Last week Martin Kronenberg was in town to host a tasting of recent releases highlighted by a 14 vintage tasting of Il Blu, the flagship wine from the Brancaia Estate he founded in 1981. The first vintage of Il Blu was 1988, and every vintage since 1994 has been awarded to highly regarded “tre bicchieri” award from Italy’s Gambero Rosso wine Guide. From the outset, the stylistic goal of Il Blu was “elegance, density and complexity” according to Kronenberg. “We wanted to give a very strong identity for Il Blu, to make it in a consistent style every year.” For this reason the blend has remained virtually unchanged since the beginning. Only once, after Kronenberg’s wife Barbara took over winemaking duties in 1998, was the mix tweaked to favour more elegance. Up until 1998, the wine consisted of 55% sangiovese, 40% merlot and 5% cabernet sauvignon; from 1999 on, sangiovese was lowered to 50% in favour of an additional 5% merlot. “If you change the blend every year, you change the wine”. The vines are between 15 and 20 years old on average at present.
Neither has the barrel regime changed: 18-20 months in barriques, of which about 1/3 are new. The grapes are sourced from Brancaia’s 2 estates in the Chianti Classico district in the communes of Castellina and Radda in Chianti. Consultant Carlo Ferrini oversees the entire operation. It’s a different approach to be sure: attempting to impose a style on the wine rather than letting the vintage conditions show through. While many winegrowers accept they necessity of working to the specs of each year, Kronenburg prefers the comfort of a constant house style. The wines across the 14 vintages are certainly linked by uncommon elegance relative to the world of extracted super Tuscans, though admittedly I found a quite a lot of variation throughout the years. Nature, it seems, can’t be eliminated from the equation. Nevertheless, Il Blu is a fine wine.
In addition to Il Blu, Brancaia makes an excellent Chianti Classico, and since Kronenberg purchased a new property in the ultra-hot Maremma in 1998, another super-Tuscan blend called Illatraia. For my money, Illatraia is the company’s least interesting wine on the value scale. Brancaia’s entry-level wine is called “Tre”, being sourced from the three different estates.
There was much debate as to whether one should taste from oldest to youngest or vice versa; I opted to taste the younger wines first this time around to assess the current releases with a fresh palate.
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2008 Brancaia ‘Tre’ IGT Toscana Tuscany, Italy
80% Sangiovese plus cab and merlot, from the three (“tre”) Brancaia estates. Fresh, savoury, red fruit driven, juicy, with noted vanilla wood tones and leafy-herbal character (cooler vintage in Tuscany). Very respectable length. Fine food-friendly wine. Tasted April 2010. 29.95
2007 Brancaia Chianti Classico Tuscany, Italy
This is a really fine, solid effort of Chianti from what I believe will be recognized as a classic vintage in time. Depth and intensity are impressive, with excellent complexity and length. Great spectrum of savoury and fruity flavours. Tasted April 2010. 42.5
2007 Brancaia Illatraia IGT Maremma Toscana Tuscany, Italy
60% Cabernet, 30% Sangiovese and 10% Petit Verdot. A soft, ripe, forwardly fruity, juicy and easily drinkable style with plenty of immediate appeal. Doesn’t really have the depth, complexity or structure to justify the price in my view, but is certainly pleasurable. 82.5
Brancaia ‘Il Blu’ IGT Toscana Vertical 2007-1994:
2007 The 2007 Il Blu is a wine of evident class and elegance, with sweet ripe fruit that spans the spectrum from red through black and blue berry notes. There’s a fine delicate wood spice and fresh sweet herb nuance that adds another layer of complexity. The palate is fullish but suave and refined, with fine grained tannins, round and voluptuous, a very delicate and feminine wine overall. This is a courageous stance in a world frequently dominated by large scale, over extracted and over-oaked reds. Drink 2012-2025. Tasted April 2010. $89.50 93
2006 The ripeness of the 2006 vintage comes through quite markedly in this wine, with super ripe black and blue fruit, verging on slightly raisined fig/date aromas, alongside higher volatility than in other vintages. The palate is fullish and voluptuous, with evidently plump, ripe tannins, though underlying firmness tightens up the finish. Alcohol is marked and chest warming. A powerful wine to be sure, though it slips out of the mold of elegance common across the rest of the years. Drink 2014-2025. 90
2005 A fragrant, more floral vintage of Il Blu, with the cooler than average growing conditions yielding a wine of slighter body yet more finesse and delicacy than the average. Tannins are fine grained and light, and acidity is bright. Flavours run more to the red berry spectrum. Lovely savoury-herbal notes emerge on the lingering finish. A wine to be enjoyed in the mid-term, best 2010-2018. Tasted April 2010. 91
2004 The 2004 is a wine of wonderful fragrance that seems to just be hitting its stride. Intense floral aromas and beguiling red and black berry notes, sweet herbal spice, and fully integrated oak characterize the nose. The palate strikes a perfect balance between power and elegance, with firm but ripe tannins tightly wound around fresh acidity, and has one of the longer finishes in the entire vertical. Very classy. This is starting to drink well now, but I suspect it will age gracefully into the mid 2020s. Tasted April 2010. 94
2003 Slightly volatile and raisined aromas, not to mention some mushroom-oxidative notes set this apart from the range. The palate is firm and unyielding, with the tannins still quite hard and a little short on phenolic maturity. Alcohol is high and finish average. Hard to predict if this will ever shift into balance, but if you prefer fruit, best to get to this in the short term. Tasted April 2010. 89
2002 The first bottle shows a touch of TCA, herbal, earthy notes, distinctly out of the Il Blu standard profile. In any case, the palate shows decent, albeit leaner structure, firm dusty tannins and moderate + finish. Judgment deferred in any case. Tasted April 2010. No score.
