April 22, 2010 - Castello Banfi: The Pursuit of Excellence in Brunello: A winemaker's look at Sangiovese's history and future in Montalcino's historic vineyards
On April 22, 2010, Castello Banfi winemaker Rudy Buratti, a 26-year Banfi veteran, touched down at JFK International Airport in New York for his second ever visit to the US, and his first time exploring beyond the Hudson River. His mission: to offer an in-depth look at Brunello literally from the ground up, showing the individual clones of Sangiovese and blends from the various soil types and single vineyards on our estate. The venues touched on some of America’s top towns, but also ventured into ‘second cities’ off the beaten path. For this very technical approach, it would be important to reach out to small, focused groups in a very personal way – this is, after all, a very personal approach to winemaking.
What Rudy and his translator/co-presenter Lars Leicht (another Banfi vet at 24 years) outlined was the historic nature of the soils that today make up the Castello Banfi estate in southern Tuscany, in the south eastern corner of the Brunello di Montalcino wine zone. These lean and varied soils were formed millions of years ago, as demonstrated by the discovery, in a vineyard at 250 meters above sea level, today about 30 miles from the shore of the Tyrrhenian, the complete skeleton of a whale carbon-dated to 5 million years old.
Fossils like this contribute the few nutrients and minerals found in this territory, characterized in some parts by the infamous “Crete Senese,” tracts where the soil is so poor that nothing can grow in it, and only the heartiest weeds manage to survive at their periphery. This strong character of these struggling weeds is passed on to the milk of the sheep that graze in the area, endowing the local Pecorino Toscano cheese with unique character just the way the wines of this territory express the same sense of place.
The Castello Banfi estate is a relatively large single tract of land, but only 1/3 of it is planted to vine and its winemaking heritage dates back to three of the founding producers of the Brunello Consorzio when it was formed in 1967 – Argiano, Camigliano and Poggio alle Mura, who were historically producing Brunello in this area throughout the 20th century.
While Banfi’s neighbors had the benefit of multiple generations of experience working in these soils, as a relative newcomer in the late 1970s Banfi needed to undertake a scientific study to understand the land as well as its historic varietal, Sangiovese. After identifying over 600 variations of Sangiovese growing throughout Montalcino, Banfi narrowed down a selection of 180 genetically different clones that it planted in a “catalogue vineyard” and micro-vinified under the same conditions, and evaluated with a stable panel of tasters working with a set parameter of sensorial observations.
Through a 10-year process of elimination, the panel identified 15 clones most suited for Brunello and registered them with the European government so others could benefit from them as well. Of these, Banfi chose three clones that worked best in their vineyards, neither acting as a “super clone” but coming together with complementary characteristics to make a clonal cuvee greater than the sum of its parts, resulting in a more consistently outstanding Brunello di Montalcino. The common denominator of the three clones includes a smaller bunch but even more importantly smaller berry size, yielding a higher ratio of skin over pulp to offer greater extraction of color, tannins and bouquet.
Only by highlighting and exalting the differences between each clone and each of the 29 soil types on its estate – a large producer acting and thinking like a small one, working on an artisan level to treat each of its 50 vineyards of Brunello as if they were single estates – was Banfi able to raise the bar for quality production.
First stop on Rudy’s American Tour was a ‘dress rehearsal’ of sorts in Old Brookville, NY, headquarters to parent company Banfi Vintners, America’s leading importer of fine wine. Banfi co-CEO’s James Mariani and Cristina Mariani-May, also family proprietors of Castello Banfi, gathered their key marketing, public relations and wine education executives to critique and tweak the presentation before it went on the road.
In each city, groups of as few as 12 and no more than 30 were seated in front of customized place mats with 12 different wines. The first flight consisted of those three different clones of Sangiovese – BF 30, Janus 10 and Janus 50 – all from the 2009 vintage and harvested from one single vineyard, but offering very different colors, aromas and structure.
