Friday, August 03, 2012

A Visit to Castello di Brolio, and thoughts about Bettino Ricasoli

Looking towards Siena from Brolio
Brolio is the largest estate in Chianti, one of the oldest, and also the most important. Because without Brolio we wouldn't have the Chianti Classico we know today. The estate had belonged to the Ricasoli family for centuries -- since 1141 -- but when Bettino Ricasoli inherited it in the early 1800s at the age of 18, following the death of his mother, it was mired in debt. A lesser man might have given up, but Bettino was not one to shirk a challenge; he gave up his studies and moved to Brolio, where he managed to both raise his younger siblings, whom the Grand Duchy had entrusted to his care, and save the family fortunes.

He also got involved in politics, initially Tuscan, and subsequently, after playing an instrumental role in guiding Tuscany's confluence into the newly formed Italian state, on the National stage, where he occupied the post of Prime Minister twice, the first time in 1861, when he was asked to step in for Camillo Cavour, (1810-1861, the Piemontese political genius behind the Italian unification), and the second in 1866, when he tried unsuccessfully to reach an agreement with the Church -- the Church, which had not accepted the unification of Italy, agreed to what he proposed, but the Parliament did not, so he resigned.

And returned to Brolio, which had never been far from his heart. There he devoted his time and energy to improving the lands, and one of the most interesting records to be found is in the correspondence he had with Cesare Studiati, who was a professor at the medical school in Pisa, patriot, and also a land owner with a lively scientific interest in everything that came from the land.

The two wrote back and forth frequently; they had similar political views and many of the earlier notes collected in "Alla Ricerca del 'Vino Perfetto' Il Chianti del Barone di Brolio," (Leo S. Olschki Editore, Florence, 2009), a small volume Francesco Ricasoli presented at the inauguration of a museum dedicated to Bettino in the castle, are Bettino's questions about who might be best suited for this or that post in Pisa, and Cesare's replies, and as such are of interest only to a select group of political historians.

But they also discuss farming, which, following Bettino's retirement from the national political stage, becomes a primary topic of their discourse. Not just the wine one would expect now, but other things as well, and this invites a brief aside.

Tuscany was a very different place in the 1860s; while some landowners, including Bettino Ricasoli and Cesare Studiati did take an active interest in their holdings, many preferred to live in the cities, leaving everything in the hands of the mezzadri, or tenant farmers, and the fattori, or estate managers. It was assumed that farms would be self sufficient, producing everything they needed, and as a result the sort of intensive viticulture we see today was unknown. Rather, the farming system followed a system called coltura promiscua, in which the fields were mixed, with seed crops planted between the rows of vines, and olive and fruit trees as well.

As one might guess it wasn't the most efficient system, and the more interested landowners explored a number of possible ways to make the farms more profitable; while Bettino devoted considerable energy to wine, he also explored the possibility of raising silkworms, which initially looked promising, until a silkworm blight reared its head (and yes, he and Cesare, who was also interested in silk worms, discussed this).

However, it is Bettino's comments on wine that make the correspondence so important, for he discusses both how he makes it and with what varietals. First how he made it, on July 16 1868, in a letter he sent with several sample bottles from a number of vintages that Cesare and his research team were to analyze.

"The wine," he says, "Is made as it has been these past 20 years at Brolio:

a) Careful selection of perfectly ripe grapes; those that aren't are destined to another wine (not what he was sending)

b) The stems remain with the grapes

c) The grapes are carefully crushed so as to leave no berries intact

d) When the tino (an upright wooden tank with inward-sloping sides) is filled, something we endeavor to do in the space of 24 hours, we cover it with a wooden lid, leaving a 5-cm space above the lid, which we cover with fine sand. In filling the tino we leave 30-35 cm (about a foot) between the grapes and the lid, to prevent the must, which expands as it ferments, from pressing against the lid and getting out.

e) We rack after 5 or the most 6 days.

