few years to evolve in the bottle, typically 5 or more to make them start showing off. The second is the competition from producers from the bottoms up rather then top down. During the last 2 years several newer and younger producers have started coming out with much improved quality,' says Martin.

So how do they cope with this competition? 'Our philosophy is that every grape should be capable of producing IL Blu. So we constantly strive to improve the quality of the grape in the vineyard,' says Martin. Of course it helps that Barbara is a good winemaker and they have the assistance from the internationally renowned Carlo Ferrini since 1992 when he started wine consultancy. His personality is well reflected in the wines which have gradually been shifting to the modern style, in an effort to make them easy and early drinking yet making them age worthy.

It is too early to say whether these wines will mature beyond twenty years. But the taste of wines as old as 14 years does suggest the life of around 17-20 years for IL Blu from Brancaia.

Subhash Arora

Wines from Casa Brancaia are being imported exclusively by the Wine Park in Mumbai, owned by Vishal Kadakia.

       

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