Next came the vineyard blend of those wines grown together in the Casanova vineyard, with its lean soils on the southern part of the estate at around 150 meters above sea level. The resulting wine was more balanced than any of its components, with a solid structure of tannins and acidity (crucial for a wine with four years of aging before its release and the propensity for lengthy cellaring) along with a fruity bouquet.
With the differences between clones now understood, the tasting focused in on the difference between soil types in each vineyard. The next three wines came from three other vineyards and offered completely different characteristics. The Sorrena vineyard blend from 6 kilometers away on the northern side of the estate, still at around 150 meters above sea level but with a northern exposure showed spice and minerality. The Podernuovo vineyard at 350 meters above sea level offered even greater freshness and bracing acidity. Finally, the Poggio d’Orcia vineyard, at only 100 meters above sea level and near the banks of the Orcia River, demonstrated smoothness and elegance.
Having demonstrated the playing cards of varietal and territory, Rudy now launched into a discussion on the next critical factor in quality winemaking, the human touch. After careful harvesting by hand, the grape bunches are sorted at the winery and, after de-stemming, the grapes undergo a third selection to eliminate less than perfectly ripened fruit and any pieces of stem that might otherwise impart green flavors to the wine. The cost of such an operation, besides the obvious economics of equipment and manpower, is a 10% reduction in volume; but that difference in quality makes up for it tenfold.
When the healthy grapes enter the winery, fulfillment of the promise made in the vineyard continues with a careful fermentation in Banfi-patented hybrid tanks with a stainless steel base and cap to ensure cleanliness and provide temperature controlled, set upon a heart of oak staves that permit oxygenation and impart subtle character to the wines. This wood, along with that for the custom sized barrel and casks that will accompany the Sangiovese on its long journey to Brunello, is carefully chosen from the forests of central France, seasoned on the Banfi estate, and coopered to Banfi’s specifications for a mild toasting and greater ratio of volume of wine to surface area of oak. The goal is to have wood act not as a distraction but as a compliment to wine, adorning it like a frame for a beautiful piece of artwork, never drawing attention away from the beautiful subject within which is the fruit of the vine.
The next flight presented two Sangiovese based wines from the outstanding 2007 vintage: the debutant BelnerO (born with the 2005 vintage) and the historic SummuS (an estate standard bearer since 1985). Though each include different proportions of other varietals (15% Cabernet and Merlot for the BelnerO, 70% Cabernet and Syrah for the SummuS), they are clear expressions of the territory and the elegant tannic structure of Sangiovese grown here. Sense of place is palpable and fundamental to Castello Banfi’s winemaking style.
With the final flight, the argument return to Sangiovese in its purest expression, and the presentation of three variations on Brunello di Montalcino from the 2004 vintage. Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino was dubbed by Rudy as a “classico” interpretation of Brunello, with orange reflexes on the rim; spice, leather and pipe tobacco on the nose; and elegant acidity on the palate. Poggio alle Mura, a cru of vineyards immediately surrounding the estate’s historic castle and planted exclusively to the new clones of Sangiovese, demonstrated an even greater depth of color, bouquet and flavor; more complexity from the clones and the exclusive use of barrel (as opposed to cask for the ‘classico’) was evident. Last but not least, Poggio all’Oro Riserva offered brilliant power inherent in the additional aging (five years for the Riserva designation) and the expression of one single vineyard. Determined to be the estate’s most expressive plot, planted in 1978, and produced only in the most extraordinary vintages – in fact, it had been a long five year wait since the most recent release, the 1999.
The parting gift for attendees would drive home the serious approach that Castello Banfi has taken to what it calls its “Pursuit of Excellence” – the voluminous 444-page study documenting the study of soils, clones, varietals, wood, aging, environmental impact, hospitality and other winemaking factors considered since the estate’s founding.
In New York City, the tour kicked off with a presentation to 20 Masters of Wine and WSET candidates at the International Wine Center on a rainy Monday afternoon, March 26th. That evening Rudy took shelter in the bunker-like private rooms of Accademia del Vino, joined by a handful of the Big Apple’s top restaurateurs, sommeliers and wine merchants.
