Love Wine and Cheese

Monday, November 1, 2010

THE ROYAL TASTING: Castello Banfi, Montalcino, Tuscany

BelnerO you were in my dream last night.  I don't know who you are, but you were a ghost.  You came in through the steep back stairs.  We had just bought six Magnums of you, BelnerO 2005, and were arranging them in the wine cellar.  Is that you, the picture on the bottle?  Or are you the spirit from the land ^^^^ from years of Banfi research **** from 650 Sangiovese clones,,,,,ten years of selection,,,,,,narrowed down to 15 clones ()()()()()()(      ) BelnerO are you inside of there? 
 . . . .Yoshi (a.k.a. "Ambassador of Wine" at Banfi) said the soil changes every three to five meters . . . He told me all about your origins, what type of climate you like, how much sun you prefer to take/////when the frosts made you weak, when the hail made you scared //////BelnerO\\\\\\\\ Banfi takes care------>>> so why were you in my dream? 
I woke up at 4am because you told me to remember.  It took me a moment, but BelnerO, how could I ever forget &&&&&&& my trip to Banfi &&&&&&&&& my drive from Scansano to the rolling hills of Montalcino &&&&&&&& my two weeks in the pulsating landscape of Tuscany !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Hills curved and silky like a beautiful woman lying on her side with arms extended, head resting, pondering, thinking how God blessed her with a power of femininity just as God kissed the land of Tuscany.    
When I arrived to the castle the weather was this transforming sky, grayed with layers, shimmering silver, blended with this subtle turquoise and magenta, which layered together lost its hue. . .    

I felt transposed . . . circling around in wonder.  Here were the Brunello vineyards that I had thought would have followed me like the moon all throughout Montalcino.  I had been shocked during my trip in Tuscany to find that vineyards didn't occupy the majority of the landscape like it did in other regions of Italy, like in Veneto or in Trentino Alto-Adige.    

I wanted to take my camera and get lost in the fields . .  .take a picnic, hide within the tall Sangiovese vines that were only one year my senior.  I wanted to spend the day walking on soil under a climate that produced some of the best wines in the world. . . until I met Yoshi that is. 
Yoshi and Massimiliano
Yoshi is one of a kind.  Then put him in a room with Sommelier Massimiliano, and you find yourself understanding WINE (HISTORY, PASSION, PATIENCE, CULTURETRADITION, LOVE, COMMITMENT, FAMILY, SECRETS, SENSES, EXPECTATION, DISAPPOINTMENT, RESPECT, PROVIDENCE, HUMILITY) in a way you had never done before.  Only after spending a day with Yoshi and Massy together could I have possibly dreamt about a bottle of wine visiting me as a ghost . . . the spirit of Banfi's Sangiovese, the grandeur of this grape visiting me in form, in divinity, to tell me not to forget him.  I'm laughing, because I don't understand what he wants me to remember, because believe me BelnerO, I remember.  I remember everything -- your brothers and sisters: SummuS, ExcelsuS, Brunello, Poggio alle Mura, Poggio all'Oro.  I even remember your cousin Banfi Brut, made with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Blanc in the metodo tradizionale classico, older than Franciacorta, "the first DOC to specify that its sparkling wines must be made by metodo classico.(Wikipedia)

Entering the Fermenting Room
BelnerO, Yoshi was very comprehensive in everything he discussed.  In fact he led us through a tour of the Cantina as if he were the living relic that Banfi's history had been recorded on.  It was even his day off, which was indeed to Massy and my benefit because Yoshi was even going to meet us later for dinner at a fantastic small restaurant in Montalcino, Osteria La Via di Mezzo, with outdoor seating in an ancient back alley, with brick walls And cobblestone street And subdued Italian lighting And planters filled with old plants And waiters who were the opposite of indifferent.  

Banfi was created in 1919, by John Mariani Sr., an American Italian, a year before Prohibition began.  Due to Prohibition Mr. Mariani sought import of spices, Italian goods, and "medicinal bitters," the only legal type of alcohol at that time.  Over the next 60 years, during which Prohibition ended, Banfi grew as a strong family business importing international wines.  In 1978 with the vision of the company now in the hands of his sons, Banfi bought the estate of Castello Banfi in Montalcino.  Their first Brunello was Villa Banfi 1978.  Yoshi said that the Banfi estate encompasses 1/8 of the total surface of Montalcino.
Oak and Stainless Steel 
Yoshi spoke in length and lucky for me, in English, about the history, 
about the soil, 
about the fermentation. . . 
How Montalcino used to be under the ocean years and years ago And 
How they found a five million year old whale fossil on Banfi property.  
How the soil is rich in mineral
How the diversity of temperature in Montalcino adds to the slower maturation of the grape.
Yoshi showed us the huge, huge, oak and stainless steel barrels/vats explaining --  
How the oak allows the grapes to breathe while adding tannin and the steel on the top cools the temperature.  
How they have this "pumping over" method that moves the skins throughout the barrel And a 
"delestage" method of "punching down" that will extract aggressive tannin. Their fermenting barrels had everything "all in one."  

