Today is a real treat for the driver. The two wineries we’re going to visit are less than 10 kilometres from Gaiole-in-Chianti. Round trip.
There were two things that drew me to Castello di Meleto – the walled medieval garden and the tour of the castle.
I could see they had made an effort to create a garden like those of the Benedictine monks who lived here during the Middle Ages, but the effect was rather underwhelming. (Fortunately, a few days later, I would see another, much more compelling restoration of a hortus conclusus in a winery close by.)
The real highlight at Meleto turned out to be the interior of the castle, which unlike most of the other castles in the Chianti region – at least the ones that are open to the public – is furnished.
I have no idea what that Spanish motto is doing above the Ricasoli emblem. I even checked an Italian on-line chat room – very entertaining, but the consensus seemed to be that the reason was lost in a miriade di informazioni.
The sky was overcast when I set out for Castello di Brolio. You can visit the gardens without a reservation, but I figured, having come all this way, why not have a look at the castle interior as well, so I had booked una visita del castello months before. I wasn’t worried at the time. May is a lovely month in Tuscany. Rain is almost unheard of.
High stone walls surround the castle, which was strategically, or maybe not so strategically located on the Medieval border of arch enemies, Siena and Florence.
Of course it did rain. We had barely gone through the entrance gate when it started to pour. But if it hadn’t been so miserable, perhaps our guide wouldn’t have taken pity on me later on and told me about a path in the vineyards surrounding the castle, that wasn’t, strictly speaking, private.
I have no more photos of the rest of the castle tour. First of all it was raining catinelle (pails). Our little group got soaked in the 20 metre dash from the chapel to the castle. But even more annoying, inside the castle there were those dreaded VIETATO FOTOGRAFARE signs all over the place. I naively asked if it might be OK to take photos “senza (without) flash”. Our guide looked at me quite sharply and said, “No.”
A few minutes later I was to feel even stupider (is there such a word? They were debating this on the CBC a few days ago – ‘stupidest’ sounds fine – as in, ‘That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard!”, but somehow ‘stupider’ doesn’t… no idea.) On the bright side, I have had many opportunities to notice that asking a ‘stupid’ question in a foreign language doesn’t feel nearly as embarrassing as in your native tongue. Someone has probably done a study on this.
Anyway, as our guide led us through the various rooms of the castle, which I of course was itching to take photos of, I noticed that there were a bunch of gizmos hanging from the ceilings. I asked her what was up with all these hanging things. Again she gave me that sharp look. “They are security cameras,” she slowly enunciated in her German-accented Italian. Oh dear.
Eventually she realized that I was not a security threat and we got along fine. She was doing the tour in English, which she spoke perfectly, and whenever there was a break in the script I would ask her a question. In italiano. It was a little weird. My rule of thumb is to speak the two foreign languages I know when I’m in the country, which means Italian when I’m in Italy and French when I’m in France. Would she have preferred speaking to me in English? I don’t know. What I do know is that when I explained to her that what I had really come for was to take photos of the garden and vineyards, she told me about the path through the vineyards around the castle. And she also said I could come back two days later without paying the entrance fee again. I mention this because I noticed a rather nasty comment on Trip Advisor about a visit which seems to have occurred under similar circumstances. I don’t know what happened to make that visitor write that negative comment. All I can say is that my experience was very different.
After the tour of the castle interior, we were supposed to be taken through the gardens. To her credit, our guide offered, but of course we all declined and instead made another mad dash over to the cellar for the second part of our tour.
If you ever find the whole wine thing mystifying, if not downright intimidating, here at Brolio there’s another layer to confound you. We’re at the Castello di Brolio, so why do so many of the labels feature the name ‘Ricasoli‘?
For that we have to go back to the mid 19th century when Bettino Ricasoli, one of the most important politicians of the era and a strong promoter of Italian unity, got sidelined because of his strong sense of integrity – a character trait that some, who no doubt found it annoying, described rather uncharitably as moral intransigence, leading to the nickname ‘il Barone di Ferro‘ (the Iron Baron). In ogni caso, abandoning politics, he turned his iron will to improving the wines produced on the family estate and in 1872 came up with a wine ‘recipe’.
It was one of those things that no-one thinks of doing and then, once it’s done, everyone wonders how they ever managed without it. For the next hundred years all wines bearing the Chianti label were made according to that recipe, which in 1967 was made into law. Not surprisingly, it called for a big dose (70%) of Sangiovese, Tuscany’s viticultural workhorse to this day. But it also included a fair amount (15%) of Malvasia and later, Trebbiano, white grapes which have recently been prohibited by law.
Given that over 170 different clones of the Sangiovese grape have been created since Bettino’s day, who knows how much today’s all red Chianti’s differ from those earlier white-infused creations?
Two days later, when I went back to Castello Brolio, it was still unseasonably cool, but for the first time in a while it wasn’t raining. Before going out into the vineyards, I wanted to have a look at the garden around the castle. I dropped in at the reception area, chatted with the guide and once again walked through the small opening in the ramparts. This time under wonderfully blue skies.
Brolio comes from brolo, Longobard for ‘enclosed green space’. The Longobards, aka ‘Long Beards’, were a Germanic tribe who led a virtually unopposed invasion of Italy in the 6th century. Castello Brolio was one of their most important strongholds.
In the 12th century, the Republic of Florence gave the estate, which was of enormous strategic importance in the wars against Siena, to the Ricasoli family, in whose hands it has remained – apart from two “painful” decades in the late 1900’s.
By the 19th century Florence and Siena had settled their differences – more or less – and the medieval fortress was transformed into the neo-gothic fairytale castle we see today. To go with the more peaceful feel, all sorts of exotic plants and trees were introduced into the gardens. But for me, even more beautiful than the ‘exotica’ was the formal Renaissance parterre below the ramparts.
And beyond the parterre, a seemingly unending vista of vineyards.
On the far left I saw some people wandering around in the vineyard. Time to set out for the path the guide had told me about.
The “two painful periods” were the Nazi occupation of the castle during World War II and a couple of decades later when the Ricasoli’s lost control of the property.
In the economic upheaval of mid 20th century Italy, many large family estates in the Chianti region were sold and the new owners focused their efforts on quantity. This was a boon for impoverished university students – remember those oh so chic straw-covered bottles that we’d stick candles in to decorate our spartan lodgings? But the thin, watery reds were less appreciated by more savvy wine drinkers. For years they wouldn’t touch anything that came out of the Chianti region and eventually the Ricasoli’s had to sell.
As had happened with the other great family estates, the new owners went for volume and for the next couple of decades, the wines coming out of the Brolio vineyards were essentially indistinguishable from the rest of the ‘plonk’ being produced throughout the Chianti region. But all that changed when Brolio’s ‘White Knight’, Francesco Ricasoli, who had been working as a photographer in Florence, managed to buy back the property in 1993 and start the slow process of revitalizing the Brolio reputation.
It was a real treat wandering around in the vineyards all by myself. The only problem was, I couldn’t find the path back up to the castle the guide had told me about.
For my next outing I’m off to visit ‘The Abbey of the Good Harvest’ and ‘The Villa of the Vines of May’. Delightful.