The imposing medieval Castello Poggio alle Mura with just below (on the right of the picture) part of the luxury Castello Banfi Il Borgo hotel
When John Mariani bought the Poggio alle Mura estate just south of Montalcino in 1978, it had had only two previous owners, the Sicilian family living in Venezuela that he bought it from and a Sienese family. In itself, it’s not necessarily remarkable, but the Castello dates from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries, so it was a big change, not least in what was then a small, poor region, off the beaten track in southern Tuscany, one that produced just 800,000 bottles of Brunello di Montalcino a year. Today, the figure is more than 7 million bottles.
What made the change in ownership an even bigger deal was that Mariani was an American, living in America. He had come to the region looking for a Brunello di Montalcino for his family company, Banfi Vintners, to import. He didn’t find anything, largely because no producer was interested in selling him a wine for the US, but he fell in love with the region and decided to start his own project.
He didn’t just buy Poggio alle Mura. In the following five years, he bought four neighbouring estates, accumulating a total of 2,830 hectares, then as now the largest contiguous estate in Europe. By the time the vines had been planted, it was also the largest contiguous vineyard in Europe (today the 850ha produce about 12% of all DOCG Brunello). If local people were wary of the foreigner with lots of money, it was nothing to what they felt about the way he created his vineyards. He brought in bulldozers and reshaped hills and slopes, altering the nature-given soil in the process. I remember visiting the estate in the mid 1980s and meeting John Mariani – and feeling not so much impressed as shaken at what he’d done. He renamed the estate Castello Banfi. That didn’t win him friends either.
Last week of picking the 2019 Sangiovese (aka Brunello); looking out across the vast Castello Banfi estate, less than one third of which is vineyards
Remodelling the landscape isn’t something the Banfi family is proud of or mentions these days. What they and their team talk about, and are rightly proud of, are achievements such as being the first winery in the world to be recognised for exceptional environmental, ethical and social responsibility (ISO 14001 and SA8000) and as a leader in customer satisfaction (ISO 9001:2000) and for initiatives such as groundbreaking clonal research (skip the next three paragraphs if you don’t want the viticultural detail, but don’t miss the experimental vineyard that follows).
There had been no research into Sangiovese clones until Banfi started in the 1980s, in collaboration with the University of Milan. Together, they found nearly 650 clones of Sangiovese just on the estate and in the immediate area. 180 were selected, planted and microvinified, then 15 chosen for registration and these are available to everyone. Banfi itself concentrates on three (Janus 50, Janus 10 and BP 30).
Banfi's Albarello training system – one vine produces 1kg of grapes for 1 bottle of Brunello; agronomist Gianni Savelli; Sangiovese grapes from young vines
Other key vineyard projects have been zonal research, planting densities and training systems. Zonation, as they call it, has involved dividing the estate into three zones: the lowest part, with the richest, deepest soils, is mostly used for white grapes; the area around the Castello – well-drained argilo-calcaire with a lot of stones – produces their most important wines; and the third part has the poorest, shallowest soils – marine clays. This was planted as recently as 15 years ago because until then the soils were thought to be too poor. In fact, they usefully limit Sangiovese’s naturally high yields.
In terms of density, the original plantings were 3000 vines per ha, but in the 1990s Banfi moved to 4,200 and more recently to 5000. They’ve been working on their own training system to limit the vines’ access to nutrients and water since 2001 and have developed a two-branch Y-shaped system they call Albarello Banfi (never ones to miss an opportunity to apply the Banfi name). It allows for four to five bunches per vine, producing 1kg grapes for one bottle of Brunello.
They also have an experimental vineyard in which they work with the Alto Adige based San Michele Research Institute looking into disease resistancy, sustainability and climate change. The research includes crossing vitis vinifera with other vinifera, crossing vitis vinifera varieties such as Sangiovese with Teroldego and Primitivo (the first time this has been done in an open vineyard) and planting varieties such as Saperavi and Areni Noir.
