Saturday, September 21, 2013

Castello di Brolio

The Iron Baron and his Fairy-Tale Castle

Visiting the Castello di Brolio there are moments when you might imagine yourself inside a fairy tale. Not the slick Disney sort of fairy tale, the real thing: think Perrault or Grimm. Bluebeard. Those harsh cautionary tales warning of life's pitfalls and dangers, softened by happy endings. Mostly.

As you approach from the north on the SP 484, the castle is invisible. The enoteca or wine cellar/shop stands out on your right, flanked by large lattice-windowed storerooms. Before you a road winds up the hill amongst tall, dark trees. You can park and walk or drive on to park a little higher, but still the castle is hidden from view. Some old stone steps take you closer. You catch a glimpse of crenellated grey walls, buttresses, a tower where Rapunzel might have languished.

The wood that hugs the castle to the north and east was planted in the mid 19th century. It is called the English Wood, but is reminiscent of deeper, darker woods where wolves and maids in red hoods and capes might have roamed. The cedars, pines and sequoias have had time to grow tall and protect the castle from the north wind, but they are gloomy, almost forbidding, and cast deep shadows. 

Entrance to the castle is through a modern portcullis above which sits an ancient murder hole, a long fissure through which stones and hot oil were thrown on attackers below. A splendid 'allure' or walkway along the top of the walls leads at least halfway around the bailey.

'allure' or walkway around the top of the walls
This part of the castle dates to the 15th century but at the heart of the keep are original buttresses from the 11th century. Brolio is a real castle: for centuries it was Florence's last stronghold before Siena, and it was closer to Siena than to Florence, hence continually under attack and several times razed to the ground

buttresses on north wall dating to the 15th century: magnificent!

this instead is the base of the 11th century buttress from the original keep, with its window (presumably added more recently) which reveals the thickness of the ancient wall
The section of the castle most associated with Brolio these days is the wing built in the mid-nineteenth century. It is big and neo-Gothic and red brick. Not half as striking, to my mind, as the earlier structures, but witness to the life work of the man to whom Brolio and Chianti Classico owe their fame: the Baron Bettino Ricasoli (stress on the 'a').

detail of the enormous gothic facade of the 'new' wing of Brolio Castle: the pitting in the wall is a souvenir of WWII bombing

view from southern side of Castle, towards Siena

view towards south, over the Brolio vineyards: the Brolio lands once covered 3000 hectares; they are now about half that

After we have strolled around the gardens and explored the bailey and outer wallwalk, we gather in the little inner ward where there is a chapel worth visiting, for a brief but interesting guided tour of the castle's small, beautifully kept museum dedicated to the 'Iron Baron' as he was known to his contemporaries. No photos are allowed inside the museum but it holds an impressive collection of weapons, from medieval swords to 19th century rifles, the famous King's bed, a lot of interesting memorabilia including a letter from Bismarck to Ricasoli, the Baron's scientific collection and surprise, surprise, some rather deft drawings. One under which he had written "not very good, not to show", is ironically now on display.

everything in the castle is well-maintained, including this little chapel; the family crypt is underneath
chapel interior
entrance to museum which is located in the oldest part of the castle

Ricasoli is considered to have played an important role in the unification of Italy: he was instrumental in peacefully ousting the Austrian Grand Duke Leopold from Tuscany in 1859, the overture to Tuscany becoming part of the nation of Italy in 1861. Bettino covered the role of Prime Minister twice, but eventually retreated to Brolio to dedicate himself to his main interests: agriculture, viticulture and wine production. Interested in the sciences, he improved production, introduced new technology and eventually formulated the Chianti Classico blend (mostly San Giovese grapes with a small percentage of white grapes and other red grapes).* This formula remained unchanged until 2006: now white grapes are not permitted.

Bettino Ricasoli, when Prime Minister of Italy

A selection of anecdotes concerning this severe, authoritarian, utterly scrupulous man: i) Ricasoli went to a great deal of trouble to furnish and prepare rooms for the King, Vittorio Emanuele II who was to pass through Tuscany (the furnishings are on display in the museum). However the King snubbed his host, staying only two hours at the castle. Apparently on the King's arrival, Ricasoli had neglected to wear a hat, dismount from his horse and salute his monarch in a suitable manner. ii) His only surviving heir being a girl, Ricasoli ensured that the family name would live on by marrying her to a cousin. Let's hope she liked him. Such was the fate of women in those days. iii) There is a local story about the baron's ghost haunting the castle and its surroundings on the nights of a full moon, and although it fits in well with the castle's atmosphere, this sounds like great PR.

Be that as it may, the Ricasoli family holds the honour of being the fourth oldest company in the world still run by its founding family, no mean feat; certainly the Iron Baron can be thanked for his part in assuring their continuity into the 21st century.**

former birdcage in Castle grounds: so glad that it is vacant now

Consistent with the Ricasoli spirit of enterprise, naturally there is a restaurant in the grounds of the castle. Beneath the tall cypresses of the English Wood the Osteria del Castello offers on its terrace and indoors a very good menu: home-made pastas; local ingredients; what may be a Florentine touch, acqua cotta (vegetable soup with an egg cooked in it) instead of the delicious but ubiquitous ribollita; an unusual use of herbs including tarragon, not commonly used here; plus some 'foreign' elements like burrata and mozzarella.

pretty basin in restaurant washroom

Castello di Brolio wines on display in front of restaurant kitchen


corner of wine shop
Brolio from the south
Barone Ricasoli SpA
Madonna a Brolio
53013 Gaiole in Chianti
Tel. +39 0577 7301
site here

the booklet advises reserving visits and tastings but there were many visits available when we went 

8 euros for grounds, guided tour and complimentary tasting

Just to complete the fairytale theme: on the way there or back you will probably drive along the 408, the road between Radda and the turn-off to Gaiole. On the hillside to the left, coming from Radda, you will be sure to notice a very grand old 18th century villa perched high on the hill above vineyards and olive groves. This is where Puss in Boots comes in: the grand facade is just a facade. The buildings behind are old, yes, but in stone and quite typical of the area.The story goes that the King (the same one who snubbed Ricasoli?) was to pass by; the owners, wanting to make a good impression, had the remarkable facade constructed for the event. Evergreen trees to either side hide the humbler stones from view. Such is human vanity.

Puss in Boots's Palace, Villa Vistarenni

*A friend has noted: "The story is that those proportions of different grapes were chosen, not because they were the best blend, but because they were the grapes (and in those proportions) that the Baron had."

**It has been pointed out to me however, that at the end of the 20th century the estate was in dire straits, in hands of the banks and salvaged by various sales and changes of ownership whereby the quality and standing of the estate and its wines suffered.  Since 1993 the current baron has managed to restore the prestige of his family enterprise.


  1. A fascinating post on Castello di Ricasoli and its forward looking barone. The beautiful castle in its romantic setting is as if another fairytale is to be discovered. Well publicised and well worthwhile to visit.

  2. The Iron Baron, Rapunzel, Puss in Boots - magical, fascinating stuff; and the atmospherics so cunningly captured in the photos!.


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