f) After the wine finishes draining freely, we press the marks twice, combining the free-run wine and that from the first pressing, and putting the mixture into cask. The wine from the second pressing of the marks is added to the vino ordinario, or every-day wine.

g) The wine placed in casks resumes its fermentation, and we are careful to keep the casks filled. We leave them unsealed, with a tile over the holes to keep anything from dropping in. When the fermentation reduces to the point that it no longer foams we lightly stopper the casks to keep the CO2 given off, and when CO2 ceases to form we seal the casks tightly.

h) When the wine has clarified itself, we rack it.

i) In May we rack it again.

j) Every 15 days during the first year, we refill the casks.

k) In December we rack, clarify, and rack again to remove the sediment.

l) Come March we rack again

"We are by now in the second year; to be brief about it, in March and September of the first 4 years we rack, and after this time the wines of Brolio go into bottle."

This was, he says, what he did with the best wines -- those for every day use were not given the full treatment -- and that it resulted in wines of great longevity: He still had some 1841 that after 27 years was, he says, still beautifully colored and excellent.

In short, this is a quick course in traditional Tuscan wine making, and what Bettino was doing sounds very much like what Fabrizio Bianchi's Fattore told him to do when he decided to bottle the first vintage of Monsanto's Chianti Classico Riserva Il Poggio in 1962 -- and that too was from a Vigna Promiscua. And displayed vibrant acidity, which was the major problem Bettino had with his wine, which he sometimes found overly acidic.

Just as interesting as Bettino's method is what he put into the wine, which he says in a letter dated September 26, 1872: "My wine receives from Sangioveto much of its aroma (a characteristic I especially seek) and a certain vigor; from Canajuolo softness that tempers the harness of the former, without taking anything of its aromas, as it also has them; Malvagia, which one could omit in wines destined to aging, dilutes the first two, increasing their flavor and making the wine lighter and readier to drink for daily use."

And here we have it, the Chianti formula, two red grapes and a white. And it is from this that the people putting together the Chianti Classico Disciplinare in the early 1960s worked, and in twisting it did much harm. For they disregarded Bettino's observation about omitting Malvasia from wines destined to be aged (Riserve in particular), and also allowed Trebbiano, an extremely productive white grape that Bettino doesn't mention. As we know, the disciplinare, with the 30% white grape requirement, proved a disaster for Chianti Classico, one that was only remedied when modern winemakers, either intentionally or not, followed Bettino's advice and omitted the white grapes from their top wines (something it took the people governing the Appellation a while to allow, though they eventually did), and now, following the period during which French varietals were all the rage, we are slowly returning more towards Bettino's choice of varietals as well.

As I said, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of Bettino Ricasoli's contribution to Central Tuscan winemaking, and, therefore, to central Tuscany as a whole.

And this brings us to the museum dedicated to Bettino Ricasoli that Francesco Ricasoli opened within the walls of Castello di Brolio in 2009. It's small, four rooms, but quite interesting: The first is an armory, one of the few not associated with a Royal House in Italy, and in addition to muskets and hunting guns and whatnot has several swords either worn into battle by family members (they rode alongside the Medici Dukes) or given to members of the family in the course of state visits, and several absolutely beautiful dueling pistols.

The next room has a collection of Bettino's letters and other objects related to his political activities, while the third is not actually his, but rather the King's: Tradition dictated that whomever the King visited would prepare a room should the King want to rest, and this is the room Bettino prepared for Vittorio Emanuele II's visit to Brolio in 1863. He didn't use it, but it's still there.

The fourth room is perhaps the most interesting; it contains some of Bettino's samples and scientific apparatuses, and what I found especially striking are several vine leaves afflicted by the Phylloxera bug -- it had already reached Brolio while he was alive, and though in the coltura promiscua vineyards it wasn't the out-and-out disaster it was in vineyards with closely spaced rows of vines, it was a problem, and he wanted to know more about it.

There is also the castle, which has a beautiful rather romanticized great hall, and an impressive terrace looking towards Siena (if you turn around and look at the castle's façade you'll see the traces left by the shells during the war, when the Germans commandeered the structure to use it as a command post).