Fermentation with a difference: Banfi's patented Horizon tanks are hybrids with stainless steel ends and wood sides; and the almost inevitable concrete egg-style tank
In winemaking, they’ve developed their own stainless steel and oak combination fermentation tanks. When they built a new winery in 2007, they wanted to move away from stainless steel, but found that the big oak tanks they tried were difficult to keep cool and to keep clean. The solution was 177hl tanks with tops and bases in stainless steel and the removable central sections made of oak. These, patented Horizon, are used for the Brunellos, Rosso di Montalcino and super-Tuscans.
On the sustainability front, the company has gone from 570g bottles in 2009 to 360g bottles today and have reduced irrigation water by 80% by switching from traditional sprinkling to localised micro-irrigation. They collect precipitation in reservoirs and have rationalised water use to reduce to a minimum their withdrawals from the Orcia and Ombrone rivers that border the estate to south and west. They practice low-input farming and more than half the estate is Mediterranean forest and scrub, including fire lanes and water basins. The planting of local species and leaving natural meadows, as well as the scrub and forest, provides grazing for boar, pheasant, deer and other wild animals.
Aside from vines and uncultivated areas, there are about 100ha of plum trees for prunes (making Banfi Italy’s largest prune producer); 300ha of cereals, mainly spelt and ancient wheat varieties that are used for their own pasta brand); 50ha of olives for Banfi’s two extra-virgin olive oils (made locally by Frantoio Franci in Montenero d’Orcia); 10ha of truffle oaks; cork oaks planted 20 years ago, from which they’ll probably do their first harvest this year, although they won’t be making corks for another decade; and bees for Banfi honey, the latter made in quantities sufficient only to supply the wine shop on the estate. The other products are all more widely available. While we’re on the subject of the shop: it sells the balsamic vinegar (average age 12 years) made in the balsameria on the estate.
Balsamic vinegar ageing in oak, chestnut, cherry, ash, mulberry and juniper woods for an average of 12 years; remains of Brunella, the 4 million year old fossil whale of Poggio alle Mura, thought to have been 6–8 metres long and to have weighed about 6 tons – small compared to today's blue whales
There is, it will be obvious by now, much more to the Banfi estate than wine. Indeed, there is what I can only describe as a tourist village (picturesque if a tad Disneyesque for a non-American market), including a luxury hotel (Castello Banfi Il Borgo), two restaurants (the Sala dei Grappoli and Taverna Banfi, as well as an enoteca), a fascinating glass museum with exhibits from the 5th century BC to contemporary, a cookery school, the balsameria and, not least, a restoration laboratory to which Banfi gives funding for the restoration of Brunella, the fossil whale of Poggio alle Mura whose remains were found in 2007. It’s an almost complete skeleton, regarded as one of the best preserved of Mediterranean fossil specimens and is estimated to be around 4 million years old.
A 'light lunch' of typical Tuscan generosity at Taverna Banfi; wines at dinner at Sala dei Grappoli
Big producers will always have their critics, but Banfi has done a great deal to redeem its early arrogance over the years and, as general manager Enrico Viglierchio puts it: “Now we have more friends than enemies.” The wines speak for themselves. Below is a selection of what I tasted, including a few wines from outside Montalcino.
Castello Banfi Rosso di Montalcino 2017
Black and red cherries with spice and a touch of balsamic. Good intensity, supple tannins. Immensely likeable, accessible and food friendly. 14%
£21.95, Albion Wine Shippers. Other merchants, such as Winebuyers.com and winedirect.co.uk have moved on to the 2018, which I hope to taste soon.
Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino 2015
A great vintage and a wine that’s extraordinarily drinkable already, although it’s clearly got the power and balance to age for at least two decades more. For now, it's beautifully aromatic, fruity and textural, with rich cherry fruit, warming spice, balsamic, vanilla and fresh cedar notes and smooth, flowing tannins. A shoo-in with porcini and other mushrooms, game, aged hard cheeses (cow’s and sheep), red meat, duck or game. 14.5%
Some merchants still have the 2014, a year of exceptional rainfall. The wine is less intense and concentrated but has attractive, briary, black-fruit sweetness, an elusive floral, almost strawberry note, touches of herbs and liquorice and easy tannins, making it broachable now (£214.92 for 6, TheDrinkShop.com).
