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October 08, 2012

ITALIAN WINEMAKER’S HOME IS HIS CASTLE


David Ellis

TAKE yourself off to Italy's Barone Ricasoli winery and you'll discover more than a winery – a captivating medieval castle, in fact, that has survived countless wars and feudal attacks from its very earliest  days in the Middle Ages, to aerial and artillery bombardments during World War II.

And while absorbing everything from its delightful wines to a museum that reflects on its colourful history, you'll learn something of the amazing Ricasoli's themselves. For here is a family that's been linked to winemaking since 1141, owns the oldest family-run winery in the world and Italy's oldest winery, and is the second-longest continuously-trading wine company in the world.

Brolio Castle, its winery and adjacent cellars are located in the picturesque Chianti region of Tuscany, 25km from Siena and around 75km from Florence – its strategic territorial border location the reason for so many assaults upon it over the years, including those times when the Ricasoli family had a private army to help in the defence of Florence from attacks by Siena.

And throughout it all it continued on its journey of winemaking history, with its two most significant periods being in the mid-1800s and again in the early 1990s.

In the first of these periods the company had at its helm the extraordinarily far-sighted entrepreneur, major player in the unification of Italy and the country's Prime Minister for nine months from mid-1861, Baron Bettino Ricasoli – the so-called "Iron Baron."

A fervent advocate of the Chianti region, Bettino had an abounding enthusiasm for its wines that included 30 years researching and developing a blend that would become one of the best-known wines in the world, and which he simply named after his beloved region, Chianti.

So pleased was he with this "Chianti" that in 1872 he registered the formula with the University of Pisa, saying it comprised 70% Sangiovese, 15% Malvasia Bianca and 15% Canaiolo fruit, and describing in minute detail its flavours, aromas and structure.

More than a century later this blend was changed by law to require any wine that bore the label "Chianti" to still comprise a minimum 70% Sangiovese, with the remainder any of several varieties of red grapes.

The Ricosoli family was exporting its wines to Holland and England from as early as the 1600s, but it was Baron Bettino who further pushed sales across Europe, and to China, Britain's colonies in Africa and the Caribbean, and to South America.

But the 1970s and '80s saw declining production and sales until a second Baron Bettino Ricasoli, the 31st Baron of Brolio and his son Francesco (the 32nd Baron) came on the scene in the 1990s. They replanted the vineyards, modernised the old winery whilst maintaining its past, and increased wine production so that today few countries in the world do not import Barone Ricosoli wines – not just Chianti but numerous other reds and whites – and boosting production to 3-million bottles a year.

Visitors to Brolio Castle and the Barone Ricasoli winery can see how the castle has been rebuilt and modified over the centuries, including its medieval bastions, Romanesque and neo-Gothic additions, and 19th century Tuscan modifications.

They can also look out over its surrounding 240ha of vineyards and 26ha olive grove, as well as neighbouring postcard-perfect hills, valleys and vineyards, and woodlands of oaks and chestnut trees

Three organised tours can be enjoyed here from March to November. The Castle and Cellars Tour includes not only the castle but its spectacular park and gardens, a history of the Ricasoli family (who still live in the castle) and its chapel and family tomb, and the tower with its collection of 4th to 19th century armour, documents from the public life of Baron Bettino Ricasoli, plus the winery, cellars and a wine tasting.

The Castle, Vineyards and Cellars Tour covers much the same but with the inclusion of a vineyards tour by car, while the Museum Tour includes the  weapons and armoury, documents and personal items dedicated to the political work of Bettino Ricasoli and his research into grape vines and the local soils that led to his documentation of "Chianti," and a collection of lavish furnishings crafted especially for a visit to the Castle by King Victor Emmanuel in 1863.

For details of tour days, times and prices visit www.ricasoli.it/tours.

 

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Photo Captions:

 

[] MAJESTIC setting, the Ricasoli Castle and vineyards

[] CENTURIES of history in the ancient cellars

[] BARON Bettino Ricasoli who turned around the company's failing fortunes in the 1970s and '80s

[] IDEAL setting, cycling through the vineyards

(Images Barone Ricasoli Wines)

 

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