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Three Cheers for the Feudal System
By W. Blake Gray
Oct 18, 2011
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Barone Ricasoli's wines are a delicious argument for the superiority of the feudal system.

In the 1500s, the Ricasoli family owned the entire region of Chianti Classico, says company director Massimiliano Biagi.  Their wine was a favorite of northern Italian royalty for centuries.  But in the 1970s, the family separated the company into vineyards and winery/brand, and sold the latter to Seagram's.  

The Ricasoli brand went through several owners while the wines deteriorated, with some of the 1 million annual cases eventually being made in giant plastic vats.  By the 1990s, Hardy's owned it, but was losing a fortune.

In stepped the current Baron, Francesco Ricasoli, then a professional photographer with no wine experience.  In 1992 he made Hardy's a bold offer:  $1 for the brand.

"But they refused," Ricasoli said.  "One year later, I bought it for a bit more, but in the meantime the Australians lost many millions of American dollars.  So my $1 offer would have been much more convenient for them.  What I did, I took on the risk, and I gave in guarantee everything I had."

The offer wasn't popular with Ricasoli's two sisters, who preferred to keep a vineyard opperation that was also losing money, but wasn't as loaded with debt.  But the Baron had foresight. 

"I started to work in the vineyards in 1990.  I realized there was no future," he said. 

The reason small growers around the world began making their own wine in the '90s is that the economics of vineyard ownership became unfeasible without the high added value of putting a brand name on a bottle.  But the Ricasoli name -- his name -- had been badly damaged by years of indifferent wines

Undeterred, the Baron took bold action reminiscent of leading a battle charge.  The family had maintained pre-emption rights on sales of the brand, but had never exercised them before.  However, when Hardy's struck a deal to sell the winery -- again -- in March 1993, the Baron stepped in and bought it.

Almost immediately he had to reorganize under an Italian version of chapter 11 bankruptcy, which prevented him from making the investments the winery desperately needed.  But he plugged away, showing the value of care and commitment over industry experience.

"After two years we were able to pay the creditors," he said.  "Little by little we started to make the new wines, to invest and to replant."

Replanting was key.  Ricasoli's vineyards had gone international, and he wanted to return to the character of Brolio.  That meant Sangiovese, but not just the high-volume clones most popular in the mid-'90s.  One dream the baron realized in 2005 was replanting with 50 different phenotypes of Sangiovese that had been identified as having been in Brolio for centuries.

Another key was rethinking the style of wine away from super-Tuscans -- though Ricasoli still makes one -- toward the sort of food-friendly, lively wines that made people fall in love with the wines in the first place.

"We make wines for drinking," says technical director Marco Cerqua.  "If we smell chocolate or coffee, it's not good.  We would like cherry.  We would like freshness."

Cerqua has an easier task than his corporate predecessors, now that the brand is down to 200,000 cases.  He has modern equipment to work with -- he does micro-oxygenation as needed, though not to soften tannins.  He says Sangiovese is prone to reduction and, even though he uses open-tank fermenters, the aroma can go off if the fermenting grapes don't get enough oxygen.

Ricasoli is in the process of switching from barriques to 500-liter oak tonneaus, to give a lighter touch of oak to the wines. 

One fascinating thing to emerge from the process of reinvention -- and especially from being liberated from over-oaking -- is a single-vineyard Merlot called Casalferro.  The corporate owners wanted Merlot for use in super-Tuscan blends, but Cerqua soon discovered that Merlot planted in Brolio doesn't taste like the variety does in Bordeaux or California.

I really like Ricasoli's Sangioveses, especially the affordable Chianti Classicos.  But the star of the current releases is the 100% Merlot Casalferro, which has an herbaceous aroma reminiscent of young Right Bank Bordeaux, yet the fine acidity of Chianti with just a little noticeable softening on the palate.  It's a strong argument for terroir over grape variety.

"This Merlot has been Chiantified," the baron says, and I agree.  If only we could Chiantify more wines in this world.  That's just one more argument for the feudal system.