Castello Banfi Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino 2015
From selected vineyards immediately surrounding the Castello. Aged for four years, including at least two in 90% French oak barriques and 10% Slavonian casks. This is a richer, denser, more powerful, structured and savoury Brunello that doesn’t reveal its fruit and sweetness as readily and alluringly as the straight Brunello at present – but give it time... The 2006 is tasting superb. 14.5%
Castello Banfi Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino 2014
From a difficult, very wet year, a lighter, less flamboyant wine than the 2015, but one with briary black fruit, balsamic depth, freshness and polished tannins. 14.5%
for 6: £280, Millésima UK
Castello Banfi Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2013
From selected vineyards immediately surrounding the Castello. Aged for 5 years, including at least two in 90% French oak barriques and 10% Slavonian casks. A latish vintage, following a lot of beneficial spring rain and then a dry, fairly warm summer. Slightly shier on the nose, but there’s lots going on on the palate – dark fruit, dark chocolate, savoury balsamic notes, oak and a thicker texture with bigger tannins than Poggio all’Oro below. Still needs time, but it's impressive. 14.5%
for 6: £479.32, TheDrinkShop.com
Castello Banfi Poggio all’Oro Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2013
A single-vineyard wine made since 1985. Aged for 5 years, including at least 30 months in French oak barriques. Fragrant and expressive, with balsamic notes and sweet fruit, mineral, herb and orange peel and a luxuriously silky texture. Fine-boned and elegant, rather than a powerhouse, and very long. Beautiful now but will age. 14.5%
for 6: £800, Millésima UK
Castello Banfi ExcelsuS 2015, Toscana
65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot from sandy loam soils from around the Castello. The only Castello Banfi estate wine with no Sangiovese, it was first made in 1993 when Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon was consultant. Vinified and aged separately, then blended and aged for another eight months in 350-l oak, about 40% new. Intense, crunchy blackcurrant fruit with an appetising streak of currant leaf, lively, clean acidity, structured but melting, supple tannins. 14%
No known UK stockists
SummuS and Cum Laude, two of Banfi's Montalcino super-Tuscans, and La Lus Albarossa, a red from its Piemonte stable
Castello Banfi Cum Laude 2015, Toscana
A blend of the four red varieties from the estate's best vineyards: Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Aged in French oak barrels (20% new) for 12-14months. Masses going on the nose – blackcurrant, spice, red cherry, cedar and balsamic notes, which are joined by mineral and liquorice on the palate. Ripe tannins, bright, youthful acidity and quite prominent oak, but it’s young – indeed, like the SummuS below, not yet available in the UK. 14%
Castello Banfi SummuS 2015, Toscana
A Sangiovese/Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah blend from vineyards around the Castello. Aged for 18 months in barrel (10% new). Montalcino’s first super-Tuscan, first produced in 1995. Very deep purple colour. Sweet, floral, cherry perfume with the addition of gravelly, peppery notes on the palate. Wears its obvious concentration and tannins elegantly. Really rather lovely. 14%
Banfi La Pettegola Vermentino 2018, Toscana
Crisp, lemony and herby with a hint of green olive and Vermentino’s easy, rounded, slightly oily texture. A good example from Tuscany’s coastal Maremma region. Try it with scallops, tomato salsas or salads. 12.5%
Banfi Rosa Regale 2018, Brachetto d’Aqui, Piemonte
A lively, refreshing, delicately sweet, low alcohol wine made by the charmat method (i.e. not the lengthy Champagne method). All rose petals and strawberries on the nose and sweet cherries, strawberries and fresh grapes on the palate. A match for strawberries, fruit salads, pavlovas or ice cream, or drink it on its own. 7%
Banfi La Lus Albarossa 2016, Piemonte
The number of stockists of this dark, ripe, sweet-fruited, soft red (a great match for Bolognese ragù) is testament to its popularity with UK merchants, although the Albarossa grape is not what most people, including Banfi, think. DNA profiling has revealed that it’s a Chatus x Barbera cross, not a Nebbiolo x Barbera cross. The confusion is that Chatus is known as Nebbiolo di Dronero in Piedmont, although it's unrelated to Nebbiolo. 13.5%
Photographs by Joanna Simon