Touring Castello di Brolio in the Chianti region
Inside the birthplace of Chianti Classico with Baron Francesco Ricasoli, it's natural-born heir.
The enchanting vistas of the Chianti Classico hills, a thousand-year-old castle, and a glass of red wine... few places in the world can be described as a painting from the Renaissance, and Castello di Brolio is one of them.
“I believe there is no place like Madonna a Brolio and Tuscany,” says Barone Francesco Ricasoli, heir to and custodian of the Ricasoli business and the Castello. “They are so unique that I’m having a hard time thinking of other places in the world they can be compared to.”
Home to one of Italy’s most established noble families since 1141 AD, Castello di Brolio occupies a central place in the story of Chianti. After centuries defending their lands and feudal sovereignty, the Ricasoli family were among the first to dedicate themselves to the improvement of agriculture and vineyards. In fact, the family tree, reproduced in a print from 1584, is one of the first images of the Chianti area.
It was here, in 1872, that the family – led at the time by statesman Bettino Ricasoli – transformed Italian wine forever with the formula for what has come to be called Chianti Classico, helping cement Tuscany as one of the world’s most important wine regions. The area’s romantic reputation belies its history, however, as a scene of numerous secular conflicts and widespread poverty. And while its wines have long been popular, Chianti’s reputation for quality was for a time the subject of some debate.
“Things started changing in the 80s and 90s thanks to the wine producers in the area, who understood the potential of the territory and started working together to enhance and preserve it,” says Ricasoli. “Today, Ricasoli is the most representative winery in Chianti Classico. Bringing back the company to be a reference point for all the producers in the area is probably one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced.”
Barone Francesco Ricasoli
A view of the vines from Agresto
TOO BEAUTIFUL TO DESTROY
Over the last three decades, this picturesque pocket of the world, tucked away in a mountainous reach of Italy, has undergone a stunning transformation. A tiny rural village, today it is recognised as a perfect getaway for lovers of history, nature, and wine. And at its heart, the majestic Castello di Brolio, rising from a terrain of gentle hills, velvety valleys, and thick woodlands of oak and chestnuts.
Threatened and attacked over the centuries, the fortress – Ricasoli’s private residence – survived even the Second World War, thanks to a German officer who had been enchanted by its charm and uniqueness. “He received an order to destroy the castle, but he didn’t,” recounts Ricasoli. “My family later received a letter from him. He just couldn’t do it – he fell in love with the castle and its beauty.”
Walking through its gardens, one can enjoy the astonishing view of endless vineyards and Mount Amiata, sharing one of Ricasoli’s favorite spots: the terrace. “I love to come here. On the clearest day you can see the southern part of Tuscany. And the hills… they are just so beautiful. I look at the view for a few minutes and I close my eyes. The feeling cannot be described, it needs to be experienced.”
The Osteria di Brolio below the castle.
The "Iron Baron", Bettino Ricasoli
THE GHOST OF THE IRON BARON
Three decades ago, Ricasoli was a professional photographer. Today, he is better known as one of the key figures leading the modern Chianti Classico revolution since the early 1990s, taking over the family business in 1993. With his trusted team, he began working on new projects to make Brolio and its wines glow again: the ultimate expression of a long journey that started with Bettino all those years ago.
Visiting Brolio, sooner or later one will bump into Bettino Ricasoli’s ghost. A key figure in the Italian political scene of the 19th century, holding different political offices and the position of Prime Minister after the Italian Unification in 1861, his influence continues to inform Ricasoli’s work to this day.
“Bettino, before everyone else, understood the potential and the essence of Brolio territory and, after years of research and experiments on terroirs and grape varieties, invented the Chianti formula that later became known around the world as Chianti Classico,” observes Ricasoli, who himself oversaw extensive renovation and remapping of the estate’s vineyards for the modern era, and counts the study of soil and clonal selection as amongst his greatest passions.
Indeed, it was Bettino – named in his day the “Iron Baron” due to his integrity and austerity – who spearheaded the adoption of Sangiovese as the lead grape in the Chianti blends of Tuscany. “He is probably the figure I feel closest to in terms of spirit and dedication to this work,” admits Ricasoli. “But times are completely different and keeping up with the constantly evolving, post-postmodern world is a challenge.”
The formal Dinning Room of Castello do Brolio
A SEAT AT HISTORY’S TABLE
Visitors to Brolio can expect to be treated to some of the best food, wine, and accommodation the region has to offer. Two typical Tuscan farmhouses on the estate grounds – Agresto and Capanna di Citerna, both surrounded by the Ricasoli vineyards – are the perfect spots to rest your head.
Those looking for nourishment need look no further than Eroica Café and Agribar on the estate. But for a true window into traditional Tuscan cuisine, Osteria di Brolio is a must-try. “It’s at the bottom of Brolio castle,” says Ricasoli. “The ingredients are fresh and home-made, and the cozy atmosphere is simply amazing.”
Reclinning out the back of Capanna di Citerna guest house
Beyond the castle, visitors to the region are spoilt for things to do and places to see. “Crete Senesi and Val d’Orcia are not so far away and are must-see places, absolutely – very different geographically” suggests Ricasoli. “The best way to discover them is by slowly driving and making quick stops in the small villages – something I occasionally do myself.”
Guided tours of the castle include a visit of the museum and the family collection. It is on the private tours, however, where one can experience the true soul of the castle, for a taste of the best Chianti Classico Selection in the formal dining room where the Ricasoli family used to gather.
Each wine, through its unique personality and identity, tells a little of the history and the territory of its home. As time passes, every single bottle becomes part of the story. Thanks to the Barone, the tale of Ricasoli – and Castello di Brolio’s place in the heart of the Chianti Classico saga – can continue to be discovered all over again by the generations to come.