(Montalcino, September 14) Though the once ultra-traditional Brunello region of southern Tuscany has been no stranger to innovation over the past three decades, the 2007 vintage here opened yet another chapter in the evolution of fine wine.
Revolutionary changes in grape growing and wine making converged this year at one of Italy’s most honored vintners, the Castello Banfi vineyard estate. Fruit harvested from vineyards that were carefully selected to match grape varieties to ideal growing conditions, soils and microclimate, arrived at a new “winery within a winery” utlizing pioneering techniques and equipment. Special attention to quality sees hand selection of bunches in the vineyard further refined with berry selection at the winery. The grapes are then gently transferred to specially designed fermenters that combine the best elements of tradition and innovation to nurture the fruit into wine.
“From the vineyard to the bottle, our winemaking is deeply focused on the link between wine and territory,” said Cristina Mariani-May, family proprietor of Castello Banfi. “We have dedicated years of research to understand and capture the unique aromatic and flavor profiles within the constellation of single vineyards on our estate, and express that character in our wines.”
The work started in the vineyards at the estate’s inception, according to Ms. Mariani-May. When her father and uncle founded the vineyard in 1978, they started with some pre-existing Brunello vineyards, but were intent on not “inheriting the mistakes of others,” she said. Instead, they dedicated their efforts to planting new vineyards on virgin soil and matching grape to ground.
“They saw the potential to improve upon the region’s already great traditional wine, Brunello, but also the possibility to introduce noble vines never before grown here,” she said. Castello Banfi was the first in Tuscany to plant Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio, and an early pioneer of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in an area that was once dominated by Sangiovese.
Over the next three decades, Castello Banfi became a center for experimentation and development, both in the vineyards and in the winery. Geologists identified 29 different soil types across the sprawling 7,100 acre-estate, 1/3 of it dedicated to vineyards, the remainder divided equally between olive groves, fruit orchards and woodland. Grape varieties were matched to the vineyard sites that allowed them to best express the characteristics of both the fruit and the land. Most significantly, Banfi delved into the 600 apparent clones of Sangiovese for Brunello, planted an experimental vineyard of 160 of them, and narrowed down the selection to the 15 best suited for the territory. Banfi then registered those with the European Community, becoming the first wine estate to do so in a gesture toward the greater winemaking zone. The newest vineyards on the estate are each planted with three or four of the complimentary clones, based on various factors, combining the best elements for a consistently outstanding Brunello.
In the winery, Banfi utilized both stainless steel tanks and oak barriques for the various stages of winemaking. For aging, Banfi worked with coopers to customize their barrels. They made them slightly larger than the normal barrique to allow a greater ratio between surface area of wood and volume of wine; assembled the barrel using a lower flame for a longer period of time in order to avoid charred flavors in the wine, and even brought the wood staves to the estate for seasoning under close supervision in the ideal environment.
For fermenting wine, Banfi winemakers appreciated the flavor and aeration imparted by oak, but coveted the advantages of stainless steel for temperature control and hygiene. So in an unprecedented move, they brought together steel smith and cooper – previously considered fierce competitors – to make a hybrid fermenter that would combine the best elements of both materials. One of the greatest challenges was to bind wood to steel, which reacts to temperature fluctuations at a different pace, but the Banfi team developed a special flange to resolve that issue. The new tanks, patented by Banfi, have a base and head of temperature-controlled stainless steel for easy access and cleaning, and a body of wood staves that can be removed, scraped down, and replaced periodically to extend the life and effectiveness of the unit. Banfi even developed a permanent ceiling-based crane to install and move the new tanks as needed.
Twenty-four of the hybrid fermenters were put in place earlier this year in a section of the winery dedicated to the micro-vinification of single vineyard, mono-varietal and “super Tuscan” cuvée estate wines. The fermenters sit on a mezzanine alongside dual crushers and grape sorting tables that accomodate the hand-harvested grapes, and are mounted atop load-bearing stainless steel storage tanks. The structure allows for gravity feed transfer throughout the entire winemaking process.
“We have an incredibly intimate winemaking relationship with our grapes,” said Ms. Mariani-May, “from the selection and placement of each vine to the final selection of fruit, berry by berry. We have the advantage of placing our winery as center stage to the ampitheater of our vineyards on one contiguous property, meaning less time from vineyard to winery; now this new system allows us to further minimize the handling of the wine from one stage of vinification to the other, and from one type of vessel to the other.”
The harvest at Castello Banfi began on August 20 with white varieties, but the inauguration of the micro-vinification winery took place on September 6 with grapes for the single vineyard Merlot, Mandrielle. Other micro-vinified wines will include the estate’s three Brunellos di Montalcino (Castello Banfi, Poggio all’Oro Riserva and the cru Poggio alle Mura); the single vineyard Tavernelle Cabernet Sauvignon, and Colvecchio Syrah; and Castello Banfi’s Montalcino Super Tuscan cuvées: SummuS, ExcelsuS and Cum Laude. All are unfiltered since the 1998 vintage.
The 2007 harvest innaugurated new techniques to similarly minimize the handling and highlight the flavors of a second tier of wines produced at the estate, including the red “baby Super Tuscan” cuvées Centine, Col di Sasso, and CollePino. Screen, mesh and earth filters have been replaced by tangential filtration, which works much like nature’s own method of purification in a mountain stream that runs across a rough riverbed. As the wine flows downward, impurities are held back and fall away, eliminating pressure and allowing more of the wine’s noble compounds to remain intact rather than being trapped. These same wines will be stabilized through electro-dialysis, replacing the cold stabilization system, an industry standard since the 1960s, which chilled wines to crystallize and remove tartrates, a by-product of fermentation. In tangential filtration, as the wine flows between two membranes, a light electrical shock prevents potassium, calcium and tartaric ions from bonding to form tartrates. Both tangential filtration and electro-dialysis leave the finished wine stable yet more complete in color and flavor by preserving the natural balance of flavors and acting upon the wine’s natural chemistry rather than removing elements. The two techniques are widely acknowledged to make wines more pure and organic, yet not widely used because of the significant investment required.
Ms. Mariani-May reported that the 2007 harvest to date was proving to be a very good one, with outstanding quality and quantities at about 90% to 95% of the previous year.
Castello Banfi, internationally acclaimed for making premium quality wines that are low in sulfites and histamines, was the first wine estate in the world to be internationally recognized for exceptional environmental, ethical and social responsibility (ISO 14001 and SA8000) as well as customer satisfaction (ISO 9001:2000). A regional beacon for hospitality, in addition to its two restaurants -- the informal “Castello Banfi – La Taverna” and the fine dining “Castello Banfi – Il Ristorante,” the only winery-based restaurant in Italy to be awarded a Michelin star -- Castello Banfi boasts a glass museum, enoteca, balsamic cellars and daily winery tours for visitors to the region. The newest jewel in this hospitality crown, Castello Banfi – Il Borgo luxury rooms and suites, opened in March 2007.