Awards and citations:

1997: Le Prix du Champagne Lanson Noble Cuvée Award for investigations into Champagne for the Millennium investment scams

2001: Le Prix Champagne Lanson Ivory Award for

2011: Vindic d'Or MMXI – 'Meilleur blog anti-1855'

2011: Robert M. Parker, Jnr: ‘This blogger...’:

2012: Born Digital Wine Awards: No Pay No Jay – best investigative wine story

2012: International Wine Challenge – Personality of the Year Award

Sunday 30 October 2011

Why rely on Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to express a Tuscan terroir?

Castello di Brolio

Grape varieties in Chianti Classico have long provoked controversy and a recent exchange of emails over terroir, indigenous and imported varieties with Francesco Ricasoli suggests that little has changed.

Baron Bettino Ricasoli, Francesco’s ancestor, is often credited with the ‘recipe’ for Chianti Classico as Jancis Robinson MW explains in The Oxford Companion to Wine: ‘… who in a letter of 1872 , synthesized decades of experimentation and recommended that the wine be based on Sangiovese (for bouquet and structure) with the addition of Canaiolo to soften the wine.’ Jancis notes that Ricasoli’s ideas were only gradually adopted as Canaiolo remained the basis of Chianti Classico until the end of the 19th century.

It was the DOC regulations of 1967 that set the rat amongst the cypress trees and olive groves with the requirement that there should be between 10% and 30% of white grapes – Trebbiano and Malvasia – in the red blend. Along with the generous yields allowed these regulations paved the way for the emergence of the super-Tuscans with French varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah – being popular planting choices. Initially these ‘super-Tuscans’ were plain vino da tavola later becoming IGTs.

For many years, despite efforts to promote Chianti Classico, the super-Tuscans have been the most expensive and prestigious wines at many of the Chianti estates. Quite often an estate’s flagship wines are 100% Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon or a blend of the two and are sold at far higher prices than the estate’s Chianti Classico Riserva. All too often these super-Tuscans have been super only in price, alcohol, extraction and wood influence with the Chianti Classicos and the Riservas far more interesting wines, more enjoyable to drink and much better value.

Fortunately the requirement to use white grapes was much reduced when Chianti Classico became a DOCG in 1984 and from 2006 their use was banned altogether.

In visits to Chianti Classico over the last couple of years or so I sense that the pendulum may be slowly swinging towards fully valuing Chianti Classico Riserva. In time many super-Tuscans might be recognized as an international cul de sac. I would hope to see a time when as a general rule the Riserva is the top wine.

It would also be interesting to see an increased emphasis on the use of the other local varieties like Canaiolo and Colorino to see if they produce a more authentic expression of the Tuscan terroir than do Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

However, if a recent exchange of emails (see below) with Francesco Ricasoli is any indication, this is not about to happen. The exchange was prompted by my post here on our visit to Castello di Brolio during the post EWBC Chianti Classico trip.

Some of the Castello di Brolio vineyards

Chianti: indigenous varieties or imported ones from France: an exchange of emails with Francesco Ricasoli

From: Ricasoli Francesco –

To: "
Sent: Tuesday, 25 October 2011, 10:55
Subject: your blog ...

Dear Jim,

it was very interesting reading your blog after your visit here in Brolio last October 18, and I fully agree with you that Rocca Guicciarda 2008 is a lovely wine!

I nevertheless was quite surprise that a knowledgeable person about wine like you does not understand what really “terroir” mean, as a matter of fact you write in your blog about me …

‘…he launched into a spiel about his wines being an expression of their terroir and not about individual grape varieties(bravo Jim! I was really meaning that). A reasonably enough view but it does beg the question that if the terroir is so important to you, why do you use imported French grape varieties and not a range Tuscan native grapes…’’’

reading your writings I understand that the concept of “terroir” is far from being understood by you therefore I try to help you copying what the English version of Wikipedia describe about such term:
Terroir (French pronunciation: [tɛʁwaʁ]) comes from the word terre "land". It was originally a French term in wine, coffee and tea used to denote the special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place bestowed upon particular varieties …*

In essence, dear Jim, “terroir” is about geography, geology, climate etc… and not about grape varieties …!!!

I always respect different opinions from mine but I hate stupidity, therefore I decided to write you.
Have a great day my friend, and come and visit us again in the near future.

