As you drive from the south towards the high plateau on which the hill town of Montalcino sits in Southern Tuscany, you can’t really miss the presence of Banfi. In a mixed landscape of farming, woods, hunting land and of course, vineyards, once you cross the River Orcia you see first an enormous factory of a winery – there is no other word – and then the romantic castle.
The winery, down on the plain, is a bit of a blot on the landscape. But then, we can be too snooty about this – it provides employment, wealth and a serious commitment to lifting the standards of everyday wine, which is its mainstay. So Banfi is a big, big player.
The firm’s everyday wines are good, modern bottles. They show lots of innovation with an unusually wide range of wines for Tuscany – a full range of international grape varieties and even a Pinot Grigio, all carried forward by expertise in vineyard and winery and the power of the brand.
But brands don’t really get prestige unless they have quality wines. And Banfi has to succeed with its Brunello as, after all, we are not far from the walls of Montalcino. This variety is part of the large Sangiovese family, capricious, given to variation, difficult to grow and vinify well, prone to excess acid and astringency. In short, as capable of the bad and the ugly as the good and the great.
Historically, Brunello was a bit of a beast to be tamed. The word is simply the local name for the type of Sangiovese grown here. As it hints (Brunello – brunette!), the grape produces a wine that is darker than its relatives, with high tannins and acidity. Back in the nineteenth century, the Biondi-Santi family created a style for it: put simply, make wine, put in a large barrel and wait for five years for the beast to calm down. Hopefully what emerged was a wine of complex, aged fruit, scents of liquorice and tobacco,* long-lived. But that takes time and so is an expensive proposition. A tasting in London of the Banfi’s top wines showed how they at least are tackling this challenge.
The tasting at Decanter’s Fine Wine Encounter, November 2009, was led by Cristina Mariani-May, part of the owner’s family. She gave us the family philosophy, emphasising raising quality through investment and research. The wines themselves spoke clearly of how Banfi want to re-position Brunello as a more immediately attractive wine.
Brunello Poggio alle Mura is only made in exceptional years. The 2004 is a complex wine, attractively ruby in colour, with fresh and dried fruit flavours and a luscious topping of French oak, vanilla especially. In the mouth, it is refined but with a great streak of acid. I had a double reaction to it. On taking the very first sniff, I wrote down ‘happiness’ for its excellent Sangiovese character and immediate appeal. And then I thought – but it’s very atypical for Brunello and, more importantly, what is going to happen when the veneer of French barrique wears off? But we will only be able to tell that in another 5-10 years …
You can clearly see the effect of even short-term ageing in the picture of the 2004 (on the left, with the brighter red) and the 2001 (on the right, developing some orange at the rim). This second wine was more traditional, a nose of sour cherries, preserved fruit and plums, a wine that you have to go toward, rather than it leaping out of the glass at you. That may answer the question in relation to the 2004 (and all may be well) but certainly, it is immediately appealing. Banfi knows about modern (American?) consumers and that they don’t want to wait to drink their wine.
The older wines are more typical, all well-made, with no signs of oxidisation common in more average wines.
Brunello 1999 – musky, beautiful fruit, much better balance now between overall weight in the mouth and acidity
Brunello 1997 – mulberries and plums, earthy or mushroom notes beginning to develop, balsam, still refreshing
Brunello Riserva Poggio all’Oro 1995 – a star wine, powerful notes of fruit, liquorice, velvety, still good acid and a drying finish
Brunello Riserva Poggio all’Oro 1990 – a wine which split opinion, some found the nose vegetal and earthy, with fading fruit, others something closer to eucalyptus or menthol, rounded in the mouth, acidity now a sideshow. On the way down or over?
Thanks to Decanter and to Banfi for this tasting – probably the best £10 we have spent for a long time! Banfi’s Brunellos in their current style won’t please the traditionalists. But they will keep Brunello, this great expression of Sangiovese, in the shop window of the world’s great red wines.
* Looking back on this post in summer 2012, having returned from Montalcino, I am struck by this description: nothing about sour cherries or pale colour; too much about wood effects from new barrels. I was clearly under the (Banfi) influence at the time of writing. But it is a style some people like.