A visit to the castle and the cellars will take a morning or an afternoon (there is also a restaurant, the Osteria del Castello), and is by appointment; you should check Barone Ricasoli's site for information on making reservations for tours (or the Osteria) and other details.

And having said all this, Brolio's current wines:

Albia Rosé Toscana IGT 2010
Lot L-MD817ST
This is a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot, made from grapes harvested a little early to allow for the proper acidity. Pale pink with brilliant rosepetal reflections. The bouquet is quite fresh, especially for its age, with rose petals, sea salt and a fair amount of raspberry with raspberry acidity to give life. On the palate it's fresh, with bright lively sour raspberry fruit supported by considerable sea salt and some minerality, flows into a long savory finish. Quite fresh and will be a nice picnic wine, with light pasta dishes, or also with an elegant pizza.
2 stars

Torricella Toscana IGT 2010
Lot L-RCD17 TR09-11 Single Lot
Vine Leaves Beset by Phylloxera
Chardonnay with 20% Sauvignon Blanc, fermented in steel -- The Chardonnay undergoes cyromaceration, and also goes briefly into old barriques. As one might guess the fermentation (low temperature for both) is separate, with assembly before bottling. Brilliant brassy gold with brassy yellow reflections and white rim. The bouquet is fairly rich, with minerality and some gooseberry supported by slightly greenish acidity and some sea salt. Nice balance in a fairly mineral key, some tropical fruit. On the palate it's ample and smooth, with fairly rich green mango fruit supported by savory minerality and some fairly bright greenish acidity, flows into a a fairly long mineral finish. Pleasant, in a fairly full key, and will work well with vegetable dishes, some butterscotch too on nose and palate, nice length. Will also age nicely.
2 stars

Barone Ricasoli Campo Ceni IGT Toscana 2008
Lot L-RGF17 SF-27
This is Sangiovese and Merlot, the goal being to make a light fresh easy to drink wine. Deep black cherry ruby with cherry rim. The bouquet is fairly rich, with berry fruit supported by underbrush and a gentle softness, with some alcohol and nice slightly dusky acidity, some pencil shavings. On the palate it's light and fresh, with pleasant berry fruit supported by brambly acidity and tannins that are quite smooth, with hints of vegetal bitterness about then that derives from the merlot and flows into a clean fresh rather bitter finish. Quite pleasant and will drink very well with foods, supporting rather than demanding center stage, and will be perfect with things such as grilled lamb chops or fagiuoli all'uccelletto. Nice acidity too Expect people to want more.

Barone Ricasoli Brolio Chianti Classico DOCG 2009
Lot L-TBC17 TR44-11
This is Sangiovese with some Merlot and Cabernet, percentages vary from year to year. Deep black cherry ruby with black reflections cherry rim. The bouquet is quite young, and also quite fresh, with cherry fruit supported by some cedar and spice, also some sea salt. Quite promising in a model of the road key though it needs another year. On the palate it's further along, with pleasant cherry fruit supported by moderate rather brambly acidity and by tannins that are silky, with some brambly pencil shaving accents, and flow into a fairly long bitter finish. It is already drinkable, but will give more of itself in a year or two, and will age nicely for 3-5.
2 stars

Barone Ricasoli Rocca Guicciardi Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2008
Lot L-RGD17 AM46-10
This is a mix of their grapes and bought grapes, Sangiovese with a little Cabernet and Merlot, depends upon vintage. The bouquet is fairly rich, with some berry fruit supported by savory accents and underbrush, and also by some wet earth, also slight vegetal notes and hardwood ash. On the palate it's ample and smooth, with moderately rich cherry fruit supported by moderate berry fruit acidity, with some brambly accents and some wet leafy notes, and by tannins that are slightly toasted, and flow into a clean savory finish with some wood toast. Pleasant though I found the tannins, which have a touch of vegetal Cabernet to them, a little less pleasant than those of the Brolio. A personal preference, and the wine will in any case work well with grilled meats or light stews.
2 stars