Inside the Aging Room
After walking through the aging and fermenting rooms, Yoshi took us outside to where Banfi cures their own oak.  He said they want to make sure it's done right!  They continually wash the barrels and burn sulphur to destroy any living bacteria.  
I began to understand on my own, that even though Banfi was this humungous wine mogul, they really and truly cared about quality and detail, to the extent that one might think only existent within a small production house.  To even further prove this, I would soon find out that they didn't even produce a 2001 vintage Brunello Poggio all'Oro, which for most Brunello was a *******STELLAR******* vintage.   
Banfi Cures and Builds their own French Oak Allier Barrels
But I had already had a taste of Banfi's style before I had met Yoshi, or visited the castle in Montalcino.  During the summer I had the opportunity to have lunch at their estate, Banfi Old Brookville, in Long Island, and had met Cristina Mariani-May CO-CEO of Banfi; I had also met Lars Leicht, and had known Luciano Castiello, and Filippo Di Belardino who were also there.  I must say that their smiles alone say a lot about that company.  And if you ever have the opportunity to meet Luciano . . . you will meet the living embodiment of what the French call joie de vivre.  
These are the type of people who one wants to talk to wine about: knowledgeable, passionate, in love with wine, humble, teachers of wine, and do not only want to listen to their own opinion.  They encourage you to explore your own feelings . . . because wine is so sentimental.    
The Tasting Room
"The Royal Family tasting," Massy said, "The only thing missing was the BelnerO.  It makes sense why he was in your dream."  I took some notes while Massy spoke about the wines we tasted. 

SummuS 2005 vs. Brunello di Montalcino 2005:
"Maybe 2005 has not been the best year for Montalcino, but the Brunello and SummuS are still cavaliers just without their heavy artillery.  Hmm."  When Massy tastes wine his eyes roll in the back of his head.  "How the cavalier used to introduce themselves. . .hrrmmm," (he groans); ". . .We are here.  We are muscular. Powerful. Rich. Deep.  The wine is lighter, more elegant," (his voice then gets deeper and serious); "Not more elegant like a beautiful woman," (then he jumps back to his previous depicting tone): "I don't want to say weak . . . less powerful . . . but for sure ready to attack//////not ready to battle////which is different, but attack!" (he makes this click click noise which almost sounds like a cricket): "Great Wine mmummble, mmmummble" (he really finishes the sentence with something that sounds like mmummble mmummble.)  

SummuS 1999:  "A perfect example of the greatness of this wine.  The elegance of the sangiovese mixed with the power of the cabernet sauvignon and a touch of syrah.  Even the international grapes have found a perfect microclimate in the terroir of Montalicno."

Brunello di Montalcino 2000:
"Even in not a fantastic vintage, even the Brunello is much better than a great vintage from . . . . . " (Massimiliano won't name any names and just smiles).  "Unfortunately for the Brunello 2000, it's right in the middle of this royal tasting surrounded by bright shiny stars."