Kindest regards

Francesco Ricasoli

forgive my poor written English.

Extract on terroir from Wikipedia:

Terroir (French pronunciation: [tɛʁwaʁ]) comes from the word terre "land". It was originally a French term in wine, coffee and tea used to denote the special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place bestowed upon particular varieties. Agricultural sites in the same region share similar soil, weather conditions, and farming techniques, which all contribute to the unique qualities of the crop. It can be very loosely translated as "a sense of place," which is embodied in certain characteristic qualities, the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the production of the product. Terroir is often italicized in English writing to show that it is a French loanword. The concept of terroir is at the base of the French wine Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) system that has been the model for appellation and wine laws across the globe. At its core is the assumption that the land from which the grapes are grown imparts a unique quality that is specific to that region. The amount of influence and the scope that falls under the description of terroir has been a controversial topic in the wine industry.[1]

My reply to Francesco Ricasoli:

From: J BUDD
Date: Tue, 25 Oct 2011 16:50:13 +0200
To: Ricasoli Francesco
ReplyTo: J BUDD
Subject: Re: your blog ...

Dear Francesco

Many thanks for your message.

This is the second time you have accused me of stupidity and I reject the charge on both occasions.

Thank you but I'm very well aware of the meaning, elements and significance of terroir. Although in my experience if you ask people to define exactly what they mean by terroir you will see considerable variations in the reply. Clearly grape varieties are not terroir but they are a part of matching the right variety to a particular site or terroir as your definition suggests.

The choice Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Burgundy is now inextricably linked to terroir. Similarly in Vouvray the terroir is ideally suited to Chenin Blanc (plus Arbois if you wish) that the variety is now part of the terroir and part of the appellation's heritage. It would be possible to plant Chardonnay here but the results would clearly not be the same and you would no longer have wines that have the potential to age for more than 100 years.

At Ricasoli you have carefully mapped out where your various varieties are planted and linked this in with elevation, rainfall etc, so you understand the link between terroir and grape varieties. I suspect that we are both convinced 'terroirists'.

My point is that if you are so convinced about the importance of your specific terroir why use imported French varieties to express your terroir? Surely it would make more sense to explore what a range of local, indigenous grape varieties would give. Then you might find that your wines would have a truer interpretation or expression of the terroir of Brolio.

Best wishes


Reply from Franceso Ricasoli

From: Ricasoli Francesco
Sent: Tuesday, 25 October 2011, 17:17
Subject: R: Re: your blog ...
You don't even deserve a proper answer my friend since you might be an expert of Loire, but you are far away from knowhing (and understanding) the complexity world of Ch. Classico and Brolio particularly when you are stating what you just wrote at the end of your below mail.
Ciao ciao ...
Barone Ricasoli Spa - Mobile Internet Service

My reply


Thank you for your response.

Sadly you may not be in a position to answer my last paragraph, which might be why you dismiss it out of hand. Do you know? Have you experimented with a blend of indigenous varieties? If so with what results?

As a Ricasoli are you not tempted to search for a modern day 'Chianti recipe' using a blend of indigenous grape varieties matched to the terroir?

Incidentally what are the average picking dates for Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese along with Canaiolo and Colorino if you have any planted please?

Happily I have asked similar questions of other Chianti Classico producers during my visits in the past and received considered and thoughtful answers.

Best wishes


Vineyards of Castello di Brolio


Luc Charlier said...

Italians are always softly spoken, especially those originating from Tuscany, where anything pleasant can grow ans flourish. They are considerate, always charming, on the edge of overdoing exquisite politeness. They always try to seduce and have a skill for trade and commercial relations. They are also very concerned with experimentation, full of genius and ingenuosity and keen to discover new sensations, new combinations, better solutions ....

At least, I thought so till I read some of Mr. Ricasoli’s remarks.

I think he should meet .... Fabien Hyon, Jim. In Flemish, we say : « twee handen op één buik » (= two hands on the same belly), meaning on the same line, two of a kind, in full agreement.

You know what ? I’ll stick to my good old Castello di Ama instead, you stupid idiot !

Simon Woolf said...


Casting aside the extraordinary exchange between yourself and Francesco Ricasoli for a second, I just wanted to mention a third native Tuscan variety that should also be considered along with other marginal varietals such as Caniolo.

