Sunday, October 09, 2016

The staggering weight of a 1000 year old family tree in Chianti

In a world in which there are so many more pressing issues, the fate and the future of Chianti is not even in the top 100. It’s in a quiet little pastoral zone, off the beaten path, making a product that isn’t essential, which doesn’t register high in the contemporary world and the upcoming generation. Chianti is a relic of the 20th century, a fashion that has been forgotten, and a wine that appears to be totally out of touch with today’s tastes. Inotherwords, the timing is perfect for its resurgence on the world wine stage.

Barone Francesco Ricasoli (R) and his US agent, Giulio Galli (L)

Barone Francesco Ricasoli was in Texas last week, crisscrossing the four major cities, San Antonio, Austin, Houston and Dallas. His estate, Brolio, is one of the oldest family businesses in the world and the oldest continuously operated winery in Italy. The property holdings are large, significant in fact. And the wines are varied, from a simple Chianti to a set of Gran Selezione Riserva Chianti Classicos. And the current Barone, Francesco Ricasoli, envisions a 21st century when Chianti and Brolio assume its rightful place at the table, in the world of Italian wine and in the homes and restaurants of America.

In the social structure of Italian society, Ricasoli and his Brolio are vested in the grande loge, and have been there for hundreds of years. But the 20th century upended the hierarchy of Italian life. Today, the title of Barone doesn’t convey the gravitas it once had in Italy. Still, there are all those hundreds of years of history and influence. And a couple of generations in the latter part of the 20th century cannot wipe all of it out.

But it isn’t as simple as that. What people pay attention to in these times has shifted. We aren’t as obsessed with history, with what came before, as generations once were. The little screen that dominates us and which is in front of us for so many hours in a day has blinded us to a deeper level of thought and intellectual discipline. We seek the immediate; 1/100th of a second is so much more important than the last 100 years. The slate has been wiped; the hard drive has been formatted. And it’s as if we have started over again.

And then there are places like Brolio. In the backwater of time, in a place where the energy of the land waits for the willing listener, the open heart. It can wait, has done so many times over the last millennia. Really the only ones to be deprived of this gem are those who don’t have the time or the patience, or the depth of emotional reserve to put down their mobile devices and step into a land with dirt, with spirit and with the blood of those who came before which come up through the vines and to be reborn as Sangiovese.

I’ve never been to Brolio, in all these years. Driven by it a time or two, on my way to a smaller, or trendier, place. I’ve traded in the wine going back as early as 1983, where I found a trove of older Brolio from the 1950’s for clients in Texas. I too, have been ignorant and remiss in stepping out of the moving vehicle of time and setting my foot on this land, this Brolio. That will change in the near future.

Over a plate of Texas BBQ, Francesco Ricasoli sat at our table in our kitchen and we enjoyed his wines, all of them. I was particularly interested in the two Gran Selezione wines he brought; the Colledila and the Castello do Brolio, his grand cru, his “Lafite.”

Odd that he would call it that, for earlier in the day I was staring at the label and I thought the label seemed familiar in a larger sense. Like a coat of arms, it was heraldic. Like Lafite’s. Not that the two wines share a similarly vinous heritage. But in fact, they do share a place in history and the families are important in the world of wine. And Chianti, like Bordeaux, is so far out of the mainstream of fashion in places where there are, as Geoff Kruth likes to say, “Hipsters drinking ironically.” For sure, you won’t find Brolio (or Lafite) in a natural wine bar. These are wines, as said earlier, totally out of touch with today’s tastes. Not cool. Not enough funk.

The surprise of the bunch, as it often is with me, was the Merlot, Casalferro. At a lunch when the Barone poured me a sip, I wasn’t paying attention to what he was pouring, talking to a colleague to my right. As I sipped, my palate lit up. I had one of those “What is this?” moments and went to look for the bottle. Again, Merlot seduced me. For the nth time.

Francesco and I talked briefly about house style vs. the cru. In Piedmont as well as Tuscany, house style traditionally would take grapes from different vineyards and make a wine year after year, with a consistent product. Think non-vintage Champagne. And then, little by little, people in the regions started separating the lots. Terroir was ascending in importance. And while the grand cru style can be more difficult to make and with unpredictable results year after year, there is high interest in these wines.

And while I can see that, and am interested in it, I’m drawn to the house style, especially one like Brolio’s, where the historical precedent of the estate is so crucial not only to Brolio but to Tuscany. Here is where Chianti was born. And with the family decree of dignity and the responsibility of stewardship for that great heritage, Francesco Ricasoli cannot turn away from it.

But as well, the “genius loci” of Brolio compels Ricasoli to research and experiment. And with a laboratory as expansive as Brolio, why not? This isn’t a little hobby for an investment banker or tech wizard who wants to retire to the quiet hills of Tuscany to reflect and make a little red wine for his friends. This is a farm, with scores of families, many of whom have been working the land for three or more generations. This is what Italy does. This is why wine became so important in Italy and for Italy in the world, because of a commitment that went beyond one generation. It was a livelihood not a lifestyle.

Barone Ricasoli’s family tree is staggering to observe. With that many ancestors on the present day Ricasoli’s shoulders, it can weigh heavy on one.

In the case of today’s Ricasoli, it is in good hands. The farm is going well, the estate is engaged, Tuscany, and Chianti is humming, waiting for the world to catch up with them.

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James Biddle said...

Spot on--as always! I’m glad to have walked the Brolio estate several years ago. The grand Cyprus entrance, gardens, vineyards, and the private chapel are all picture-postcard perfect. And all that history. 150 years ago, Barone Bettino Ricasoli (the second Prime Minister of the new Italian state), was a progressive agronomist. In the lab at Castello di Brolio, he sought a longer-lasting and more flavorful wine. His combination (formula if you will) soon became the requirement for Chianti wine. For those of us who still find Chianti filled with heritage, memories, and yes, anticipation, Castello di Brolio is a pilgrimage worth taking. Enjoy your visit (as soon as possible!).

Unknown said...

A fine piece on a great company. And their wines have never been better than they are today. I visited Castello di Brolio in June, and was very impressed with what I saw and tasted. (And later wrote about in my publication, Restaurant Wine.) You will be very happy you made the visit.

Ronn Wiegand MW MS

Unknown said...

Having recently visited Ricasoli, I returned with a greater appreciation for this 'throwback' wine which, after a tasting at the castle, will grace our thanksgiving table (in hand etched crystal glasses also from the region). Ah yes, la dolce vita!

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