Francesco Ricasoli, in his vineyards at Castello di Brolio
Photo ©Tom Hyland
Thirty years ago when I was selling wine for a local distributor in Chicago, there were a lot of things about the industry that were new to me. I had worked at a wine store for a few years and had a basic grasp of the world’s wines, but there was a great deal to learn. One of the wine brands I had become familiar with in retail was Brolio, a famed producer of Chianti Classico, so when I started to sell these wines for the distributor, I was excited to do so.
Brolio was as famous a name as there was back then when you considered the wines of Tuscany, as they had been producing wine continuously since 1141. Just to survive for more than 850 years was amazing to me, and when you considered the quality of their wines, you truly had a remarkable story to tell.
Over the past three decades, there have been changes to the way that Brolio – sometimes referred to as Castello di Brolio, named for the magnificent castello that dominates the property – conducted business. Proprietor Francesco Ricasoli has overseen several revisions in distribution and importing overseas in recent years, but one thing that has not changed is the first-rate quality of the wines. Today, the offerings of Barone Ricasoli – Francesco is a baron, hence the name – are as exceptional as ever, and the story becomes even more noteworthy.
Some historical background is needed to fully explain the significance of Barone Ricasoli as Francesco is great-grandson of Bettino Ricasoli, the individual who created the recipe for Chianti in the 19th century, which at the time was based on Sangiovese, with a few other indigenous red varieties (Canaiolo and Colorino) along with two white varieties, Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia. There have been many changes to Chianti Classico along the way, as today the white varieties are not allowed, and a Chianti Classico can be produced exclusively from Sangiovese, an important revision for Ricasoli and other area producers, as time would tell.
Today, Francesco Ricasoli, the 32nd Barone Ricasoli, is president of the company, which he has renamed Ricasoli 1141. He assumed his current duties in 1993 and over the past 25 years, has increased and fine-tuned the portfolio, taken the necessary steps to increase quality and at the same time, bring more attention to this historic property. The sheer size of this estate, located in Gaiole in Chianti, in the southern sector of the Chianti Classico territory, is breathtaking, with a total of 3000 acres, of which 590 acres are planted to vines. This is by far the largest estate in Chianti Classico; in fact, the amount of vineyards here is only a few acres smaller than the commune of Barbaresco in Piedmont, home to several dozen producers.
Vineyards at Barone Ricasoli estate, Gaiole in Chianti
Photo ©Tom Hyland
Today, there are several versions of Chianti Classico available from Barone Ricasoli, ranging from two annata versions, a riserva, and four different examples of Gran Selezione, as well as a 100% Merlot named Casalferro. Vineyards at the estate range from 220 to 500 meters (720 to 1640 feet) above sea level, and soils vary from limestone, to marine deposits to fluvial terrace; these being poorly structured silty soils with clay.
Together with his agronomists, Ricasolo oversaw years of research as to learn the differences in Sangiovese character in these various soils, and the result has been better balanced wines of greater complexity. This is especially true in the Gran Selezione wines, of which there are four. Why four, when most Chianti Classico producers make one or perhaps two of these wines in top vintages? “I produce four Gran Selezione wines because I have four beautiful Sangiovese that deserve full attention!,” Ricasoli remarks.
Ricasoli notes that all of his vineyards have been replanted since 1994, and “now they are reaching a better maturity.” Tasting the Gran Selezione wines here is a true revelation as to the superior quality of Ricasoli wines. One, called Castello di Brolio, has been produced in the best vintages for more than two decades, while the other three are cru (single vineyard) offerings that were first crafted from the 2015 vintage; the 2016 versions have recently been released.
I tasted these wines with Ricasoli himself during my most recent visit to the estate in September, 2019 and was given an in-depth soil analysis by Ricasoli, explaining why the decision was made to produce these wines – for several years, some of these grapes were included in other wines, such as the riserva or the Castello di Brolio, but as of 2015 Ricasoli believed the time was right to introduce these wines.
