Stand on the terrace behind Brolio Castle and you’ve got a perfect panoramic view of this part of Tuscany. In the heart of Chianti Classico territory, you can see straight to Siena – on a clear morning, you can see its individual houses. To the left, there’s Montalcino, the Amiata mountains, the Crete Senesi. A view that nowadays is appreciable, but back in 1141, when this 1200 hectare property was allotted to the noble Ricasoli family, was simply strategic for seeing who was about to attack, something that happened more often than not.
Of the hundreds of wineries that dot today’s Sienese countryside, Barone Ricasoli stands out for its long history that repeats itself – in a good way. The Ricasoli family started making wine here in the 16th century when this border-territory between Florence and Siena first saw a period of peace. The area was already known as “Chianti” and the wine was good, if not cellar-worthy. When Bettino Ricasoli (1809-1880) decided to play a first-hand role in the management of his family’s property – rather than sitting back in Florence and waiting for his sharecroppers to bring him the good stuff – he wanted to make a great wine that would age well. His research led to the formula for the blend that became Chianti Classico. The passion of this Renaissance man extends directly to the current, thirty-second Baron, Francesco Ricasoli, who is overseeing yet another rebirth of this territory and its wine.
The Castle and its history
Brolio castle is testimony to 3 main moments in history. Little remains of the medieval fortification, which contained a convent; the exterior walls are Renaissance, upon a project by Giuliano Sangallo of 1484. These ramparts contain the Neogothic castle, while in the preceding period it contained and protected an entire village, farmhands included. One thing that’s interesting about this castle today is that, unlike many in Tuscany, it is not used for weddings. The Ricasoli family has an apartment here that occupies a small part of the building and they don’t use it all the time; the rest of the building is mostly empty. I was shown the private apartments including this very impressive neogothic dining room – used for holidays and dinners with important clients – but most people don’t go inside the castle at all, so it still retains an air of mystery.
Barone Ricasoli as a brand today owes pretty much everything to Bettino Ricasoli, who made major changes here from the 1830s onwards, and a visit to the castle is an opportunity to find out more about this fascinating man and the historical period in which he was protagonist. I don’t know much about the Italian Risorgimento but it turns out he was involved in every step, as well as being a talented artist, a gentleman scientist and collector, a businessman and a visionary. Basically, the guy never slept.
A small but nicely displayed museum inside the castle keep occupies a series of rooms that were created for the visit of King Victor Emmanuel II, who invited himself over for diplomatic reasons not once but twice, but never stayed for longer than a lunch. Nonetheless, the “King’s bed” is on display in the museum, next to the room dedicated to period arms (all real).
Bettino Ricasoli believed in the unification of his country and was at the head of a movement of Tuscan liberals who expulsed the Grand Duke Leopold II in 1859. While Cavour was the first prime minister of unified Italy, Ricasoli was the second (1861-2), forced to resign but re-elected in 1866. In the museum you can see an important necklace and brooch given to him by the King on his first election as well as various military awards of the kind you often see decorating men in historical portraits.
Bettino was interested in generating political change and he knew that to do so, he needed the backing of the population. I was amazed to find out that he was one of the founders of the Italian newspaper La Nazione, which was the first political daily in the country. In his own back yard he practiced what he preached, literally: he enlarged his chapel and forced those who worked for him to attend lesson/mass on Sunday, where he taught them how to read and write!
When he wasn’t directing the nation, hosting Kings or teaching the masses, Bettino liked to draw, which he did much better than I can, and was an important patron of the Macchiaioli movement (the Italian answer to French Impressionism). He also collected natural samples through correspondence, which he donated to the university during his lifetime since he believed in sharing knowledge. Through correspondence worldwide he also found the solution, still in use today, to a terrible plague that was decimating European vines: the phylloxera is an insect that sucks the life out of the plant, and the only solution is to graft the European vine onto an American rootstock that proved resistant.
Speaking of wine, yes, the Baron also did more than “dabble” in this field. He spent years traveling and researching in order to find the perfect formula for Tuscan winemaking, resulting in the recipe for the modern Chianti Classico blend that he wrote in a letter of 1872, anticipating the modern regulation (established in 1996) by over a hundred years. Sangiovese was the base of this formula, but Bettino encouraged the growth of a strain that has thicker skin and lower yield that is still cloned today.
Although good wine was being made at Brolio in the 19th century, what you see now is an entirely modern enterprise dating from the mid 1990s. This was a moment of change for the entire Chianti area of Tuscany, when new DOC and DOCG regulations were put into force in an overall attempt to change the image of an area previously known for making a just-drinkable table wine sold in straw caskets. Drive down the wine roads of any of the Chianti zones and you’ll find the same story of renewal told 100 different ways, as each winery seeks to distinguish itself in its methods and policies, all trying to make a good quality wine that “respects both territory and tradition”.