Poggio alle Mura vs. Poggio all'Oro:
Put them in a boxing ring and the Poggio alle Mura is sexier, with a perfectly sculpted body, caramel skin, and is not too hairy . . . a fighter trained since birth.  Poggio all'Oro on the other hand is a scrapper.  He is hairy.  His armpits stink.  His body is strong and meaty.  His skin darker. . .he may not be GQ hot, but he is man. . . he is unresistable.  His strength and wisdom come from his gut.  His punches are instinctual not planned. When he moves his every muscle doesn't heighten like the Poggio alle Mura, and when he hits you, you feel his wind and smell his breath, understanding that he is undefeatable. . . 
And I think it's awesome, because awesome is the best word to use here, that Banfi produces two competitive Brunellos in two completely different styles.  The Poggio alle Mura being their expression of Brunello at it's "finest," most "elegant:" a result of years of clonal research that reflect the finesse and the excellence of the Sangiovese grape.  One taste of the Poggio alle Mura and you've arrived in the perfect world of Brunello di Montalcino.  You understand why Brunello deserves its acclaim, its ability to compete with the French . . . why Massy says that even Banfi's Brunello 2000 is better than some other wines at its peek.  You needn't move on, you needn't keep searching for the perfect wave, because you've found it, wave after wave, vintage after vintage in the Poggio alle Mura.
Then you taste the Poggio all'Oro and you think of your grandfather, perhaps your grandmother, and your heart goes deep into reflection, into memory, into moments of the past that perhaps you never even lived through.  How Poggio all'Oro triggers this?  I don't know??  It just happens.  Somehow I think of history.  I think of tradition.  I think of memory.  Often my greatest experiences with wine is not in its perfection but in its innate grandeur . . .
how it has survived history,
how it has aged during the years,
how it is living wine, delicate, affected by life and climate and circumstance just like me.  
The Poggio all'Oro was raw, unbridled, an expression of Sangiovese that you yearn to come across at least once in your life.  It hasn't been created by magnifying glasses, by incessant inspection of the human eye . . . The Poggio all'Oro comes from old vines, and if "his" year is a bad year (bad vintage). . . then it's just an f'ing bad year, like all of us have had in our lives -- you just hope that the next one will be better.   
Massimiliano's eyes rolled back in his head as he tasted the Poggio all'Oro 2004  . . . Silence. . . Silence. . . .Begin. .he made noises/grunts/moans/jibber jabber// when he didn't have the words to translate his Italian, because he never lost his rhythm. . . "The 2004 Poggio all'Oro is dynamic, (moan, grunt) harmony. . . in the glass. . . (he swirls the deep ruby red wine with a garnet rim). . . like a marathon runner who has just started his marathon and is warming up for the long distance. This wine, (uuhhmmrrr, uuhhmmrr) is a wine you can enjoy now but for sure in five or six years (Massy whistles), the wine for sure will be giving its best, for example, the 1995 -- a breath of freshness."
Summus 2005, Summus 1999, Brunello di Montalcino 2005, Brunello di Montalcino 2000, Poggio alle Mura 2004, Poggio alle Mura 1999, Poggio all'Oro 2004, Poggio all"Oro 1995 (from left to right)
SummuS: Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.  Produced only in "favorable vintages." 1985 was Banfi's first vintage of SummuS.  The Sangiovese is picked from their classified Brunello vineyard.  60,000 bottles/year. 
Brunello di Montalcino: Sangiovese.  170 hectares.  Aged two years in various oak.  520,000 - 550,000 bottles/year. 
Poggio alle Mura: Sangiovese. 55 hectares. Vines planted in 1992 with specifically chosen Sangiovese clones after a decade of research.  The grapes are selected from the best grapes within the vineyard.  Aged two years in 90% French Barrique and 10% Slovenian oak. 60,000 bottles/year.
Poggio all"Oro: Sangiovese. 24 hectares. "Poggio all"Oro" vineyard -- "Golden Hill Top." Planted right below the castle.  Older vines, single vineyard. Produced only in "favorable vintages."  Aged for five years with a minimum of two years French barrique.  55,000 bottles/year 
Osteria La Via di Mezzo
Carlo Marini (director of sales in Italy for Banfi) joined us for dinner that night.  I had no idea he worked for Banfi until after four bottles of wine and dinner.  We were on the cobblestone street waiting for Massy and Yoshi to say goodnight to the staff when I had told him how great my day was and he told me he worked with Banfi too.  We were speaking Italian. . my Italian was almost perfect after a Puligny Montrachet 1er Cru, Clos de la Mouchere, Monopole, 1996, produced by Jean Boillot et Fils.       
But if one of the most amazing white burgundies I've ever had didn't help me speak Italian better, then the next white wine: Cantine Terlano, Pinot Bianco 1996, aged for ten years in stainless steel the shape of a bee-hive (according to Massy) -- definitely helped me to feel less inhibited to speak Italian like a five year old.  
Unfortunately the Pinot Bianco didn't hold up so well in our tasting, even though I loved it! -- for not only was it stuck between a white burgundy and a Barolo, but Yoshi had brought a surprise bottle. . . and was opening each wine faster than my brain could compute what I was drinking.  Then again, almost every wine got lost in the excitement of discovering what Yoshi's wine would be.  I can barely remember the Pio Cesare Barolo 2004. . . and the surprise, which we had all thought was a French wine, turned out to be a nerello mascalese from Etna, Sicily! Rosso Rivarello 2005.
The Surprise Bottle
After everything. . . after everything. . . .I must say that this day in its entirety has been stamped and sealed in my memory as one of the most cherished experiences in my life.  Thank you Massy for organizing such an AMAZING day. Thank you Yoshi for taking so much time to spend with us and to share so much of your knowledge.  Thank you Carlo for such a "grande" dinner that I  will never forget.  Thank you Banfi and to everyone who works for Banfi. . . and that you Osteria La Via di Mezzo.  I cannot wait to return to Montalcino soon!

Gianluca e Giovanni

And for you BelnerO. . . I guess I will see you in my dreams. . . or when I soon open that beautiful 2005 three liter I have of you in the cellar.


  1. Much better! Love the design of the site and the photos. This site will kick the old sites butt :)

  2. Thanks always for your support Nicole! Especially from someone whose own blog kicks ass!