Tuscany will always hold a special place in my heart. If not for the dreamlike quality of the rolling Chianti hills in Spring, then for the fact that it was the place I realized I was probably going to marry the woman who is now my wife, and the place she fell in love with wine (she was already in love with me, thankfully) for the first time.
The red wines of Tuscany can be as frustrating as they are fantastic. Just ask anyone who’s had their share of lousy, watery Chianti at neighborhood Italian restaurants in the United States. Like many, my earliest exposures to Tuscan wine left me with a very distinct taste in my mouth, and it wasn’t pleasant. Tuscan red wines, even the good ones, can be quite dry and tannic in their youth, and if poorly made can really make you feel like you’re drinking liquid leather.
Those who have the patience to age their Brunellos and Vinos Nobile de Montepulciano, or to search out the gems of Chianti, Bolgheri, Sant’Antimo, or Maremma are often rewarded with wines of remarkable character and soul. When they’re good, they’re really frikken good, as my wife, Ruth, would say.
I find the Chianti region to be one of the most difficult in which to ferret out excellent wines. I’m sure I’ll draw some ire for claiming so, but I believe that the region has an unusually high proportion of mediocre wine compared to good, even among the DOCG (Denominazione di Orogine Controllata e Garantita) designated producers. Which means that when I find a great producer of Chianti, I get very excited.
My latest discovery is a winery named La Brancaia.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Brancaia is a relatively new producer in the Chianti Classico region. More surprising might be the fact that the estates owners, including the current winemaker, are Swiss German, and never had any intention of becoming wine producers.
In 1981 Brigitte and Bruno Widmer were on vacation in Tuscany for the first time, and not unlike many before them, fell in love with the landscape, the culture, and of course, the food and wine. On the spot, they decided to purchase a property that they might use as a family vacation destination, five hours by highway from their home in Zurich. With the help of a local real estate agent, they managed to find a few ancient farmhouses for sale, and quickly fell for the charm of the most ancient and most dilapidated of them. The property was perfect in every respect except for one: it came with 21 acres of grapes that the Widmers had no idea what to do with. The Widmers were not about to let a few vines get in the way of their dream, so they bought the property anyway, and set about refurbishing the old farmhouse.
Apparently their neighbors were the ones that talked the Widmers into trying their hands at winemaking and gave them support for the first year or two it took to get their small family operation up and running. Whether it was the neighbor’s help, their own Swiss attention to detail, or the raw quality of the vineyards they happened to have bought, it’s not clear, but their 1983 vintage won first place in a major Chianti Classico blind tasting.
And like so many stories of this kind, that was the first day of the rest of their lives.
Over the next 7 or 8 years, the Widmers threw themselves into the creation of a small, high quality Chianti winery. They purchased another vineyard site, bringing their total vineyard acreage to about 75, and fought through the nearly prehistoric local bureaucracy to get a permit to build a modern winemaking facility. All the while, their small production wines were garnering accolades throughout the country.
In 1992 the Widmers hired consulting winemaker Carlo Ferrini to help them take their operations to the next level of quality. Ferrini, even at that time, was one of Italy’s most celebrated winemakers and consultants, and quickly transformed Brancaia into one of Chianti’s most celebrated wineries. With Ferrini’s help, since 1994 the winery’s flagship wine “Il Blu” has been awarded the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri every single year except one.
Soon after Ferrini began working with the Widmers, their daughter Barbara decided to abandon her budding career as an architect and become more involved with the new family business. After managing sales and event marketing for the winery, she eventually went back to school to train as a winemaker in Switzerland, and after graduating and working at several Swiss wineries, she returned to Brancaia in 1998 to become its full-time winemaker. Barbara, along with her husband Martin Kronenberg who manages operations and sales, has taken over management of the winery, and Ferrini continues to consult.
In 1997, the family purchased another property, this time in southern Tuscany in the Maremma region, from which they make a single wine called Ilatraia.
The wines are all made in the family’s production faculty in Chianti, a three story winery designed to all but eliminate the use of pumps in favor of the gentler forces of gravity on everything from the destemmed, crushed grapes to the fermenting and finished wine. The wines are all aged in French oak barrels, of which roughly 66% are new each year.
Brancaia certainly represents a new wave of producers in Chianti, and may be seen by some as “nuvo” or un-traditional (some Tuscan winemakers consider anyone using French oak to be a non-traditionalist). This may be true, but it should not obscure the fact that Brancaia is producing some truly fantastic wines that are true to the soul of the place from which they come, and top examples of what the region is capable of producing in the right hands.
Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.
2005 Brancaia “Ilatraia” Rosso Maremma Toscana IGT, Tuscany
Dark garnet in color, this wine has an incredibly distinctive nose that screams COLA! Followed by softer murmurs of cherry and chocolate. These murmurs turn into songs of such flavors on the palate, as beautiful rich flavors of cola, spices, chocolate and cherry swirl amidst lovely texture and very faint tannins through to a very nice finish. Tasty, tasty, tasty. 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Sangiovese, 10% Petit Verdot. Score: around 9. Cost: $70 . Where to buy?
2005 Brancaia “Il Blu” Rosso Toscana IGT, Tuscany
Cloudy medium garnet in color, this wine smells of chocolate covered cherries and wet dirt. I don’t know about you, but that tends to make my mouth water. On the palate the wine offers an overwhelming sense of having just been dug up out of the wet ground and plopped in your glass. This damp earth quality quickly plays a low rumble to higher tones of cherries and chocolate that modulate to higher tones of rosehip and herbs on the long finish. Delicious. 50% Sangiovese, 45% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $60 .Where to buy?
2005 Brancaia “Tre” Rosso Toscana IGT, Tuscany
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine has an altogether funky nose of farmyard aromas — gamey, horse sweat, and other pungent but not entirely objectionable smells mesh with red fruit. In the mouth, thankfully, the wine centers around more traditional flavors of leather, sandalwood, and cherry, as well as a distinctive, unusual flavor I couldn’t pin down. This wine is beating to it’s own rhythm. Sangiovese with unspecified amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $18. Where to buy?
2004 Brancaia Chianti Classico DOCG, Chianti, Tuscany
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a beautiful nose of floral and cherry aromas that compels multiple inhales before any drinking begins. In the mouth it is rich and full, while holding the earthy dryness one expects from a good Chianti. The primary flavors are of cherry and leather with rich earth undertones that linger on a bed of fine grained tannins into a nice finish. 95% Sangiovese and 5% Merlot. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $20. Where to buy?