Friday, September 30, 2011

Lunch & Tasting with Barone Ricasoli at Perbacco

Through a series of fortunate events, Julia and I recently found ourselves invited to attend a wine tasting and lunch at Perbacco. The occasion was courtesy of Barone Francesco Ricasoli, proprietor of Brolio, the oldest winery in Italy. Julia was there to photograph the luncheon and I to write about it, but let's be honest: we were there to feast on some of SF's most exceptional Italian cuisine and drink fantastic wine.

As each of the ten guests mingled into the private dining room on the second floor of Perbacco, we sipped a wonderfully tart and refreshing 2010 Albia Rose, a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot varietals. It was crisp and just a bit fruity, not that nectary-sweet picnic wine that fancy ladies drink on hot summer afternoons. An ideal palate cleanser, it was a wonderful first step in the journey upon which our taste-buds were about to embark. As we sipped our wine, Francesco chatted with us about Brolio, the 617-acre estate in Chianti that is home to the vineyards, labratories, and winemaking facilities responsible for Ricasoli's wines. He also pointed out the labels on his bottles of Colledila '07 and Casalferro '07, which featured antique drawings of the Tuscan countryside. Apparently the drawings had been found in an envelope on the Brolio estate only recently, but were drawn by an artist from Siena, depicting the landscape of Chianti, in 1584. They made excellent labels, as they were not only charming drawings but also reminders of the deep history behind Brolio's wines.

As I neared the end of my glass of Rose, the last guest arrived and Francesco invited us to sit. He sat at the middle of the table and welcomed us warmly as Brolio's Cru wines were poured in front of us: 2007 vintages of Castello di Brolio (Sangiovese with a little bit of Cab & Merlot), Colledila (100% Sangiovese), and Casalferro (100% Merlot). Each was superb, and all were quite bold in character, as expected. The cinnamon and vanilla notes were right up front, and the oak and spice warmed your tongue and tastebuds. It was wine that was easy to drink, but undoubtedly complex. Most notable was the smoothness, a particularly velvety mouthfeel somewhat surprising for a wine coming out of Chianti. We sniffed and sipped, swished and swallowed, as Francesco talked about his family's history, as well as his philosophy regarding Italian winemaking. His father had been forced to sell the winery and brand name in the early 1970s due to financial hardship, and it was purchased by spirits behemoth Seagram, who assumed that producing spirits qualified them to produce wine. After a a sufficient amount of failure in doing so, Francesco convinced them to sell the winery back to him in 1993. He did this, he says, "to get back the lost potential of this amazing estate." In control of Brolio once again, he set out to make wine.

Waiters brought in beautiful plates of fritto misto, grilled calamari, heirloom tomato with burrata, and salumi to start our meal as we listened and chatted. They poured us a 2010 Toricella Chardonnay, which complemented the seafood nicely. I found that the bright, citrus notes in the Chardonnay paired particularly well with the crispy, buttery fritto misto. Not to go unlauded, however, was the heirloom tomato and burrata plate. The tomatoes were firm but juicy, dazzlingly sweet, and striped with beautiful reds, yellows and greens. They would have stolen the show if it weren't for the pillow-soft burrata whose creamy insides ran onto the plate to collect with the tomatoes' juices for a swirling, stunning pool of pink & pale yellow that you just wanted to dive into.

In 2005, Francesco began experimenting, collaborating with different scientific institutions and universities, such as the Siena Ente Vini (Wine Authority). It was the first example in Italian winemaking where there were to be extensive, scientific studies in viniculture and viticulture. Francesco and his team at Brolio looked at every aspect of grapevine cultivation, growth, and harvest, constantly searching for the "why" behind the myriad circumstances of wine-making. They felt that though there was much to be learned about Chianti and its potential for great wines, it was, as of yet, not fully tapped into. That meant emphasizing Chianti, rather than a specific varietal.

"We are not producing varietal wines," Francesco explains emphatically. Rather, they produce excellent wines made from varietals that work best with the climate and topography of Brolio. Seventy percent of the soil in the vineyards at Brolio is the soil that has been there forever. By "respecting the soil," as Francesco puts it, he is able to let the land 'do its thing,' so to speak. This is what terroir, everyone's favorite buzz word, is all about, and it was beautifully exemplified by the Casalferro. As Francesco put it, the Merlot had been "Chianti-fied." The terroir essentially outmuscled the typical varietal characteristics of the grape to the point that the Merlot didn't actually taste much like Merlot. There was a slight and pleasant mustiness in the bouquet and far less fruit in the palate than what one would expect; in all, surprising but really nice.

The next course laid before us was a duet of agnolotti: small pillows of roasted veal and Savoy cabbage with a luscious sugo, and large, plump discs of braised rabbit complemented by small, bronze-hued chanterelle mushrooms and a rich Moscato jus. The most striking aspect of the dish, by far, was the brilliant golden tint of the pastas, making it clear to any cook that the chef had used only the best eggs in his preparation. The flavor and texture of the dough only reinforced this as we chewed contently and savored every mouthful. Brolio's 2008 Chianti Classico and 2008 Chianti Classico Riserva Rocca Guicciarda found their way into our glasses as we ate. The dark fruit notes and intense aroma stood up to the bold meatiness of each pasta, but the balance in the wines did well to share the spotlight with the more delicate veal. It was exquisite pasta paired with exquisite wine; what more could I ask for in life?

There was undoubtedly an overarching theme throughout Francesco's thoughts and musings on wine and wine-making: the idea of reaching a harmony between the grapes and the land so that when it comes to human intervention, the winemakers at Brolio have to do as little as possible. "The wine is not working for me," he smiles. "I am working for the wine." He relates being described as a "modernist" due to his scientific methods in wine-making, but Francesco doesn't see it that way. He is simply trying to make exceptional wine by whatever means work best. Currently, he is working on capturing the DNA of ancient Sangiovese vines in order to get his own grapes as close as possible to their ancestors. Brolio is using modern scientific knowledge to, in a sense, go back in history. To be growing centuries-old vines in their natural habitat of Chianti, but with the viticultural knowledge of today, yields luscious possibilities for some very, very delicious wine.

Our main course was a pan-seared hanger steak with an heirloom tomato panzanella salad. While others may have found fault in serving heirloom tomatoes twice in one meal, I could not have been more excited to see these sun-soaked beauties on my plate again. My steak was cooked to a spot-on medium rare and sliced to show this off, its juices escaping onto the plate much like the attempts of my own drool as I stared excitedly at the spectacle. I enjoyed the heirlooms no less this time around, and every forkful of beef and tomato threw a party in my mouth that made my eyes close gently and my lips stretch into a grin. With this course, we enjoyed four vintages of Brolio's Chianti Classico: 2001, 2003, 2005, and 2006. Francesco took the time to point out the difference in each vintage, allowing us to form our own opinions but giving his own as well. Though he claimed that the 2003 was one of their worst, I must admit that, taking a sip after a bite of my steak, I had no complaints. My favorite was the 2005, particularly due to the contrast between its up-front smoothness and heavy tannin. It was not abrasive in any way, yet still grabbed my tastebuds aggressively as I swished and swallowed. It is not as highly acclaimed as the '06 or the '01, but perhaps its partnership with the steak is what won me over.

When I asked Francesco if there were any new or exciting projects on the horizon for him or the winery, he shook his head with a smile. While they will continue to study and evolve their methods in order to constantly make their wines better, there is nothing that will steal their focus. In his own words, Francesco is doing his best to"track down the tradition of tomorrow" in winemaking. With science and history working hand in hand, it would appear that he is on the right track.

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