Once upon a time, the Ricasoli, Barons of Castello Brolio, were the uncontested leaders of Chianti Classico. The almost legendary Iron Baron, Bettino Ricasoli, didn’t just create the formula that became paradigmatic (and eventually compulsory) for the wine’s blend, but he also served as the region’s foremost agricultural and oenological pioneer and experimentalist. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that he established Sangiovese as the defining essence of toscanità in the region’s wine.
Now the current Barone, Francesco Ricasoli, is working hard to re-establish Brolio’s pre-eminence in Chianti. Like many Tuscan estates, Brolio went into eclipse after WW II, and the wines went dark as well. Not that they were ever bad, but for a long time they weren’t distinguished, as control over the vineyards was not in the family’s hands. In the early 1990s, under Francesco’s leadership, the Ricasoli re-acquired control of their estate and began an aggressive program of modernization and improvement, including replanting almost all of their 237 hectares of vineyards. Francesco, in New York to show new releases and to talk about the progress being made, describes the process as “since 1993, rediscovering the gems of Brolio. It is a great estate that was in bad shape, and we are bringing it back to its rightful place, to reclaim our historical leadership in Chianti.”
That is not an easy task with a grape variety as notoriously site-sensitive as Sangiovese. As Francesco puts it, “Sangiovese contains a universe of different styles, depending on where you plant it and how you treat it.” As a consequence of that, Brolio has undertaken a systematic effort to preserve the DNA of the Sangiovese vines that have over the many centuries of the family’s ownership adapted themselves to the fields of the sprawling estate. In the course of the extensive replanting – now nearly finished – 50 separate biotypes were identified, and 12 are now getting intense attention and being readied for registration.
In addition to that investigation of Sangiovese biotypes, Ricasoli has also undertaken a geological survey of all its vineyard plots. “All the soil types of the Chianti Classico zone are present in Brolio,” he says, “and because of this we have a great number of possible expressions of Sangiovese.” To explore this aspect of Brolio’s potential, Ricasoli has undertaken multiple separate harvests and microvinifications. In illustration, he showed four examples of the 2010 vintage, from four separate tracts in Brolio.
And very illuminating it was.
- Example 1, from a 340-meter-high site called Santa Lucia, grew in essentially limestone soils – albarese – and showed a very mineral nose, very dark fruit, and excellent acidity.
- Example 2, from Grotta, at 450 meters – very high for Sangiovese – was planted in galestro (a clay-ey soil, very common in the Classico zone) and sandstone. It showed more earthy and mushroomy aromas and flavors and felt more fleshy on the palate.
- Example 3, Ceni Piarnasiccio, grew at 240 meters in a mix of alluvial soils and sandstone. It had a pungent nose and felt lean and muscular in the mouth, even though the fruit showed itself soft.
- The fourth example, from a plot called Agresto, grew in pure limestone and displayed intense minerality in both aroma and taste, with lots of lean fruit and evidence of complexity despite its youth.
This was a very impressive demonstration. The samples were markedly different from each other – so much so that it seemed to me that you could easily talk about a 100% Sangiovese wine put together from differing fields in Brolio as a blended wine. The grape variety embraces so wide a range of characteristics that, with an estate the size and internal variety of Brolio, the notion is amply justified.
Those samples were non-commercial, purely experimental wines. The three wines tasted with lunch showed the success of all these efforts. The wines shown, all of the 2008 vintage, were Colledilà, a single-vineyard, 100% Sangiovese; Casalferro, a 100% Merlot; and Castello di Brolio, the estate’s flagship Chianti Classico (80% Sangiovese with 10% each of Cabernet and Merlot), for all practical purposes a riserva. All three displayed real distinction.
Last year at its introduction, the Colledilà just blew me away, and this ’08 vintage is up to the same very high level of quality. This is also true of the Castello di Brolio, a very pure and characteristic rendition of Chianti Classico. I expected to like this wine: it’s been for some years now an excellent example of the breed, and it seems to improve with every vintage. But the wine that really surprised me was the Casalferro. I am normally not a big fan of Italian Merlot, not even the highly reputed (and costly) ones. To me they may be decent Merlot but they are not often Italian: they give no sense of place, nothing to mark them beyond the varietal characteristics.
This ’08 Casalferro is, however, a whole other story. It has all the lush Merlot character you could ask for; it’s soft and welcoming, with dark, cushiony fruit and – despite its youth – suggestions of complexity. But above all, it possesses an almost indescribable but absolutely unmissable Tuscan character. Maybe it’s the wonderful Tuscan acidity that makes the wine racy, maybe it’s the vein of minerality that sends a thrill through the wine and the taster – but whatever it is, it makes Casalferro 2008 a world-class wine – and it demonstrates, for anyone who wonders, that Brolio is back at the top, where it belongs.