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Iron Baron's Descendant Hires Chemists to Reinvent Chianti: John Mariani

Swirling a glass of his just- released, 100 percent sangiovese 2007 Colledila, Baron Francesco Ricasoli shrugs and dismisses the wines that elevated Tuscany’s status as Italy’s center of cult labels.

“Super Tuscans were wines of the 1990s,” he says at a media lunch in New York. “Now they are no longer very important.”

The baron, the 32nd generation of a family that dates back to the days when St. Francis of Assisi was preaching to animals, is great, great, great, great grandson of Bettino Ricasoli, the “Iron Baron” who created the original blend for Chianti Classico.

He took over the business in 1993, working to identify the best clones of the sangiovese grape and teaming up with chemists at the University of Siena to study each parcel of vines on his property, which now number 250 out of 1,200 hectares.

“The idea that a single vineyard will produce an estate’s best wine flies in the face of modern viticulture,” he says. “In 2009 we made 180 different vinifications of grapes to come up with what we feel is the finest cru for each of our wines.”

Reserved and mild-mannered, looking more like a technologist than a grand aristocrat like his neighbor Marchese Piero Antinori, Ricasoli is a quiet revolutionary. The fact that he used the French term “cru” for a wine blend and held his seminar at New York’s very French Restaurant Daniel seemed to send a signal that his wines were not the chiantis of his ancestors. Then again, the family crest’s motto is in French: “Rien sans peine” -- nothing without pain.

New Blend

His 2007 Colledila (which means “the hill on the other side”) is all sangiovese, a departure from the once-mandated Chianti Classico-blend of sangiovese, malvasia and trebbiano grapes.

“Chianti Classico was always there sitting on the shelves,” Ricasoli recalls. “And always sold within a specific price range.”

Ricasoli’s own Castello di Brolio Chianti Classico, long the estate’s workhorse label, has been completely refigured for the 21st century, since Italian wine laws in the 1990s allowed a percentage of “foreign grapes” to be added to the blend. Castello di Brolio now comes from an array of replanted vineyards, with a predominance of sangiovese and equal parts cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

Ricasoli isn’t alone in Tuscany in making sangiovese-only wines, or configuring new blends for Chianti Classico, but the baron’s remark about the fading of the Super Tuscans, the showpiece sangiovese blends of the 1990s, shows a shift back to historical roots and an intensified study of Tuscan terroir.

Changing Flavor

“We find great variation in the different vineyards,” he says. “What is more, we’re finding that the so-called foreign varietals like merlot are becoming ‘Chianti-cized,’ each year developing flavors that are very different from what people expect.”

My tasting of three of Ricasoli’s 2007 vintages revealed the thrust of what he contended. In the case of Casalferro ($65), once promoted as a Super Tuscan blend, I would never have pegged it as 100 percent merlot. It was much richer and far more complex than any Italian merlot I’ve tasted (the varietal covers only about 4 percent of Italy’s total wine acreage). While its fullness and body recall the French merlots of St. Emilion and Pomerol, Casalferro 2007 is far more open and ready to enjoy.

The 100 percent sangiovese Colledila ($65), had a typically lovely bouquet, herbaceousness and tightness upon first sip. After a morsel of bread and butter, it quickly loosened up and indicated the evolutionary taste of Chianti Classico that Ricasoli is aiming for: bigger, brighter, with good acidity.

Tropical Notes

The Castello di Brolio ($65) had a deep color, with almost tropical notes in the nose, beneath which was the complexity added by the tannins of cabernet and the smoothing action of merlot.

Given the richness of the wines, I asked Ricasoli what their alcohol level was, thinking he might be deliberately edging them into the range of California voluptuary wines.

“They are 13.5 to 14 percent,” he said, “but we’re working to get that down.” Alcohol, he feels, can work against the balance of fruit and acid that gives his wines elegance.

In a world full of blockbuster wines, that’s very good to hear.

(John Mariani writes on wine for Muse, the arts and lifestyle section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: John Mariani at john@johnmariani.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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