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Casa Brancaia - Bortársaság magazine

Casa Brancaia

From the drawing board to the bee pasture

Everyone has come across the ‘what nationality is the ideal cook, policeman, car mechanic, lover, etc.?’ type of game, and if for a moment we give in to the sinful temptation of generalization, we have to admit that the ‘Tuscan estate, Swiss owner’ line-up does not sound too bad. The ‘Tuscan winery, Swiss winemaker’ may not sound as good, but in the case of Brancaia, this has also proved to be a winning combination: among the foreign-owned Tuscan estates, they were the first to earn Gambero Rosso's highest recognition, the Tre Bicchieri. Today, 18 Tre Bicchieri later, Brancaia grows grapes on 80 hectares in three areas, in two wine regions. The selection is partly Chianti, partly Super Tuscan, from the initial modernist approach to the nature-focused respect for tradition, and perhaps most importantly, from the cellar to the attic, they offer captivating, precise wines that faithfully express the spirit of the place of growth.

Casa Brancaia
Casa Brancaia

 

From Swiss tourists to small Tuscan producer

Casa Brancaia is located in the heart of the Chianti region, halfway between Florence and Siena, among the hills covered with dense oak and chestnut forests. In 1980, the Swiss Widmer family spent the Christmas holidays in Castellina in Chianti, in a friend's holiday home and immediately fell in love with the wild landscape, the rural atmosphere, the local cuisine and wines. As usually happens, it occurred to them at this time that it would be nice to spend more than a few days here and not just as guests. On top of a nearby hill stood an abandoned building that seemed ideal for making the dream come true. Taking a closer look, it turned out that the building needed thorough renovation, that the estate was too big for their needs, too expensive for their pockets, but reason was already losing out to the heart. A few weeks later, they bought the building that was impressive even in its ruined state, and with it, also came a small forest and seven hectares of vineyards. This is how the rich Swiss tourists became poor Italian farmers.

The vineyards had not been taken care of for years, but Bruno Widmer, who worked in the advertising industry, saw something in them and decided to get the most out of them. He only had to wait for three years, or more precisely, work hard for it in the vineyard and in the cellar, and the first serious feedback arrived: at the blind tasting of Swiss magazine Vinum, to the huge surprise of everyone, one of the completely unknown wines of Brancaia took first place. In the German-speaking area of Switzerland, they became known overnight, but in order to satisfy the demand created by success and curiosity, half a dozen licenses were needed, and also a label. The former required money and patience, the latter inventiveness and good taste. Bruno Widmer asked a graphic designer from his advertising agency to design a series of labels. One of them immediately caught his attention: the graphic designer arranged the eight letters of Brancaia and the four numbers of the vintage in three lines and enclosed them all in a square in the middle of the indigo blue label. It was unlike any previous label and represented a complete break with the archaizing graphics characteristic of Italian wines. Even from today's perspective, it's a hit: modern, restrained and eye-catching.

 Barbara Widmer and the legendary Il Blu
 Barbara Widmer and the legendary Il Blu

 

The special label was initially the privilege of Il Blu, which stood out of the line anyway: the varietal composition did not comply with the current Chianti Classico regulations, so it could only be sold as a table wine. The downgrading did not result in an actual loss of prestige, in fact, the ‘Super Tuscans’ – the Tuscan wines that were excluded from the Protected Designation of Origin, but had outstanding quality – led by Sassicaia and Tignanello – had an amazing career on the international wine market, while Chianti still brought the cheap straw-wrapped bottle to most people’s minds.

Advertising paid well, and in 1989, the Widmers could already think about increasing the property: they bought another plot in Radda in Chianti. The vineyard existed only on paper, but the Widmers, who by then were familiar with Italian bureaucracy, knew that the vineyard register was at least as important as reality and that this option was worth its weight in gold. Just like the building on the property that had no electricity or water, on the basis of which a winery of the same size could be built without multiple permits, according to the law.

In 1994, Brancaia became the first foreign-owned estate to earn the ‘Tre Bicchieri’ (Three glasses) rating of the Gambero Rosso guide with Il Blu, and with this acknowledgement they rose to the top in Italy. At that time, the professional work was managed by Carlo Ferrini, the best-known Italian flying winemaker, who knew how to win over Robert Parker, even when woken up from his dreams, and whatever he touched, turned into gold.

From the compass to the pruning shears

In 1998, a new chapter began in the life of the estate. They bought a vineyard in Maremma, the southernmost part of Tuscany, and due to the climatic conditions, they planted it only with international varieties. What was even more important: the second generation had entered the scene. Barbara Widmer originally studied architecture at the Technical University of Zurich and previously gave no indication that she was interested in country life, viticulture or cellar work. However, after her fourth semester, something changed in her, she felt that she was on the wrong path and retreated to the family estate for two months to sort her thoughts out. The late summer rural idyll changed her relationship with Tuscany and wine forever. She took part in a harvest for the first time and was impressed by the ritual of working together, the beauty of nature, and the miracle of the creation of wines.

Returning to Zurich, she dropped out of the engineering faculty, completed training to become a wine trader, and then went on a one-year internship at Domaine des Balisiers in Geneva, which was the largest organic winery in Switzerland at the time. After the internship, she returned to the university, where she obtained a degree in oenology, then in 1998, she moved to Tuscany and took over the management of Brancaia.

Those who live locally think differently. They do not poison their own environment and also notice the patterns that led to the formation of traditions. This is perhaps the main benefit of Barbara moving to the estate and working in cooperation with the local community.

