Francesco Ricasoli interview, part one
Tommi | 4.3.2014 | 22:25

Some months ago I had the pleasure of meeting with Mr. Francesco Ricasoli of the Tuscan quality producer Barone Ricasoli, the oldest winery in the whole of Italy – i.e. old. After an interesting tasting at one of Helsinki’s nicest restaurants, Restaurant Nokka, Francesco was kind enough to sacrifice 45 minutes of his busy schedule for an interview. The man proved out to be a pleasure to chat with – reminiscent in character of Michel Laroche whom I also had the opportunity to meet in late 2013 (see the story here, in Finnish only).

Alko, the state-owned Finnish retail monopoly for all alcoholic beverages above 4.7% abv, currently lists one Barone Ricasoli wine in its basic selection, namely the Brolio Chianti Classico. The order selection additionally features the house rosé. My brief tasting notes on these and some of Ricasoli’s other labels will be included in the second part of the interview.

I also took some photos of Francesco after the interview with the camera I had borrowed from home. Unfortunately enough I was using the mean machine for the first time and, not surprisingly, failed miserably. Therefore, instead of suffering from my artistic output you now have a chance to enjoy some higher-quality photos I was kindly allowed to use by the producer.

Living history: Francesco Ricasoli, the 32nd Baron of Brolio (photo: Barone Ricasoli)

Q: Let’s start with history. Barone Ricasoli is Italy’s oldest winery and one of the oldest companies in the world. How does it feel to carry this long history on your shoulders – does it make things easier or more difficult? Is there more pressure?

A: Well, a little bit of everything. But you know, I didn’t start my professional career in this business and therefore I consider myself a little bit lucky because I gained my experience elsewhere and entered this business with a more open view – like a blank piece of paper on which to write.

I also did it in abnormal circumstances since when I bought the company back in 1993, everything was in really bad condition after 20 years of foreign ownership and I didn’t really have time to think about the history and tradition. Instead there were a lot of urgent priorities. It was really a mess and the company went through the Italian version of Chapter 11 (reorganization under the bankruptcy laws of the US). My approach was passionate as we knew we were saving something special.

Having said that, when things settled down I started to really understand the value from a historical point of view. Of course the history, family traditions etc. are very important but they will not make you survive in today’s competitive environment. So it’s something that helps if the other things are already in your pocket. Sure, it’s better to have it than not – but I wasn’t thinking about it because a good team, a well-made product and investments that needed to be done were much more important. Now that we are competitive and sailing in much calmer waters than before we can also underline the historical role that we’ve had in the past.

Today I feel certain responsibility of something that doesn’t belong to me and is instead part of our culture and Italian heritage. Little by little I have been buying more shares from the family and so today the I’m almost the sole owner – which I don’t really realize, you know.

Q: Just to get it right – the company was sold in the 1970’s and then…

A: Yes – brand names, trademarks, winery, everything – but not the land. So when I started in ‘93, I practically put all the risk into the operations. Since I and my sisters inherited the rest I have been gradually buying also their shares.

Q: Tell us a little bit of your professional background. You just mentioned you didn’t have any wine experience before entering the business.

A: I studied economics but never finished the university. Instead I became a professional photographer and did it for more than 12 years. So yes, nothing to do with wine.

Q: It’s certainly an unusual background.

A: Yes, but in a certain way it also helps. As I said, I started free of any preconceptions and took also very tough decisions, not following the conventional rules of this business. And it worked.

Q: So what comes next?

A: Consolidation and fine-tuning. I don’t want to make things bigger – I think this is now a beautiful estate – instead the focus is now on doing things better and more refined. The investments we have made are still young and they need time to become to fruition. The potential is really high.

Q: Have you thought about the next generation? Do you have children?

A: I have a 19-year-old daughter that is going to study law. But she will soon start getting involved, a little bit, to understand what it is all about. We’ll see, only time will tell.

Q: For a company of your size and status there must be interested buyers calling you and asking whether you would be willing to sell up.

A: Yes.

Q: Is your goal to remain a family company for the foreseeable future?

A: For the moment, yes. No doubt, we are receiving all kinds of requests, but I don’t care. Money – what do you do with money?

Q: I guess you would need to know what else to do with it.

