Above: Bettino Ricasoli, the “Iron Baron” (1809-1880), united Italy’s second prime minister, grape grower, winemaker, architect of the Sangiovese renaissance, and creator of the Chianti appellation. Photo of his portrait at Brolio Castle in Gaiole in Chianti, taken in January 2020.
Tomorrow night, I’ll be presenting Francesco Ricasoli, descendent of Bettino Ricasoli, the creator of Chianti, at a virtual wine dinner here in Houston. To celebrate the occasion, I wanted to share my translation of the famous letter in which the “Iron Baron” Bettino scribed what has come to be known as the Chianti formula.
The letter was republished last year by Olschki Editore, one of Italy’s most prestigious academic publishers, in a wonderful critical edition of the Baron’s epistolary correspondence with Professor Cesare Studiati of the University of Pisa: Alla ricerca del “vino perfetto”. Il Chianti del Barone di Brolio (In Search of the Perfect Wine: the Baron of Brolio’s Chianti).
Many years ago, when the letter was not readily available, I traveled to Chianti to meet with Francesco and his father (also named Bettino) who pointed me to a source where I could find the original text. Not long thereafter, I published the translation here on my blog and I’m happy to post it again today for the occasion of Francesco’s visit with us tomorrow night (Francesco is such a great guy, btw).
It’s true that the formula does include Malvasia as one of the grapes the Baron used to produce his “ideal” of Chianti. Many continue to focus on that detail.
It’s important to note how he specifies that Malvasia works well for producing wines for daily consumption whereas it’s excluded for the wines intended for aging — what we would call “fine wine” today.
Even more important in my view is that the Baron writes about the results of his research on native Tuscan grapes. At a time when Gamay was the most widely planted grape variety in Tuscany (yes, Gamay, but more on that later), his findings led him to reaffirm the extreme potential of native grape varieties there.
During the late 1880, it was practically unthinkable that fine wines from Italy would one day be shipped beyond it borders. But the Baron’s vision that Italy could produce world-class wines was ultimately proved right. Chianti today is arguably one of the world’s most widely known appellations, rivaled only by designations like Bordeaux in terms of its recognizability.
The Baron’s findings led grape growers across Tuscany to grub up the French grape varieties they favored and replant with native grapes, and in particular, Sangiovese (known as Sangioveto at the time). Singlehandedly (and I can’t emphasize this enough), he had launched the native grape renaissance and revolution, a watershed moment that still shapes our perceptions and love of Italian wines.
My translation of the letter follows.
Above: the Ricasoli family’s private chapel at Brolio Castle. I visited the estate in January on my last trip to Italy. I highly recommend the castle tour, even for veteran wine professionals. It’s really fantastic.
Bettino Ricasoli “the Iron Baron” to Cesare Studiati
September 26, 1872
As early as 1840, I began experimenting with every grape variety. I cultivated each one in significant quantities on my Brolio estate. Our goal was to test the quality and taste of the wines produced from each grape.
Following this comparative study, I restricted the number of grapes at Brolio and began growing Sangioveto, Canaiolo, and Malvasia almost exclusively. In 1867, I decided once again to make wine using these three grapes. I made a relatively large vat of each one and then I blended the three in another vat using exact proportions.
In March of last year, the experiment was finished and I was satisfied with the results. The wines were subsequently shipped.
Later I verified the results of the early experiments: the Sangioveto gave the wine its primary aroma (something I aim for in particular) and a certain vigor in taste; the Canaiolo gave it a sweetness that balanced the harshness of the former but did not take away from the aroma, even though it has an aroma of its own; the Malvasia, a grape that can be excluded for wines intended for aging, tends to dilute the resulting wine created by the former two, it increases the flavor but also makes the wine lighter and thus more suitable for daily consumption.