The key to quality is health

Great wine can only be made from top quality grapes. And top-quality grapes can only be grown with organic cultivation. Barbara Widmer considers this to be the most important realization of her professional career. Chemical-free cultivation, sustainability and biodiversity are the three pillars of Brancaia's operation.

They don’t use herbicides or insecticides, and Brancaia has officially been an organic estate since 2019. The row spaces are protected by cover crops, which are beneficial both from the point of view of water management and soil life. As biodiversity increases, the adaptability and self-regulation of grapes improves. In such a complex, self-regulating system, vines are healthier, and this is also reflected in the quality of the harvest. Barbara is convinced that the individual character of the vineyards appears more defined in the wines made this way. Since 2012, they have stopped using cultured yeasts, and all their wines are spontaneously fermented.

 

What does ‘Super Tuscan’ mean?

The factually correct answer is: ‘a Tuscan wine that lies outside the scope of the Protected Designation of Origin’. The root of the problem is that the name covers two radically different styles and philosophies. The ‘founding fathers’ of the two genera of Super Tuscans are Sassicaia and Tignanello.

Sassicaia was born from the idea of an eccentric rich man shortly after the Second World War. Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, passionate about Bordeaux wines, decided to grow Cabernet Sauvignon on the coast, in Bolgheri. For two decades, family and friends drank the wines, the first commercial vintage was 1968. In 1978, a Sassicaia won Decanter magazine's global Bordeaux-blend blind test, and the wine has been a concept among collectors ever since. As it came from a non-existent wine region and was made from French varieties, it could only be sold as a table wine, despite its reputation and hefty price tag.

In contrast, Tignanello is made from an indigenous variety in one of the most ancient wine regions, Chianti. The first vintage, in 1970, contained not only Sangiovese but also Canaiolo and 10% of white varieties in accordance with the provisions of the wine law. A year later, for the sake of quality, the white varieties and Canaiolo were left out of the blend, replaced by Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, thus excluding themselves from the Protected Designation of Origin. Unsatisfied with the Chianti ‘formula’ from the 1870s, winemakers followed Tignanello's example one after the other. These top-quality wines, much more expensive than the average Chianti, were sold as table wines until 1992, when the IGT category was created to accommodate the ‘outsiders’. Today, there’s no obstacle to a Chianti being made from 100% Sangiovese, so the opposition has lost its meaning. Therefore, during the last two decades, the meaning of the name ‘Super Tuscan’ has shifted in the direction indicated by Sassicaia, i.e. it mainly denotes blends based on international varieties.

What’s Brancaia wine like?

To define this, the encounter of nations and cultures, place of growth and international varieties mentioned in the introduction can be useful. Brancaia wines are like a Swiss watch in terms of their making, but the rustic nature of the wine region and the terroir clearly make them analogous, and at the same time, thanks to the international varieties, the dial still shines in bright colours. The Gambero Rosso guide, which doesn’t mess about with metaphors, sums up the style of the winery this way: ‘their wines are based on ideally ripe fruit, supported by excellent oak use and beautiful structure, but they always have the right amount of freshness’.

In the case of Brancaia, the concept of Super Tuscan has taken a tortuous path. When it was born in 1988, Il Blu was a ‘Superchianti’ based on Sangiovese, but also containing 30% of Merlot. In three decades, the proportions have shifted, in the current blend, a minimal amount of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon complement the Merlot, so it can be said to be a typical Super Tuscan in accordance with today's concepts. The Sangiovese that was pushed out of Il Blu found its place in the Chianti that has been produced since 2013 and the Chianti Riserva that appeared a little later. The areas planted with older Sangiovese vines with smaller berries and looser bunches have now reached the right age to produce really deep and characteristic wines.

 

Although they started out from a different place, the story of Brancaia also describes the trajectory of those rebellious wineries that became famous because some young people were fed up with the musty traditionalism of their fathers and grandfathers. They wanted something more, something better, more refined; that's why they swept out the cellar, cleaned out the vines and followed foreign role models to produce wines that were controversial locally, but suited international tastes. When financial success and recognition came, when the local community saw the need for change and accepted the prodigal boys and girls back, their defiant desire to prove themselves subsided, they took a step back, and relied less and less on pharmacy scales, lab results and chemicals. They began returning to tradition, but on a completely different level of quality and understanding. Expressing the spirit of the place, embracing traditional varieties, restoring the natural balance and thinking across generations became important again. They went from the drawing board to the bee meadow.

As Barbara Widmer put it in an interview: “I truly believe the focus of a winery should not only be on making outstanding wines, but in creating unique wines expressing the character of the terroir. And the one thing I can do is to link Brancaia wines to our vineyards, connect them to the soil. No one else can produce the same wines. They are unique to this place.”

[Source of the quotation: https://www.mazerow.com/under-the-tuscan-sun.html]

Brancaia

BRANCAIA Tre 2021 (Bio)

BRANCAIATre 2021 (Bio)

HUF 8 700
Bottle priceHUF 8 700
Member price
HUF 8 265
BRANCAIA Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2020 (Bio)

BRANCAIAChianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2020 (Bio)

HUF 16 700
Bottle priceHUF 16 700
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HUF 15 865
BRANCAIA Il Blu 2020 (Bio)

BRANCAIAIl Blu 2020 (Bio)

HUF 38 900
Bottle priceHUF 38 900
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HUF 36 955

 

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