I didn't attend the EWBC Chianti post trip, but toured around Chianti Classico in early September of this year. One of the most accomplished and complex wines I tasted was Querceto's riserva - made with Sangiovese and Ciliegiolo (I think there may have been a smidgen of Merlot as well). I then happened to taste a 100% Ciliegiolo at the EWBC Italian tasting (La Busattina, Maremma, Tuscany) for which my tasting note reads:
"Excellent structure, dark cherry, savoury animal note. Will age. Good".

Proof if any were needed, that the Chiantians should definitely continue to investigate - and value - their native plant material and its interaction with the Terroir.


Jim's Loire said...

Absolutely right Simon. I could well have included Ciliegiolo and its cherry-like characteristics as its Italian name infers.

Jim's Loire said...

Luc. An intriguing idea!

Anonymous said...

"Proof if any were needed, that the Chiantians should definitely continue to investigate - and value - their native plant material and its interaction with the Terroir."

Very good quote and I agree. I tend to avoid any cab sauv, syrah, merlot mixed in with my fave wines from Portugal, Spain Italy etc.

Bob Alberta.

Jim's Loire said...

Bob. Always knew you were a man of discernment!

Anonymous said...

Fin de race, maybe?

Anonymous said...

To quote mr Dylan and mr Reed, "How does it feel", JimQ, to be so stupid?

Jim's Loire said...

I had met Francesco before on a small press trip, which included Charles Metcalfe, in 2006. I forget who else was on the trip but I'm sure Francesco's attitude was quite different as I had a favourable impression of him after that visit.

Andrew Stevenson said...

Francesco Ricasoli's aggressive attitude is somewhat baffling and one is tempted to impute that linguistic problems have led to his entirely misunderstanding your point. But his English in those emails is well nigh perfect.

Of course, you're asking him essentially to admit that planting merlot, cab etc and making super Tuscans was a mistake: maybe that's too bitter a pill to swallow.

The hegemony of international grape varieties like merlot, chardonnay, cabernets etc is a concern to me, but far from limited to Italy (as Bob notes). As similarly is the international nature of many wines, whether using local, international or a blend of varieties.

As writers, bloggers and all-round wine enthusiasts, we all welcome the traditional, local styles of winemaking and the use of indigenous varieties. But it's sometimes easy to overlook that most wineries are commercial operations and decisions to plant and use international, or even unsuitable, varieties are often commercial decisions. Increasingly, consumers make their day to day wine buying decisions based on familiarity and prejudice. Chianti suffers in those terms partly from the image problem of straw-covered flasks in the 60s and 70s with the double whammy that the local grape varieties (and I include sangiovese in this) are not ones with which your everyday consumer is familiar. I'm not saying this is Francesco's rationale, but in other areas of the world it certainly is. If you make more money growing and producing merlot than ciliegolo, you're going to concentrate on merlot if you want to maximise income.

Of course it may well be the case that Ricasoli have experimented with plantings and come to the conclusion that specific terroirs on their estates are best suited to merlot, cab etc …

Doesn't excuse Francesco's attitude though!

Jim's Loire said...

Many thanks Andrew for your comments, which could well have usefully formed all or part of a considered and intelligent response from Francesco Ricasoli.

Francesco is well travelled – he was a photographer in Paris before the family regained control of the brand and the vineyards in 1993.

Luc Charlier said...

So, clearly not only childish and immature Léon thought Mr. Ricasoli’s comments totally inappropriate. He is, for sure, a literate man, and well travelled (Jim says so), and probably commercially astute. How come then he lost control the way he did ?
I like to have a glass, now and again. If the wine’s really good, it sometimes doesn’t stay at that and I find the bottle empty. And if I take a pen (or hit a keyboard, which is more likely) afterwards, I tend to write things that go beyond what I really mean.

What about this little parody, “anonymous”?

“How does it feel
How does it feel
To live in splendor at home
Not at all unknown
Just a rogue Stalone ?

You've gone to the finest school all right, Mr. Ricasoli
But you know you only used to get drenched in it
And nobody has ever shown you the man in the street
Still you’ll need to learn to cope with it
You said you'd never sympathise
With the ordinary man’s camp, but know you realize
You should seek some allies
As you stare into this journalist’s eyes
And see he doesn’t like your disguise. ....”