A: Exactly. This place is a real jewel and a success story, from being forgotten and in really bad condition to being elevated to where we are now, still performing well in our category. Several university theses have already been based on this case. We are a medium-sized winery producing good results and investing a lot, also in research. This keeps the team active and also very loyal – many have been there since the beginning, which is good for quality and continuity.

The Brolio castle – yes, I certainly would. (photo: Barone Ricasoli)

Q: Let’s talk about the land then. Do you have any holdings outside Chianti?

A: No, everything is in Chianti: a very nice château and a big estate which we have replanted totally in the past 20 years. We have more than 230 hectares under vine – it’s the largest in Chianti Classico. It’s also very expensive to replant in such a rocky soil and to prepare the soil properly.

Q: Mostly Sangiovese, I suppose?

A: Mainly, yes – but also Merlot and Cabernet as well as some white varieties and experimental vineyards.

Q: And contract farmers?

A: Yes, and we also buy from completely external sources. For example, the Chianti [del Barone Ricasoli] you tasted earlier is completely outsourced in terms of grapes. Outside Siena, Maremma… We are trying to increase the amount of bought grapes because we have invested in a new cellar that can handle higher volumes. The tradition in Tuscany is to buy bulk wine, but we are moving to source better grapes instead – to control the whole process.

In terms of viticulture we are very much ahead in terms of new ideas and experiments. In the past 20 years it has changed dramatically.

Q: What kind of principles or philosophies do you follow in viticulture?

A: We are trying to understand the diversity of different exposures and different soils and to adapt ourselves accordingly. But also, we want to preserve the original morphology of the soil. In the first years of replanting we moved the soil around a lot, but nowadays we don’t do it anymore because that way – I believe – we preserve the endogenous character of a specific plot.

We are also organic in many of our vineyards already. We cannot be organic everywhere because certain things cannot be done economically. But where viable, we don’t use any chemical fertilizers but instead green manure. We also produce our own compost. We have a magnificent lab that is helping us to check what we are doing and we are providing assistance to other farmers and estates as well – so the lab is already becoming its own profit and loss centre and we are investing in new technology and people.

Q: Tell us a little bit more about your research activities. Based on what you told earlier it seemed very interesting.

A: Well, we did a research publication earlier this year about the zoning of the entire estate. This was a massive work that was done in 2008-2010 in cooperation with the University of Florence (Arezzo) and the Centre of Research in Agronomy at the National Centre of Research. We wanted to translate everything in English to make it more interesting so the publication took some time. We are very proud because this is the first time a big private estate has done such scientific zoning.

Q: That’s a huge undertaking with 230 hectares of vineyard!

A: Yes, but also very interesting because it turned out that in Brolio, we have practically all the different soil types that one can find in the entire Chianti Classico appellation. So with this research you get a nice picture of Chianti Classico. Also, there is information from the resistivity of the soil to the adaptability of different rootstock to the different soils so it’s a really deep and detailed insight into things that can be useful for an agronomist.

This has also been helping us to get a better insight into each individual vineyard to really understand the real meaning of terroir that everyone can feel in their mouth. I mean, if you say “I have a fabulous terroir”, most people don’t even know what you mean. I think the best way to describe a strong terroir is something that delivers personality and character to the wine, and this we have in some of our plots.

In three completely different vintages of 2008, 2009 and 2010 many of these plots were observed very closely. What we saw was that from these very specific plots the grapes that came into the winery were very consistent in style and character. This is really something tangible and considering how sensitive Sangiovese can be to minimal changes, it is truly amazing. This has been a very interesting discovery.

Also the clonal selection we have done is interesting. None of our wines are made with these new selections yet, but some of the microvinifications we have made have given nice and interesting results – but it will take time. At the end, if the job has been done properly we will be able to save some nice character from the “old times”: nice Sangiovese with small bunches and a little bit thicker skin, and also more interesting from an agronomical point of view.

Q: What about investments in technology – are you tech-oriented?

A: Yes. We just finished the remaining vinification cellar, which is quite basic but has certain tools that require fewer workers and at the same time give better control over what is happening. We have a central control panel on which you can separately program and control each vat – not only the temperature, but also the micro-oxygenation and punching down of the cap – plus the overall alarms and security in the entire cellar.

Overall, vinification is still done like in the old days and it’s merely the control that is much higher today. Let’s take temperature as an example: We have more than just one thermometer in each vat because one would simply not provide enough information to make the right decisions. So again, it’s the level of attention to detail that at the end of the day can make a difference.


…to be continued…