Castello Banfi is the winery most closely associated with the renaissance of Italy’s Brunello di Montalcino wines, made from the local Sangiovese grape in the Tuscany region. The driving force behind Castello Banfi is the New York-based Mariani family. Italian Americans, they started Banfi Vintners in the 1960s, which became the largest importer of Italian wines to the U.S. The Mariani fortune was made when second generation John Jr. decided to import the semi-sweet, fizzy Italian red wine, Riunite Lambrusco. Its lower alcohol, higher sugar content and catchy marketing made it an overnight success and one of the top imported brands for years in the U.S.
John Jr. and his brother Harry had ambitions to become wine producers in Italy, but decided to start from scratch rather than buy an existing winery. That way they would be unencumbered by traditional winemaking beliefs. In 1978 they made the bold decision to accumulate an astounding 7,000 acres over three plots of land in Italy’s Brunello di Montalcino region, planting roughly 40% with vineyards. To put that in perspective, the average size property of the appellations’ current 235 producers is just under 4 acres. The Mariani’s have spent more than a decade and well over $200 million at Castello Banfi. They acquired an adjacent 12th century castle, Poggio alle Mura, built a modern winery and won international acclaim for pioneering clonal research on the Sangiovese grape.
To spearhead their research, they hired Ezio Rivello who has become one of Italy’s top winemakers. They catalogued 600 different Sangiovese clones and microvinified 120 of these for over a decade. Ultimately they narrowed it down to just three that best represented their ideal profile for Brunello wines produced on the 29 different soil types of their property. They planted those three clones in the early 1990s, testing their response to different climates and elevations (their properties range from 100-320 metres above sea level). Each of their 40 vineyards is harvested, vinified and aged separately, with blending done only at the end so that they can properly identify the characteristics of each vintage. The Marianis have shared their findings with local producers and poured substantial sums into promoting Brunello wines in the export market.
Cristina Mariani-May, co-CEO of Banfi Vintners and Enrico Viglierchio, Banfi’s General Manager, conducted a Banfi tasting in Toronto recently. It was hosted at the Sotto Sotto restaurant by Banfi’s agent, Authentic Wine & Spirits Merchants (www.awsm.ca). The tasting included barrel samples of single vineyard wines, which they do not typically bottle.
2007 Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino (Vintages #378257;14.0%; $59.95) is aged in casks and smaller French oak barrels. Garnet red, it has aromas of flowers and orange peel, with full red berry flavours intermingled with spice, tobacco and leather.
2007 Castello Banfi Poggio Alle Mura (Virtual Vintages #330456;14.0%;$75.00) has a plush palate of dark fruit and ripe plum flavours, with undertones of leather, cedar and subtle tar notes. It is an elegant wine, with velvety tannins in the lingering finish.
2008 Castello Banfi Poggio Alle Mura Riserva (Vintages pending;14.0%;$94.95) came from vines planted in 1992. 90% of the wine was aged in 2-year French oak barriques, with the balance in large casks. Full bodied, it shows ample prune and jam flavours, with mocha and cedar notes. It can be enjoyed now or will benefit from further cellaring.
2007 Castello Banfi Poggio All’Oro (Virtual Vintages #443267;15.2%;$155.00) is an impressive wine that was aged for 30 months in French oak and made with grapes from vineyards planted in 1979. Deep garnet hued, it has a luscious palate of black berry and sweet dark plums with coffee, black licorice and cedar nuances.
1995 Castello Banfi Poggio All’Oro (Virtual Vintages #330522;13.0%;$249.00) was aged for 30 months, primarily in Slavonian oak, before finishing in French oak. It has a good balance of red fruit flavours and rustic tannins, with accents of mocha and cedar. Enjoy this elegant wine now.
Margot Ritchie is a Toronto-based journalist, whose articles focus on wine and culinary trends. A member of the Wine Writers’ Circle since 1997, she has travelled throughout many of the major wine growing regions of Europe and North America. These include Austria, France, Italy, and Portugal, as well as California, New York State and Ontario. Spirits, sake and beer are also highlighted in her writings, where her travels have extended to Scotland, Japan and the Czech Republic. Margot’s wine columns have appeared in Del Condominium Lifestyle, Elite Wine, Food and Travel, Modesty Magazine, International Women’s Forum (IWF) – Toronto Chapter Newsletter and the Portuguese Post . Margot also advises on private wine cellar management.