Calgary Wine Life: Barone Ricasoli Luncheon @ Alloy Fine Dining

10 02 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ growing up. Amongst the many fond memories (including my grandmother’s never-ending tolerance of my boundless energy and predilection for getting into various forms of trouble), I can recall that there were always a few fiascos kicking around the house, those round-bottomed bottles covered with a close-fitting straw basket that shall be forever associated with one of the world’s great wines: Chianti. Although the wine contained in most of these vessels was far from remarkable, over time a serious quality revolution occurred, one that led to the creation of the Chianti Classico DOCG designation. This important development was associated with a renewed commitment to meticulous winemaking as well as the elimination of winemaking techniques that were eventually appreciated to hinder quality (e.g., blending white grapes into a must that was largely red). At the same time, there was a dedication to preserving a unique identity; Chianti was and is a Sangiovese-dominant blend, not a varietal wine (at least usually…it turns out that Chianti Classico can be 100% Sangiovese!). As a newly christened regular contributor to Pop & Pour, I could not have been more keen to draw this tasting assignment, hosted by none other than Francesco Ricasoli. You see, Francesco’s ancestor Bettino actually invented the style.

IMG_0808When Francesco, a professional photographer, finally entered the world of winemaking, Bettino Ricasoli’s beloved Castello di Brolio estate had spent some time being passed from one multinational to the next. Enter a “contractual loophole” that gave Francesco a chance to purchase his family’s legacy from Hardy’s, based in Australia. Although he was initially unsure about whether this was a good idea, some helpful advice and prodding from a friend at Castello di Fonterutoli sealed the deal. Alas, there was much work to do. Francesco wanted to restore his wines to glory. He commissioned a three-year study to clarify the agronomic potential of his property and conducted trial plantings of fifty different Sangiovese clones, eventually determining which would perform best in his vineyard soils. The latter are largely calcareous clay with additional stony components and occur at a wide range of altitudes. Francesco was careful to explain his philosophy of “precision viticulture”. Under this approach, every vineyard parcel is a distinct entity yielding a unique vinous product. Parcels are each farmed according to their individual characters. The wines are all vinified separately to preserve their distinct attributes and are then thoughtfully blended. It became clear that Francesco does not like leaving winemaking to chance. “Why make mistakes that can be avoided?”, he asked, in response to a question about whether he uses selected yeasts for fermentation. However, he is passionate about preserving grape character. This is a highly intelligent man who thinks deeply about his wines, one who has the utmost respect for nature’s raw materials but who is not shy about steering vinification exactly where he wants it to go, according to his vision.img_0816.jpgFrancesco himself has a powerful understated charm. This is not a politician or someone otherwise invested in murky versions of the truth. He is humble, warm, genial, and down to earth, yet with a razor sharp dry wit. He was happy to answer all our questions directly, with a candour that I perhaps did not expect for such a successful businessman. This was a prime opportunity to listen and learn in the elegant confines of Alloy Fine Dining, featuring a series of Ricasoli wines, each paired with a selected masterpiece from Chef Rogelio Herrera.

IMG_0822 2016 Ricasoli Albia Bianco Toscano

White wine is often deemed an afterthought in Tuscany. Fortunately, there exist some high quality “modern” Saugvignon Blancs, Chardonnays, and blends thereof, these co-existing with a resurgence of more attentive, well-crafted local bottlings. The present wine lands firmly in the former camp, but adds a regional flourish: this is Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Malvasia Bianca, the high-sugar workhorse grape of Vin Santo fame. I get a bright nose of honeysuckle and maybe more bitter yellow flowers (dandelion), lemon-lime soda, and a mellow saline tang. A taste reveals a tangy spike of acid, followed by a stark, stony mid-palate that recalls green pears, white peaches, vanilla bean, lemon rind, gooseberry, passion fruit, kiwi, pina colada Life Savers, and last but far from least, tart yellow grapefruit. This is steely and sharp with a sturdy acid backbone and a nice bite, finishing with a flash-bang that leaves the palate clean. Some absolutely delicious vegetable tempura makes me wonder if the food just peaked.

IMG_0818It is at this point that Francesco explains a recent shift to a more fashionable closure for this wine, in the form of a “cork” comprised of recyclable sugar cane fibres. The man has a knack for explaining the technical aspects of his business without a trace of pretension.

92 points

2015 Brolio Bettino Chianti Classico DOGC

This wine is decidedly “old school”, intended to reflect the original vision of Chianti as invented by Bettino Ricasoli in 1872. This is 90% Sangiovese and 10% Abrusco, the inclusion of which Francesco describes as largely a nod to tradition. Consistent with this take, Ian D’Agata states that this is a rather limited variety, capable of adding deep colour and some spice but little in the way of unique aroma characteristics. That which is rare and hails from a bygone age has much cachet with wine geeks like myself. In any event, my initial impression here is a burst of sour cherry and tomato sauce, followed by beef broth and a wreath of savoury Mediterranean  herbs (oregano, thyme), finished with a generous dash of celery salt. This is decidedly elegant, streamlined, and lithe, featuring a pulse of black cherry, strawberry, allspice, and fresh rosemary needles mid-palate. It may taste rather meaty, but it does not feel meaty. The acidity is fresh, really lifting up the red fruits and spice, and the tannins start with a gentle caress but end with a clench of the fingers.

