Francesco Ricasoli is owner of one of Chianti Classico’s most historic estates. He tells Michèle Shah how he plans to bring his family heritage back on track...
Since the 12th century, Castello di Brolio has towered above the surrounding vineyards and olive groves that embrace the medieval Chianti town of Gaiole, in the heart of Tuscany. A noble lineage of feudal landowners has led the estate, including, in the 18th century, twice prime minister of Italy, Bettino Ricasoli, known locally as Il Barone di Ferro. His research led him to plant Bordeaux grape varieties on the slopes of Brolio, as well as developing the statute of the original Chianti Classico appellation, based on 80% Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Colorino.
It is against this backdrop that Francesco Ricasoli, the 32nd Barone Ricasoli, sits as owner and CEO of one of Chianti Classico’s most historic estates. Today, he faces the challenge of putting Castello di Brolio’s name back on the map.
In the aftermath of WWII, Barone Ricasoli had sold the brand name, ‘Castello di Brolio’ to the Canadian multinational giant Seagram. As feudal landowners, the family continued to manage the land, selling the production of wine to Seagram.
‘The 1960s were difficult times for landowners,’ explains Francesco Ricasoli. ‘Italy was undergoing an industrial revolution and the country-folk were moving out to towns. We sold to Seagram out of necessity.’
It wasn’t until the 1990s, after Seagram had sold out to Hardy’s, and with the new spur and rise in quality of Tuscan wines, that Ricasoli felt the time had come to take the plunge and buy back the family brand.
Francesco Ricasoli no doubt inherited many of the qualities of his great-great-great grandfather. In 1990, braced with a combative spirit and plenty of determination, he decided to take over the management of the family’s 1,200ha (hectares) of land. A professional photographer by trade, he was a little daunted at the enormous responsibility.
‘It was a challenge,’ admits Ricasoli. ‘I started managing the production side in 1990 and finally, after some tough legal battles with the previous owners, we bought back the Barone Ricasoli brand in 1993.’
It was a turning point. ‘It wasn’t just a question of courage. We required enormous investments, especially in re-planting vineyards,’ explains Ricasoli, who admits he had little know-how of the commercial side of marketing and selling wine. ‘This is probably what saved me, he says. ‘I hadn’t the faintest idea what I was getting into and therefore had no pre-conceived ideas.’
When Ricasoli took over, there were two fundamental concepts which he put into practice. ‘The first: clear, concrete ideas. The second: to engage a team of valid people.’
His team was all important, and consisted of Francesco Mazzei, a close friend and owner of the neighbouring Chianti Classico estate Fonterutoli, who stepped in as managing director. Carlo Ferrini, considered today one of Italy’s top winemakers, took over the production side, while Ricasoli slowly re-built his empire. Today, this totals 110 staff, 140ha of vineyard and a production of 800,000 bottles.
Ricasoli can look back with a sigh of relief. ‘We made it, but there is no sitting back.’ Today, the challenge is to consolidate the 50 export markets and continue to successfully market Brolio wines. Ricasoli’s wines are perceived as premium wines, respected by the trade sector for their reliable quality. ‘However, we still need to fully consolidate our reputation with the consumer market, leaving behind the disastrous 1960s and 1970s when our name lost its prestige,’ explains Ricasoli.
When Ricasoli took over, the brand was churning out nine million bottles under 30 different labels. It was a mass-produced, industrial wine. Today, with the grapes bought in from neighbouring producers, the total output is two million bottles under six labels: three top bottlings of Chianti Classico with a prevalence of Sangiovese, and three IGT Tuscan wines.
‘The aim is gradually to re-invest, expanding our vineyard capacity until we reach a total of 240ha. Then we can cut back on the amount of grapes we buy in. The grapes undergo rigorous selection and most of the wines are aged in barrique,’ says Ricasoli with assurance.
Now in his mid-forties, Francesco Ricasoli is the youngest of the new Ricasoli generation. He’s a man with a vision who looks to the future, aware of necessary changes. ‘My aim was to save a patrimony and to relocate our wines at the top. The first has been achieved while the second may take a life time. We’ve come a long way since 1993. But it would be too presumptuous to say we’re at the top – that’s not for me to say,’ comments Ricasoli.
Barone Ricasoli’s philosophy can be summed up in one word: ‘quality’. This is initiated in the vineyards, focusing on Sangiovese with the aim of producing a top Chianti Classico. Although Barone Ricasoli produces IGT Super Tuscan wines, Ricasoli is well aware that fashions come and go. ‘Many Super Tuscans are more Tuscan than Super,’ he says. He believes that the future of Tuscany is Chianti Classico, from selected vineyards and grapes. His Rocca Guicciarda and Castello di Brolio are the flagship wines of Barone Ricasoli.
‘The concept is very simple,’ says Ricasoli. ‘We want Chianti Classico to be our top label because we believe it is the wine which best represents our terroir.’
The philosophy behind the ‘super Chianti Classico’ will be akin to a Bordeaux first growth with particular emphasis on the producer and the terroir, reflecting the original Chianti Classico appellation regulations within the DOCG system. A future plan is to move away from the Riserva and give less importance to the Supe Ttuscan IGTs.
And what does the future hold for Tuscan wines? ‘A lot depends on world economics. We are going to see difficult times ahead and only the best will survive.’ According to Ricasoli, Tuscany will always be an important area of production. ‘Today the average quality is good, but we’ll have to do even better,’ he says. ‘We’ll need to promote and communicate the Chianti “brand” with more focused and aggressive publicity campaigns. We can sell our tradition, but first the market wants quality and innovation. Then tradition.’
In Barone Ricasoli’s case it would appear that Ricasoli’s confidence is part of the winning recipe. ‘It’s simple,’ he concludes. ‘We need to be able to guarantee the same quality and consistency of production year in year out. In this game it’s the name “Barone Ricasoli” which counts.’ The name has existed for a thousand years. In Ricasoli’s vision it will prosper for another thousand.
Michèle Shah is a wine and travel writer based in Italy