Exploring the Latest Releases from Castello di Brolio: End of a 30-year Journey

By | 29 March 2024

New wines from the historic Chianti Classico producer.

By Joanna Simon

Joanna Simon joins Francesco Ricasoli for the launch of the latest vintages from Castello di Brolio, including a surprising new Trebbiano.

Apart from sounding somewhat oxymoronic, a tasting lunch at Dinner by Heston is almost guaranteed to be of interest. It’s all the more so when the wines are from a producer of the stature of Castello di Brolio, Chianti Classico’s grandest, largest, and most historic estate, and yet more so when the wines are being presented by Francesco Ricasoli, the man who has guided and presided over them for three decades and whose very affability belies the single-mindedness he has shown since buying back the debilitated family company (giving up a glamorous photographic career to do so).

The showcased wines for tasting, hailed as the apex of his three-decades-long career, were focused on the recently launched 2020 vintage from each of the four Chianti Classico Gran Selezione—the star, Castello di Brolio and the three separate-vineyard crus: Colledilà, Roncicone, and CeniPrimo. All four are purely Sangiovese. We got to sample the 2019 Casalferro (Merlot), 2021 Torricella Chardonnay (sharp, accurate, finely-structured, subtly oaked), and lastly, 2020 Castello di Brolio Sanbarnaba, a fresh white wine the invitation intriguingly revealed to be produced from 100% Trebbiano. This is not a type that one commonly links with quality, interest or Francesco’s depiction of the Ricasoli wine style which is “balance, elegance, length, purity, and typicity.”

Although the grape variety seemed an unusual pick, it paled in comparison to the wine itself. It had a pale yellow-orange hue, processed on its skins with selected yeasts for three months in 900-liter cocciopesto terra-cotta amphorae at 57°F (14°C), then matured for a year in a mix of amphorae (40%), stainless steel (30%), and two- and three-year-old barriques (30%). It was packed in December 2021.

The unavoidable question posed was, Is this an orange wine or a white one? “You will never come across an orange wine from Ricasoli,” responded Francesco Ricasoli, without skipping a beat. According to him, it’s not an orange wine since it does not follow an oxidative style. Cocciopesto, a substance once employed by Romans in constructing aqueducts, possesses incredibly low permeability, resulting in the slightest microoxygenation and gradual maturation. (I penned down a more in-depth piece on cocciopesto in WFW 77, examining Tenuta Ghizzano’s Mimesi Sangiovese.)

One cannot help but ask: Why choose Trebbiano? The succinct response is, “A challenge.” That said, this challenge was far from short-lived. Spanning about a decade, the team experimented with a variety of methods, such as using indigenous and non-indigenous white varieties and complex vinifications. Francesco confesses, “To be honest, I was a bit tired.” Primarily because he initially doubted Trebbiano’s potential and had reservations about introducing a product from it. However, by the previous year, he felt they had finally gotten it right with the 2020 amphorae-fermented, skin-contact wine. According to him, this wine deeply resonates with the Ricasoli style and has a propensity to improve with time.

The Sanbarnaba vineyard, spanning 1.18ha (or 3 acres), is located at an altitude of 1,540–1,575ft (470–480m) and based on sandstone soils, known as macigno del Chianti. This vineyard, initially planted with Merlot in 2003, was grafted over to Trebbiano in 2018. This was done with a selection of historic clones discovered on the property during massal selections of Sangiovese. The yield was 5,600 bottles, and the wine is priced similarly to Castello di Brolio.

The launch of Sanbarnaba last September marks a significant milestone, given its lengthy development process and its association with Castello di Brolio. However, this doesn’t alter the principal focus of the estate—Sangiovese—or the viticultural philosophy comprised of three central tenets: research, terroir, and sustainability. Both social and environmental sustainability are emphasized under Equalitas certification.

Currently, Francesco’s vineyards, planted in the 1990s, are under replantation. The degree to which everything was transformed when he embarked on this venture during the 1990s is reflected in this program. It includes uprooting some of the international varieties and substituting them with Brolio’s homegrown Sangiovese clones. These were meticulously selected after mapping out (or zoning) every one of the farm’s 240ha (or 600 acres), which makes up a fifth of the 1,200ha (or 2,965 acres) Gaiole estate. This was executed by Ricasoli’s technical team, in collaboration with the CRA (Council for Agricultural Research) from 2005.

The study distinguished 19 distinct soil types which were grouped into five main categories. Based upon these findings, more than 200 individual parcel vinifications were carried out by the team at Ricasoli. For the first time in the history of Chianti Classico, Francesco supposed pure Sangiovese was produced with complete uniformity from differing soils and parcels. This was a major contributing factor to the birth of three single-vineyard Gran Selezione and the evolution of Castello di Brolio to 100% Sangiovese in 2018. Varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, which Francesco had once planted, were abandoned as they were now considered unnecessary for the international market and more importantly, for the quality and style of the wine. The Sangiovese of Brolio alone sufficed the needs.