Barone Ricasoli does this in a way that follows the imprinting created by Bettino Ricasoli, with more than usual scientific research directed firsthand by the current Baron, and it also distinguishes itself in pure size with its 240 hectars of vineyards producing over 2 milion bottles per year. Francesco Ricasoli took over management of the company in the early ‘90s after a period of mis-management by multinationals who risked driving it into the ground. He entrusted the soil to Massimiliano Biagi, at the time a new University graduate in agronomy who had participated in a project sponsored by the Chianti Classico consortium. They commissioned a massive research project to find out the soil compositions of the huge property, which has seven geographical sectors and four main soil types. Each soil, combined with exposure and altitude, is capable of making the same plant clone produce a grape with different characteristics, showing you firsthand the true effect of terroir.
Massimiliano took us out into the fields, proudly showing us some of the label’s best vineyards and letting me taste the grapes from the wine. Other than learning, finally, to see the difference between merlot and sangiovese plants, I was able to taste the quality of a low yield plant compared to one that produced way more fruits. We talked about how they used the soil study to choose what to plant where (they have replanted all the vines in the 240 hectares of south/south-east facing vineyards since the 90s), and how he uses ongoing scientific data collected from weather stations around the property to predict harmful outbreaks and treat accordingly. Unlike other wineries in the area, Brolio has chosen a combination of organic and low-impact chemical treatments, having tried both conventional and natural methods and found the combination to be the most sustainable once one factors in things like the greater tractor usage and repeated applications required for the organic methods.
Having seen the grapes, it was time to taste what happens once they’ve fermented! Brolio has an impressive, formal wine tasting area next to the less formal enoteca where you can always drop in for a glass. A private room upstairs is used for private tours like ours, where we tasted the line’s single vineyard and cru wines. I’ve been to a lot of wineries but this was the first I’ve seen to offer a more technical wine tasting that was easy to link to what we saw outside.
What’s interesting is that you’d expect a place that makes 2 million bottles to be a really commercial industry (and to a certain extent you feel this when you see the somewhat charmless concrete ageing cellar), but what we encountered was a small group of people who are truly enthusiastic and who care for the property, its history and its activities in a truly personal way. This is the imprinting of the Baron and his family, who has always taken Brolio Castle and Ricasoli wines to heart.
What to see and do at Brolio
Part of the new direction of this centuries-old company is what they’re calling Brolio Escape, a series of packages that help you experience everything this property has to offer. I really like how Brolio offers a wide range of options: you can hike or bike on the property and visit the castle for 5-8 euro, stop by the restaurant for a simple lunch (primi from 10 euro), book a wine tasting for €25, reserve an awesome picnic (and tour) for 140 euro per couple, or spend a whole weekend here as a member of the wine club (an amazing deal at 250 euro including 6 wines, a tour and a weekend stay in the Agresto on select dates, plus a ton of other discounts and advantages year-round).
Our weekend at Brolio included a private visit to the castle, a gran cru tour of the property’s best vineyards and tasting of cru wines, and a super picnic basket to enjoy at a private, covered picnic table with a view of the castle and vineyards. The latter was certainly a highlight after learning about the estate: it was an opportunity to let it all come together in quiet and peace. We received two overflowing baskets with farro salad, caprese, local cheese and cold cuts, a vegetable flan and dessert, plus a bottle of rosé and water, real cutlery and wine glasses.
We stayed in the Agresto, a nicely restored house on the property with 5 en-suite rooms. It’s like staying at a wealthy friend’s country house, with comfortable and bright common areas, a private pool, strong wifi and no TV, so better to listen to the silence.
Castle and Museum opening hours
The well organized, small museum focuses on the history of Brolio under Bettino Ricasoli, which a guide will explain to you in the language of your choice.
Open March to October, open daily from 10am to 7pm, last entry at 6pm. In November and December, reduced hours. Guided tours of the museum are available every half hour, except on Mondays. While reservations are not possible, it’s wise to call ahead because a large tour group might mean waiting for another entry time. Tel +39 0577/730280, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Taste and buy wines here, or book further experiences.
Open to the public from March to October, weekdays 9am to 7:30pm, Saturday and Sunday 11am to 7pm. From November to February, reduced hours.
The Osteria del Castello is a restaurant on the property that uses only local ingredients, when possible grown on the property in their own garden. The offering is typical Tuscan fare as well as some lighter dishes, with reasonable prices (primi, 10-12 euro), making this a great option for a day trip in the area.
The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner except on Thursdays, and is closed January and February.
With particular thanks to the wonderful personnel at Brolio for taking so much time to share their passion for this place with me: Simona, hospitality manager; Susanne, one of the guides and keepers of the castle’s history; Massimiliano, the agronomist, and his wife Jamie who is head of wine tours.
It’s September and the Italy Blogging Roundtable is getting its buzz on with the topic of wine. This roundtable is a group of Italy-enthusiasts who post on a common topic each month. We’ve been doing this since 2011 (with a bit of a pause for a while) because we enjoy challenging each other to interpret each topic, so head on over and see what they’ve done with their wine!
- Jessica: Wine Tasting in Italy
- Rebecca: The Art of Drinking: Il Carapace
- Kate: On weddings and (too much) wine
- Gloria – Italians and wine
- Melanie: Will Work For Wine: Luca Signorelli’s Orvieto Duomo Contract and His Intoxicating, Apocalyptic Fresco Cycle
- Michelle – La Vendemmia in Calabria
Disclaimer: I was invited as a guest as part of the Brolio Escape project in order to provide my honest opinion and story about the experience, which this article represents.