Barone Ricasoli Colledilà Chianti Classico DOCG 2008
Lot L-MGD16 TR20-10 A single lot.
This is the second vintage of a selection from the Colledilà vineyard, which is distinct from the other vineyards they have -- it is rocky and quite calcareous. It's a Sangiovese, planted about 10 years ago, 7 ha and they find it unique and therefore bottle it singly. The wine is deep cherry ruby with black reflections. The bouquet is pleasant, with wild cherry fruit supported by dusky accents and clean spice, also some India ink bitterness and hints of quinine, some spice, slight cedar. On the palate it's quite elegant, with rich cherry fruit supported by sour slightly brambly greenish accents, and by bright savory acidity, and tannins that are smooth and fairly silky with some brambly underpinning, and flow into a long rather bright sour cherry finish. Quite elegant, and deft, a young finely muscled athlete -- dancer, almost, and will also age nicely for a number of years. If you like the style you could drink it by the glass, but it will really give its best with red meats. Quite pleasant, and something to think about for now and for the relatively near -- 5-10 years -- future. Great finesse.

Barone Ricasoli Casalferro IGT Toscana 2008
L-TLL16 TR37-10 A single lot
This wine started life as a Sangiovese many years ago, and since then the blend has gradually changed; it's now a Merlot. Impenetrable black cherry ruby with black reflections. The bouquet is elegant, with black currant fruit supported by spice and some pencil sgavings, hints graphite, and also fairly intense black pepper spice as well, and some cedar too. Nice complexity. On the palate it's rich and full, with powerful black currant fruit supported by some greenish vegetal accents, deft mineral acidity, and tannins that are very smooth and flow into a clean berry fruit finish with hints of dark chocolate. Very nice, and thinking back to older vintages I find that I like this better, it is more graceful, and considerably less forced than it once was.

Barone Ricasoli Castello di Brolio Chianti Classico DOCG 2008
Lot L.MNN16 TR20-10 Single lot
Impenetrable black cherry ruby with black reflections. The bouquet is still quite young, with cherry fruit supported by deft cedar and some spice; it needs a couple of years to come together but is quite promising. At present a bit one track and this is youth. On the palate it's full, and rich, with bright sour cherry fruit supported by slightly balsamic acidity and by tannins that are clean and cedar laced, with warm savory balsamic accents, and flows into a long rather balsamic finish that goes on and on. Beautiful, and a distinct step up from the other wines, it will work very well with red meats and would be hard to beat beside a porterhouse cut. Though one could drink it now it will also age very well for 10 years at least, and if you have patience it will reward you.

Barone Ricasoli Granella IGT Toscana 2009
Lot L-RTN16 TR01-10
This is a passito, no wood, and designed to be clean and easy to drink. Greenish gold with golden reflections. The bouquet is intense, with powerful ripe apricot and tropical fruit, papaya and hints mango, and some botrytis as well. Exotic and sultry. On the palate it's sweet, with considerable fullness also from glycerin, and botrytis laced tropical fruit. It's a bit of a sex pot, a wine that is very approachable and will go down quite nicely, and though one often hears of that these wines should be paired with dessert I would serve it with cheeses, including greenish ones.
2 stars

Barone Ricasoli Castello di Brolio Vin Santo del Chianti Classico DOCG 2004
Lot L-RLM15 JI06-09
Tawny amber with apricot reflections and slightly greenish nail. The bouquet is powerful, with oatmeal and some walnut skins mingled with dried fruit and alcohol, also bitter chestnut honey and slight caramel. Impressive and pleasant to snoff. On the palate it's full, with rich savory dried fruit snd dried fig sweetness dupported by deft acidity, and by wamnut skin bitterness that gradually emerges, and then lasts and lasts, fading gradually into savory bitterness and minerality. Extremely pleasant, and of from here.

1 comment:

Ann Minard said...

This was so interesting I wish I was there touring the estate!
When they did they go back to the original formula?