Summarising briefly, the growth season of 2020 was marked by an unusual deficiency of rainfall and unmatched summer heat. However, the quality of grapes was considered excellent, courtesy the cool late nights within September and October. All of the four offerings from Chianti Classico are 100% Sangiovese that has been aged for 22 months in 500-liter tonneaux, wherein 30% was new and 70% was second fill.

2020 Castello di Brolio Sanbarnaba IGT Toscana

Trebbiano 100% fermented on skins within amphorae for three months. It was aged for 12 months in amphorae (covering 40%), stainless steel, and barriques (not new).

Pale yellow-orange. The initial aroma is delectably fresh yet subtle, hinting at dried flowers, citrus like orange in particular, and a touch of green cardamom. As the drink breathes and especially as its temperature elevates, the aromatic profile unfolds to reveal a creaminess and faint nuttiness, which are mirrored on the palate. Tasting reveals a refreshing, dry, and streamlined impression, underpinned by a lush apple core. However, it is equally spacious, quite potent, deeply textured, dense, and silky. Seemingly paradoxically, it glides with feather-like gracefulness into a lingering, subtly salty and slightly chewy aftertaste. If paradoxical, then in the most pleasing sense. It is advised against serving this wine as one would do a white wine. Francesco Ricasoli recommends a serving temperature of 54–55.5°F (12–13°C). My suggestion would be not to hesitate taking it up to 57°F (14°C). | 92

2020 Ricasoli Colledilà Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Gaiole

This is a single-vineyard wine, composed entirely of Sangiovese, nurtured in alberese soil (or clayey limestone), which was planted in 2002. The production for this variant commenced in 2007. It is produced in more substantial quantities compared with the other two single-vineyard wines.

The appearance is a deep ruby-purple hue. The smell is spicy, floral and possesses an uplifting black fruit character. The fruit profile—blackberries accompanied by cherries on tasting—offers a balance of crispness and sweetness with a luscious smoothness. Blazing and expressive, with nuances of orange pomander merging smoothly with compliant tannins. Although it is delightful straightaway, it exhibits the structure to endure into the mid-2030s. | 94

2020 Ricasoli Roncicone Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Gaiole

Single-vineyard, 100% Sangiovese, Pliocene marine deposits, planted 1998–2000. First vintage: 2015.

Slightly paler than the Colledilà and a little more closed and less approachable. Darker, slightly chunkier fruit and a more savory character, with smoky and mineral notes and fine-grained tannins. Tightly sprung and less immediately welcoming than the Colledilà, but the way it unfurls and relaxes in the glass is a sign of things to come. | 94

2020 Ricasoli CeniPrimo Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Gaiole

Located at the most southern point of the estate is a single vineyard. It features complex silty soils on an ancient river terrace and was planted in 1998 with 100% Sangiovese grapes. 2015 marked its first vintage.

This vineyard’s Sangiovese is the most intense and richest of all our single-vineyard wines. However, it remains graceful and fine-boned and boasts the lowest pH—3.18—of these low-pH red wines. Its fragrance is perfumed and mineral, with an aroma mix of violets, sweet red cherries, red berries, and fresh orange that underlays a subtly smoldering, balsamic note. The taste is of mouth-filling red-berry and blackberry fruit, bolstered with ripe but firm tannins and sharp, well-integrated acidity. It’s a complex, lengthy wine just beginning to unfold its ample tissue-thin layers. | 95

2020 Castello di Brolio Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Gaiole

This wine comes from three distinct soil types—sandstone (macigno), schist-based galestro, and alberese—found at elevations of 1,300–1,600ft (400–490m); a higher altitude than the single-vineyard Sangioveses, which sit at 1,000–1,250ft (300–380m).

Deep ruby-purple. Fragrant with red berries, sandalwood, incense, orange blossom, and a hint of orange zest. A flowing, elegantly concentrated palate, with a velvet embrace, sweet-fruit intensity, cedar, sandalwood, and a gentle rustle of hazelnut chocolate, all carried by chalk-dust tannins and immaculate, pin-fine acidity. | 95

2019 Casalferro IGT Toscana

100% Merlot from three vineyards (two at 1,300ft [400m], one at 1,650ft [500m]) and two soils, limestone (alberese) and sandstone (macigno). Aged for 21 months in tonneaux and barriques, 30% new and 70% second and third fill. The first all-Merlot vintage was 2007.

The second vintage in a new style that Francesco Ricasoli calls his “Chiantified Merlot.” Deep purple color. A core of concentrated, ripe, but notably fresh fruit, fringed by spice, licorice, graphite, and cocoa aromas. With red cherry in the ascendancy over black cherry and plum, sleek tannins, and lithe, energy-giving acidity, this is a sophisticated, distinctive Merlot—a far cry from jammy, chocolate-rich, international styles. | 94

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