IMG_0811The marriage between this and the black pepper fettucine is marvelous, the tomato elements amplifying each other but without becoming overbearing. This wine is clear-cut evidence that Sangiovese can be oaked tastefully, without crowding out the grape’s character. Francesco was careful to caution against excessive use of oak, explaining that the winery does ongoing experimentation with cooperage and degree of toasting in an attempt to match this seasoning to the character of the grape. His oak regime is all about the grapes he has before him, and what they need at that moment.

91+ points

2014 Rocca Guicciarda Chianti Classico DOGC

Francesco explains here that the goal is to use grapes from his own Brolio estate as well as his some grown by his neighbours to create the quintessential “harmonious, balanced, approachable” Chianti. All structural elements (fruit, acid, tannins) should be in their right places, no sharp edges, with the wine partnering perfectly with food (“We only make food wines”, says Francesco). The composition varies from vintage to vintage, with 2014 consisting of 80% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 10% Merlot.

IMG_0813Francesco’s description is more than apt: this is certainly a harmonious, well-integrated wine. I do feel he downplayed the aromatic complexity. On first sniff I immediately get pungent pickling spices, something almost like caraway, rosemary and pine needles/menthol, another oxalic green note that registers as rhubarb (!), black licorice, thermal minerals that recall Epsom salts, and low key espresso, road tar, and balsamic notes. There is some tannic grip but nothing overly intense, with a brisk acidity keeping pace and a bright fruit core skewing towards the dark side of Sangiovese but keeping one foot firmly planted in the red: cherries (black and red), strawberries, blackberries. If the Bettino was linear, precise, and focused almost exclusively on traditional flavours, with perhaps a little rustic polish, this is more broad and bulky, striking a nigh-perfect compromise between tradition and modernity.

90+ pointsimg_0824.jpg

2013 Casalferro Rosso Toscana IGT

So to be perfectly frank, at this moment of the lunch I’m wondering what a 100% Merlot is going to deliver by way of wonderment as the penultimate wine, even if it IS a single vineyard exemplar and a wine of which Francesco is clearly very proud. I sneak a peek at the price point of the bottle, thinking “that means little”, and I ignore the faint voice reminding me that Italian Merlot can be delicious, in favor of a more cynical stance, essentially gearing myself up to tolerate feeling underwhelmed. This particular daemon often whispers in my ear, encouraging me to avoid a Miles Raymond attitude about this grape, and I typically proceed to dismiss this take with something like “Hey, not every bloody grape has to be my favourite”.

IMG_0812And then holy s$%t…this does NOT smell like the Merlots I’m used to. At all. Wow. Someone just threw a handful of fresh earth into my face, complete with a few stinging ants and fragrant garrigue, and then followed it up with a glass of unsweetened red fruit juice (cranberries, tart pie cherries, even the wild pin cherries I used to pick and eat while wandering in the bush). As this muck drips down my face, leaving juniper needles in its wake, I understand Bacchus at a primal level, and I am reminded of just why I love wine so much. This has a bracing acidity and round tannins that still retain some prickle, an association that makes me think of a spiky turtle shell from Super Mario Brothers. Its hard to focus on the food, a pretty tasty New York steak. There’s a slight fruit leather/fruit roll up presence but absolutely no jam. I blurt “It smells like a Sangiovese”, someone nearby nods, and Francesco smiles and says “This wine…is pure terroir. It is very special for us”. Somewhere, the platonic ideal of Merlot looks down at me and smirks.

94 points

2013 Castello Di Brolio Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione

I have read about this wine, recalling that in their book about Chianti Classico, Bill Nesto and Frances Di Savino mentioned “charred oak and flowers”, as well as a certain understated complexity. I found the complexity on the nose to be anything but subtle, but rather a buzzing cacophony of raspberry, strawberry, blueberry, fresh ground beef, intense floral perfume (roses, lilacs, violets), dill and fennel pollen/weed, cloves, mushrooms. Heady stuff. A sip delivers further pulsating shockwaves of flowers and fennel, along with fruits blue and red (not black), Cuban cigar, dark chocolate, and black/oolong tea.

IMG_0814Will comparing a Chianti to a Brunello alienate me from not just one but two Italian wine regions? What, I never said it tastes like a Brunello! It does make me think about Brunello though. Gentle, velvety tannins linger, along with that wonderful tea-like note. Get this: the blend is 90% Sangiovese, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5%…Petit Verdot?! Yes, DOCG rules permit all the Bordeaux varieties, not just the “big two”. Yet another example of Francesco’s willingness to experiment. Pairs strikingly well with blue cheese. People start trickling out, but Francesco is in no rush despite having another engagement this same evening, and a few of us enjoy his company for a while longer. Sharp espresso perks me up after all those generous pours, and I exchange a warm goodbye with a man whose meticulously crafted elixirs have truly nourished my soul.

92+ points

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