Brian Elliott: ‘The baron has inherited that innovative gene’

IN A world where corporate Goliaths regularly consume smaller operations, it is always a joy to see David strike back.

That is what happened 20 years ago when Francesco, the 32nd Baron Ricasoli, having lost patience with a multi- national’s efforts to run the family wine business, gave up his photography career to concentrate on wine.

Decisive action is not unusual in the Ricasoli family’s history that stretches back to 1141. One of Francesco’s ancestors, Bettino Ricasoli, was a major supporter of the efforts to unify Italy 150 years ago and twice served as prime minister. A compulsive experimenter, Bettino is also credited with developing the formula that led to the modern style of chianti classico.

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The current baron has inherited that innovative gene – along with a similar determination to look forward, not back. An early action on resuming control of wine production was to replant most of the vines from the estate’s 30-year period in corporate ownership.

Wine production, of course, goes back much further than that but effectively came of age around 1850 when serious exporting began. In the ensuing 50 years export volumes rose ten-fold to today’s three million bottles or so. Over 80 per cent of that output is exported.

Ricasoli also began research into the sangiovese grape itself and next year insiders expect to see official acceptance of his brolio clone – named after Castello di Brolio, the family home. Other experiments involve the region’s biggest zonal project investigating the detailed effect of factors such as rootstocks and moisture retention and, because of the baron’s close interest in terroir, the influences of Tuscany’s rich variety of soil types and micro-climates.

So what of the wines themselves? Although the flagship chianti is around the £40 mark, there are a couple of Ricasoli reds within supermarket portfolios. 2009 Waitrose Chianti Classico Barone Ricasoli (£11.99) is a soft, warm and elegant cherry-centred chianti that demonstrates the thoroughly modern approach of the estate. This is one of Waitrose’s ‘In Partnership’ wines, developed in close consultation with the producer – an arrangement that fits perfectly with the Ricasoli commitment to continuous improvement.

A step up takes us to 2009 Barone Ricasoli Rocca Guicciarda Riserva Chianti Classico (£16.99, Sainsbury’s), a rather nice blend that brings in 10 per cent each of cabernet sauvignon and merlot to give softish cherry and juicy blackcurrant fruit along with a mellow and slightly meaty chocolate finish.

The iconic 2008 Castello di Brolio Chianti Classico (£39.99, Planet of the Grapes) is a terrific wine with intense cherry, blueberry and plum flavours, a long coffee and vanilla finish and a delightfully smooth texture. This is very much the peak of the Brolio collection in which temperature-controlled vinification in stainless steel helps develop that concentrated cocktail of fruit-centred flavours but the velvety smoothness is the result of the carefully managed, and rather more traditional, 18 months it spends in oak.

An interesting alternative is 2008 Colledila Chianti Classico (£36.49, also Planet of the Grapes), a single vineyard, single varietal sangiovese from a distinctive terroir that delivers complex, rich and lusty cherry fruit with firm vanilla touches from the new oak it works with so well.

As well as red wine, the estate produces chardonnay and other whites along with a couple of dessert wines. Although quite difficult to find in the UK, I was rather taken with one of those sweeter versions – the aromatic, fresh peach and honey flavours of 2010 Granello made, without the use of oak, largely from sauvignon dried for 20 days in dehumidified rooms.

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The Brolio experience goes well beyond its wines and its top-class olive oils, with the historic castello itself proving immensely popular with its 35,000 visitors a year. There is a hugely impressive armoury and an excellent restaurant, making the operation more like a New World destination winery than conventional European versions. The totality creates an excellent stopping-off point en route from Florence to Siena to sample wine, drink up history and see the effect of one man’s determination to change (and keep changing) the direction of his enterprise.

2009 DB Family Selection Cabernet Merlot South Eastern Australia, 13.5 per cent

An appealing smooth, rich blend with soft, nutty chocolate flavours to give substance to lively blackcurrant and black cherry fruit, rounding out the overall package with attractive touches of clove. Terrific, uncomplicated wine. £5.98, Asda

2011 Puklavec & Friends Sauvignon Blanc Jeruzalem, Slovenia, 12.5 per cent Unusual sauvignon from an unexpected area but delightfully different with an opening of gooseberry. It then develops touches of pear mid-palate and rides out on a long, lemon finish. £8.99, Waitrose