A long track of hairpin bends shaded by leafy branches winds up to the formidable grey stone walls of Castello di Brolio in Tuscany. Beyond the trees, the hillside sloping down from the imposing battlements is lined with vines sprouting their first spring buds. It was from these same Sangiovese vines that Baron Bettino Ricasoli invented Chianti Classico, a wine that would become one of the most famous Italian products across the world.
After purchasing tickets in a little office by the entrance, visitors pass through an iron-barred gate beneath a tall stone arch into the courtyard of the castle. The masonry walls rise up around, a remnant of the 15th-century defenses. The red brick castle enclosed within is a glorious pastiche of gothic architecture replete with battlements, turrets and narrow arched windows. Inside, there is a cavernous dining hall with stained glass windows, a wooden balcony for musicians, suits of armor and a long wooden table. At Castello di Brolio, the Ricasoli family still spends their summers, and occasionally opens it up to visitors for events or wine tastings.
The neo-gothic castle was built at the request of wine pioneer Baron Bettino Ricasoli in the 19th century. But the territory’s winemaking roots hark back to eight centuries earlier. The original 11th-century castle was home to vintner monks and the property was passed to the Ricasoli family in the 12th century. Standing on the high bastions, a panorama of Tuscan countryside stretches into the distance where, on clear days, it is possible to see the city of Siena. In the 12th century, the Ricasolis commanded the strategically positioned castle as the first line of defense for the Florentines in their wars with rival Siena. Sadly, these battles were also responsible for the destruction of the 11th-century castle.
While the conflicts raged, the Ricasoli family was already making wine from the monks’ vineyard. In fact, with wine production beginning in the 12th century, Castello di Brolio is one of the ten oldest family businesses in the world. Its golden age was much later, however, in the 1870s with Baron Bettino Ricasoli. Bettino was a true Renaissance man, studying history, science and languages and becoming prime minister of unified Italy twice. In a little museum in the castle, visitors can see his miniature chemistry lab and collections of rocks, shells and fossils.
Bettino threw himself into researching French winemaking which, at the time, was leagues ahead of Italy’s wine production. Around him in the region now famed for Chianti Classico, Bettino observed with dissatisfaction as the winemakers produced high alcoholic, low-quality tables wines. He was determined to develop a more refined product that had a much greater connection to the land.
Bettino’s experiments with blending grape varieties began but shortly afterward were almost thwarted by the devastating arrival of phylloxera, a root-sapping aphid. In a jar in the museum, visitors can see Bettino’s sample of phylloxera preserved in an amber liquid. Luckily, the louse did not infest his vineyard — although under his grandson the vines were grafted onto American rootstock as was common throughout Italy — and his experiments continued.
Finally, in 1872, Bettino hit on the perfect blend: Sangiovese for its aromas with a small addition of Canaiolo for sweetness and Malvasia for lightness. This recipe kickstarted the area’s fame for winemaking. Over the decades, as various classifications and rules have been imposed on Chianti wine, the blend was altered. Now, Chianti Classico cannot include white grapes, as in Bettino’s original recipe. But at Castello di Brolio’s wine cellar, just down the hillside, current owner Francesco Ricasoli still produces the Brolio Bettino Chianti Classico, which tries to emulate the original blend as much as possible. This wine uses Sangiovese with a little Abrusco and is aged in large barrels imparting freshness and an aroma of red fruits to the product.
Wine production only moved down the hillside to a newly built structure at the beginning of the 20th century. Until then, it was housed in the castle itself. Now, visitors can try the Ricasoli wines from their 240 hectares of vineyards in a large tasting room lined with display cases filled with historic photographs and memorabilia. The full range of wines is available for walk-in tastings, priced at between $30 and $8 a glass. At the top of the range is the Castello di Brolio Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. To achieve its elegant notes of nutmeg, black cherry and prunes, it is only produced during the best years when the grapes are exceptional. After visiting the monumental castle, the wine also seems to impart the beguiling aromas of eight centuries of winemaking history.