On Day 7, Monday, we continued our intensive Brunello study with a visit the several of the Banfi vineyards where Sangiovese is cultivated for their Brunello. Extensive sampling has revealed 28 different soil types on the estate. It was amazing to find sea shells in a vineyard at over 400 meters elevation. This serves as a poignant reminder that the Earth has indeed gone through dramatic changes over time. The other plus is that the vine seems to produce very good wine on ancient sea beds. We also experienced significant temperature changes at different elevations. As you would expect, temperatures were cooler in the vineyards at higher elevations. With the variation in soils, temperature and aspect at the Castello, it is clear that Banfi has a wealth of terroirs at its disposal. Our tasting in the barrel room later that day would give us insight into the effect that these terroirs have on the wine. After a couple of hours in the vineyards, the heat of the day began to set in. It was time leave the vineyards and move indoors to the Banfi winery.
We were greeted and led on a tour by the ever-passionate winemaker Rudy Buratti. If you’ve ever met Rudy and heard him speak about wine, you would swear he is channeling Pavarotti. He oozes passion and enthusiasm. With the way he emotes when speaking, you almost don’t need to understand Italian to understand what he is saying.
At this point of our journey, we had toured a fair number of wineries where most everything looked about the same. If I remember correctly, all of the fermentation tanks that we had seen were constructed of stainless steel. Here at Banfi, however, the fermentation tanks had a steel top and base with a giant wooden barrel in the middle. Lars told the story of how the concept of the hybrid fermentation tank, like most great ideas, began with a drawing on a napkin.
For many years, wood was the preferred vessel for fermentation. It is widely agreed that wood imparts desirable character to wine during fermentation. Wooden barrels, however, are difficult to clean, which could lead to hygiene problems in the winery. Use of stainless tanks increased in popularity because they are easily cleaned. It is also easier to control fermentation temperatures in a stainless tank. With Banfi’s patented hybrid tanks, you get the best of both worlds. These tanks have been in use at Castello Banfi since September 2007.
Clonal selection is central to Banfi’s Brunello program. Banfi has conducted over 30 years of research on the numerous (hundreds) clones of Sangiovese to identify which clones possess the greater part of the grape’s inherent qualities. Initially, 15 clones with desirable traits were identified. Since that time, Banfi has narrowed this selection to just 3 clones. Vineyards on the estate are now planted to a field blend of the desired percentage of each clone. As a testament to the importance of Banfi’s research, 6 of the 45 approved clones for the production of Brunello are from Banfi.
Even with clonal selection, the many terroirs at Castello Banfi give rise to many different expressions of Brunello. Banfi has embraced the potential of this diversity. In addition to their single-vineyard effort Poggio all’Oro, they have identified 13 individual parcels on the estate that are vinified separately. Each lot receives the same treatment, so the difference in the wines is solely the expression of terroir.
Rudy Buratti led us through a barrel tasting of wine from two vintages from each of the thirteen parcels. The wines showed great diversity. They ran the gamut from tannic to round, earthy to floral, fat to lean – you get the picture. Clearly, some of the lots could stand alone while others would need to be blended to fill in the gaps. The fate of the lots is ultimately decided by a Banfi tasting panel. I would love to be a fly on the wall at that meeting. We concluded our tasting with a mini vertical of bottled vintages including the single vineyard Poggio all’Oro. It was a great start to our day!
The tour and tasting gave us an impressive insight into the care with which Banfi approaches the production of Brunello. While Banfi does many things on a large scale, their Brunello program is quite different. It would be easy for Banfi to throw all their Sangiovese lots together and mass produce an average wine. But instead, they have created a boutique winery within Castello Banfi that allows for a greater attention to detail. They exact great care and expense to assure that each bottling of Banfi Brunello is the best that it can be.
Our day continued with an aperitivo in the Enoteca at Castello Banfi, followed by lunch at La Taverna. Afterwards, we toured the luxurious hotel and grounds of the Castello, the glass museum, and the Balsameria, where Balsamic vinegar is made. Castello Banfi is definitely a destination if you are in the Montalcino area.
That evening, we dined al fresco at the Michelin Star restaurant located at Castello Banfi. We all figured it would be good, but had no idea the finale that Lars had planned for our group. We had a beautiful meal. Each course presented was a work of art. Certainly, two standouts were a salt cod dish and a very clever take on proscuitto e melon in soup form.
As the meal unfolded, Lars took us on a retrospective of Banfi Brunello, starting with the 2001 “Normale”. We followed with the 1998 Poggio alle Mura, which inspired great conversation. We all began to reminisce about what we were doing in ’98. It’s very cool that a bottle of wine can bring a flood of memories about things we hadn’t thought of in years. It truly illustrated the idea that we were “drinking history”. The next wine we sampled was wrapped in foil and we were left to guess the vintage. Turns out, it was a 1990 Poggio all’Oro. This wine was the star of the night. At 23 years, it was perfectly mature and absolutely magnificent. With this bottle, we began to realize the great journey through time that Lars had planned for us. Another conversation about the past ensued. We ended our final dinner in Tuscany with a 1978 from Banfi’s first Brunello vintage, a treat from the cellars of the Castello.
All the wines we tasted that night were pre-Rudy. From what I have seen and tasted of Rudy’s efforts, he will only take the Banfi Brunello program to new heights. I left this day and our time in Montalcino with a better understanding of Brunello and great appreciation of the Banfi Brunello program. If you are a Brunello Lover, as I am, you should certainly seek the occasion to try these fine wines.