Above: From left, Francesco Ricasoli and his father Bettino Ricasoli, the great-great-grandson of Iron Baron Bettino Ricasoli (in the oil on canvas), an architect of Italian unification, Italy’s second prime minister, and winemaker who reshaped the history of Tuscan winemaking by replanting the vineyards of his Castello di Brolio estate with Sangiovese.
As I write this, the world of Italian wine mourns the loss of Baron Bettino Ricasoli, the namesake and steward of one of Italy’s most illustrious winemaking families. He was 87 and his funeral is being held today in the church of the Santa Trinita in Florence (the name of the church is pronounced TREE-nee-tah, btw, with the tonic accent on the first syllable, because the Florentines use Latinate pronunciation in this and similar instances, e.g., Santa Felicita pronounced feh-LEE-chee-tah).
Above: The library at the Castello di Brolio.
Six years ago I went to visit Baron Bettino, who was one of the nicest, most generous, and most gracious hosts who has ever received me. I wanted to browse the library at the Brolio Castle and leaf through the reprinted, bound collection of his great-great-grandfather’s letters and thanks to my connections in the wine trade, I was able to contact him. I visited in January when the castle was closed and he traveled expressly that day from Florence to spend the day with me. He, personally, led me on a tour of his family’s castle and then let me spend the afternoon in the library there. It was an amazing and truly unforgettable experience.
His ancestor and namesake, the Iron Baron Bettino Ricasoli, reshaped the history of Italian winemaking when he replanted his vineyards “exclusively” with native Italian varieties in the second half of the 19th century. Franco and I have published my translation of the famous letter in which he describes his experiments and his decision to replant at VinoWire.
Many uninformed wine writers claim that the Iron Baron composed a “recipe” or “formula” for Chianti with exact percentages. This is simply not true. What he did do was to establish that fine wine could be made in Tuscany using native Italian grape varieties (viz., Sangiovese or Sangioveto, Canaiolo, and Malvasia). He replanted his estate with those varieties (inspiring other winemaking estates to abandon international varieties), and he developed techniques (modeled after what he had seen in Bordeaux) for stabilizing his wines and thus making them suitable for shipping. The culmination of his efforts and achievements was that Tuscany and a newly unified Italy established themselves for the first time as a world-class producer of fine wine that could be shipped beyond its borders.
Here are a few anecdotes from the day I spent with Baron Bettino…
We ate stewed tripe in the Florentine style at a wonderful little trattoria called Carlino d’Oro near the Brolio Castle. I highly recommend it.
He told me a story of how the Iron Baron decided to leave Florence after another man asked his fiancée to dance at a ball. Evidently, the Iron Baron was prone to jealously and so he swept his betrothed away to the Brolio Castle and began his studies on winemaking. In the end, it was a woman behind the first renaissance of Italian winemaking!
I sat at the edge of my seat as he told me about the German occupation of the castle in the last years of the second world war. The German soldiers used its turrets as mounts for their artillery and Baron Bettino was among the Allied soldiers when they liberated his family’s castle. Because he knew the terrain so well, he was able to help mount their attack. How cool is that?
It was thanks to Baron Ricasoli that I met Darrell Corti, who became an unwitting mentor to me. But that’s another story…
To be continued…
In other news…
I’m picking up the pieces after ten days on the road and ten different cities between wine, one fine woman, and song. Starting a week ago last Thursday, I have visited and eaten meals in San Francisco (twice), San Jose, Los Angeles, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, Sedona (AZ), Jerome (AZ), Napa Valley, and Sonoma.
It’s good to be home where I belong and I have lots to post about so please stay tuned…
dont you mean you have lots to “sell”? giddyup..
It is a sad day indeed. Today a piece of history of our country is gone. The Barone Bettino was a great man and a true gentleman. All our thoughts go to the Ricasoli family.