2001 A garnet shade and evolved nose indicate that the 2001 Il Blu has moved into the tertiary stage of development, showing advanced maturity. Dried red berry fruit is largely overshadowed by fresh earth, cured meat, tea leaves and dried herbs; there’s no shortage of complexity here. The palate shows wonderfully integrated and silky tannins, just a touch firm on the finish and in need of a savoury, protein based dish to really shine. Mouth-filling amplitude and long finish complete the package. A fine vintage at its prime, though no need to rush either as it should age gracefully and continue to evolve more earthy dried fruit character. Tasted April 2010. 91
2000 Not very expressive on the nose today, though what little aromatics are present are in the soy, earth and dried meat spectrum. The palate really shows much more expression, with elegant, silky tannins, fully ripe and velvety, lovely power-finesse, balance and sweet red berry fruit on the finish. Outstanding length. Decant his, or leave in the cellar for another year or two to bring aromatics and palate into harmony. Tasted April 2010. 92
1999 The 1999 Il Blu is a firm, well-developed and mature expression at this stage of evolution, hitting that perfect pitch between fruit and tertiary evolution, and displaying the elegance and finesse at which the house style is aimed. Great length. Tannins are particularly silky (this was the first year that the percentage of sangiovese was decreased in favour of softer merlot). Drink now or hold to 2015. Tasted April 2010. 93
1998 Fully open, mature and expressive, with sweet red and black berry fruit moving into the dried fruit stage of evolution. Really fine complexity here, including exotic spice and sweet dried herbal notes. The palate is plush and velvety, with tannins nicely integrated though firming and drying up on the finish, owing perhaps to the higher percentage of Sangiovese relative to 1999 and forward. In any case, a fine, complex Tuscan red that is at peak and will hold another half dozen years at least. Tasted April 2010. 93
1997 The 2007 Il Blu lives up to the hype of the vintage, showing fully mature, gorgeous fruit and exotic spice aromas of dazzling aromatic complexity. Plenty of wet clay-like minerality adds another dimension to the complex mix. The palate is generous and mouth-filling, with full but velvety tannins, chest warming alcohol and lingering perfumed finish. A terrifically complete wine that will impress virtually anyone who tastes it. Ready to enjoy or hold short term. Tasted April 2010. 94
1996 A more rustic, old school expression of Il Blu, displaying intriguing dried porcini mushroom, soy sauce, intense black licorice, black tea, dried herbs and other notes axed on the savoury-umami scale. The palate is likewise a little leaner and more tightly wound; this could easily be mistaken for old school Barolo were it not for the slightly less ample-firm tannins common in that region/variety. Finish is moderate plus. Drink now. Tasted April 2010. 89
1995 The 1995 Il Blu shows a marked use of new wood, or at least the vestiges of new wood it seems, with still fresh fruit and full, round, generous texture, Tannins are fully melted and finish is long. Ultimately this doesn’t have the depth and complexity of other vintages of this wine, but it is a sheer pleasure to drink now. Tasted April 2010. 91
1994 1994 is the first vintage of Il Blu to garner the coveted “Tre Bicchieri” from Italy’s Gambero Rosso Wine Guide. It is currently displaying surprising freshness and liveliness, with nicely integrated tannins that still offer a touch of firmness on the finish. Fruit is sweet and fully ripe, with evolved, mature underlying flavours of dry earth, cured meat and dried blood/iron to add an extra dimension of interest. Very good to excellent length. Ultimately without the depth and complexity of later vintages (young vines at this stage?) but still excellent. Tasted April 2010. 92