While I thought the wines were each highly distinctive and of exemplary quality, the Ceni Primo stood out as my favorite. This is a single vineyard of only six hectares (15 acres) and is located on an ancient fluvial geological formation. The newly released 2016 is an extraordinary representation of Chianti Classico, with intense aromas of incense, balsamic and other notes to go along with the beautifully ripe morel cherry perfumes. Quite rich on the palate, this offers outstanding complexity and superb persistence. 2016 was a great growing season in Chianti Classico, following an outstanding 2015 vintage, which resulted in powerful wines of great varietal character, while those from 2016 were only slightly less rich on the palate, but perhaps with a touch more acidity.
Both versions of Ceni Primo are among the best Tuscan wines of their respective years, and point to the bold vision of Francesco Ricasoli. The 850-plus year history of Brolio continues with a new perspective, one that has never wavered from a simple goal – to produce classic wines from Chianti Classico. Bravo, Francesco!
Ricasoli Ceni Primo Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Courtesy Folio Wine Partners
Casalferro 2015 – 100% Merlot. Aromas of red cherry, cherry preserves and a hint of almond. Medium-full with very good concentration, elegant tannins, very good acidity and nicely integrated wood notes. Ideal harmony; a lovely expression of Merlot. Quite delicious now, with peak drinking in 10-12 years. Outstanding
Chianti Classico Riserva 2016 – Aromas of red plum, morel cherry and hint of marjoram and thyme. Medium-full with very good concentration. Lovely balance, subdued wood notes, good acidity, impressive persistence. Classic styling. Peak in 7-10 years. Excellent
“Castello di Brolio” 2015 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione – Aromas of morel cherry, blackberry, fig and thyme. Medium-full with very good to excellent concentration. Lovely balance, very good acidity, beautiful varietal character, well structured for 10-12 years of aging potential, perhaps longer. Outstanding
“Colledilà” 2016 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione – Aromas of morel cherry, currant, rose petals and red poppy, Medium-full with excellent persistence. Outstanding persistence, lovely structure, rich tannins that are nicely balanced. Excellent structure. Peak in 12-15 years. Outstanding
“Roncicone” 2016 – Chianti Classico Gran Selezione – Red cherry, black spice and dried red flower aromas. Rich mid-palate, excellent persistence, very good acidity and a distinct note of minerality in the finish, which adds to the complexity and singularity of this wine. Beautiful overall harmony. Give time – peak in 12-15 years. Superb
“Ceni Primo” 2015 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione – This is the initial release of this single vineyard wine – 100% Sangiovese. High tone fruit aromas – ripe morel cherry, dried strawberry with nicely integrated wood notes. Very good to excellent concentration. Rich beautifully balanced tannins, very good acidity, excellent structure and persistence. 12-15 years. Very appealing and stylish, this is a beautifully made wine. Outstanding
“Ceni Primo” 2016 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione – Aromas of incense, rosemary, a hint of balsamic and morel cherry. Excellent concentration, this has a layered mid-palate, excellent persistence, very good acidity, notable varietal character and outstanding complexity. Structured for peak drinking in 12-15 years. After only two releases, Ceni Primo is one of Tuscany’s most accomplished wines! Superb
2011 Vin Santo del Chianti Classico – The Ricasoli family has been producing classic Vin Santo for several decades; Francesco continues this great tradition, crafting this wine today primarily with local white varieties Malvasia (90%) and Trebbiano (5%), and a small amount of Sangiovese (5%). Light amber/aromas of apricot, heather, honey and candied pineapple. Medium-full with very good concentration. Very good acidity (a key to the longevity of this wine), excellent persistence and a lightly sweet, off-dry finish. Lovely delicate nature to this wine.
There are several styles of Vin Santo produced in Chianti Classico. The Brolio style has always been a more elegant version with charm and grace, rather than one that offers lushness and power. Approachable now, but will be much better in another 2-3 years. As far as peak drinking, I can only hazard a guess as some vintages of this wine from the 1940s and 1950s are still in excellent condition. My guess on this 2011 is that it will peak in another 20 years. Outstanding