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Castello di Brolio, Gran Selezione and the TransAtlantic Tasting Rift?

It was in the twelfth century that the Ricasoli family took over the castle in Gaiole in Chianti. It has weathered the centuries of attacks from outside (the Spanish) and inside as the Sienese battled with the Florentines (Brolio being geographically closer to the former but politically allied to the latter). The current edifice, a rather massive pinkish stone caste with crenelated battlements and various different towers, stands in lovely gardens surrounded by vines and olive groves. It was (re)built in the 1800s by the Iron Baron, Bettino Ricasoli, mayor of Florence, prime minster of the newly unified Italy after Cavour and above all, inventor of the varietal ‘recipe’ for Chianti.

And thus, of course, you expect to find some serious Chianti when visiting the historical birthplace of the wine. But a lot has happened over the 150 years, and in 2014 the EU approved a new ‘top’ category of Chianti to sit above the riservas. Gran Selezione. The same geography, but minimum 80% sangiovese, 13% alcohol, 30 months ageing and 3 months in bottle. A lot of people rather scratched their head as to why and for what this classification was created, unless it was to lure critics with the buzz of a grand cru and customers with a heftier price tag. It was not a ‘terroir’ wine and, frankly, what did it really achieve?

The castle is a wonderful place to visit, to immerse in what is so wonderful about Italy and Tuscany, the beauty of the surroundings and the endless layers of history, political intrigue and art. At the end, of course, you can have a tasting. The one thing I will say for the GS is that at least it removes the temptation to throw cabernet and merlot into the baron’s sacred mix and end up with a supercharged version of Bordeaux a la Italy. Why? But we were not impressed by the new GS and, as so often, found that the supposedly humbler wines tasted far more of place, of tradition and history than the more monolithic monuments that are surely created in the winery for the US wine critics, high scores and good sales figures. But in the spirit that you cannot judge an adult by a baby, we picked up a bottle of the 2006 Castello di Brolio (which is now the GS wine) and thought we’d give it a proper chance to mature and show its adult beauty at a later date. Perhaps with age it would acquire its nobility and balance?

The US wine magazines certainly thought so. Tasting the wine in 2009, AG in the Wine Advocate scored it a solid 93, and JS in the Wine Spectator gave it a stellar 96 and crowned it in the top 100 wines of the year. Now you will probably have guessed my opinion on wine scores of super young babies, but prove me wrong…

15 years should be a decent time for a grand wine to show itself at its best. We opened the wine with some expectation given the laudatory plaudits from across the Atlantic, but the colour was oddly dark for a chianti. Bettino’s eyebrows would have raised. Almost black-red?

Hmm. The nose – usually for me the most floral and elegant delight of a glass of sangiovese, was very strong and very meat stock, as if I stuck my head in a pot of simmering consommé. I like a touch of it too add complexity, but here it was full frontal and dominant. On the palate the texture was, again rather oddly, thick, with residue of acidity and tannin left, but fruit that was definitely fading. Where were those heights of a positive hedgerow of mixed berries promised me by the critics? Just a parting memory.

Perhaps this was an unfair bottle, but it came from the winery, was stored in the cellar and had a perfect cork and no obvious default. To us the wine was just another example of over extraction and Chianti made for lovers of powerful wines, but we are in Tuscany not Napa, or should be. I put my hands up to a definite bias, but after half the bottle my wife and I gave up and decided to use it as an inspiration to make some pepo, Tuscan beef stew. The overt meatiness of the wine might just meld nicely with the beef.

Somewhat frustrated and thirsty, I thought back to my last blog post from Tuscany and pulled out a half of Felsina’s vin santo. The colour was a beautiful amber gold, the taste like liquified caramel, gently raisiny and confit, rich but with enough bite. Delicious after its seven years sleep in little barrels in the attics of Felsina’s medieval granary, true Italian wine.

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