The following day, Castello Banfi’s Pursuit of Excellence tasting took wing, literally, with the shuttle to Boston. On Beacon Hill Rudy sought out the cellar of another fine restaurant, Toscano, for an intimate dinner with a handful of “bean town’s” finest wine professionals.
On Wednesday, March 27th the show moved to the theater district and took up residence on the 2nd floor of Boston’s “Colony of Cool,” the W Hotel. There, Boston Sommelier Society Founder and Chairman, Michael Meagher, gathered his minions to sniff, swirl and sip with us, peppering Rudy with in-depth questions and commentary on what they had in front of them. Serious crowd, this was – they came early, and lingered long after, peppering Rudy with more questions than the Boston Red Sox pitching staff throws curve balls!
Leaving the northeast’s rain behind, Rudy jetted to Florida’s sunny shores where on Thursday, March 28th he laid out his tasting mats at Palm Beach’s historic, luxurious and prestigious venue, The Breakers. Master Sommelier Juan Gomez, and his team of sommeliers (The Breakers alone has 6!) joined a handful of area colleagues for an afternoon presentation. That evening he returned to the coolness of the W and its hot Steak 954 to wine and dine with some of South Florida’s most passionate wine professionals.
Rudy had heard the American term, “Go West, Young Man,” and decided to follow that advice to kick off the month of May. He rang in the new month at midnight under the stars of Las Vegas. Well out of earshot of the slot machines and black jack tables, he instead tasted to the sound of competitive bocce ball and the fragrant aroma of a roasted suckling pig on the patio of Ferraro’s, a Vegas institution at its gorgeous new Paradise Road location across from The Hard Rock Hotel. With one of the nation’s highest concentration of professional sommeliers, Vegas delivered an after-hours audience of fun loving but serious ‘cork dorks’ from the strip and beyond.
Bleary eyed but Brunello inspired, Rudy jumped over the Mojave desert and through the San Bernardino Pass to sun drenched Laguna Beach. On Sunday morning, May 2, he brought his “liquid sunshine” indoors to the board room of The Montage where another dozen passionate wine pros, including not only the Orange County circle but an intrepid contingent who drove up from San Diego, heard “the dirt” on Brunello. Then his host, Montage sommelier Troy Smith, shed some California sunlight on how well these wines go with food with a pairing lunch on the patio overlooking the surf and “Lucy and Desi,” the property’s two tall, iconic palm trees.
“Beverly Hills, that’s where I want to be,” said Rudy, and The Four Seasons Hotel obliged in its Culina Restaurant on Monday May 3 for more tasting and bread breaking to another dozen sommeliers, bloggers and merchants. It felt like a family meal under the pergola in Tuscany.
Rudy even took a minute to steal a kiss from Marilyn Monroe – at least the colorful statue of her in the hotel’s courtyard!
Rudy enjoyed the Four Seasons style so much it became the venue for our next two tastings. Tuesday he headed to Texas Hill Country and award winning sommelier Mark Sayre’s set up at TRIO restaurant. Sara Spalding from Twin Liquor’s joined us and blogged about her experience later that same day – check it out at:
After a dinner with bloggers and authors that evening at the iconic Carmelo’s restaurant and even a stop for what Austin is known best for -- live music (Jimmy Stringer) and a beer (Lone Star) at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon.
The next day Rudy flew in and out of Houston where Master Sommelier Guy Stout, one of the leading wine professionals in the country, gathered 20 of Houston’s finest somms at Quattro Ristorante in this city’s Four Seasons. Another lively crowd, well guided by their friend and mentor, Mr. Stout.
Last but not least was Chicago, the 10th city, 13th tasting and 14th day of Rudy’s road trip. Spiaggia Restaurant’s elegant private dining room was the setting where a crowd of 30 gathered from the windy city’s top restaurants along with some guests from Missouri. Colleague Michelle Strollo was on hand to capture the tasting with an array of awesome pictures that she’s posted on Facebook:
Rudy even managed to squeeze in lunch at Bice and dinner at Pelago before winging it back to the terroir he’s been talking about these past two weeks, happy to put his own roots back on their home soil.
~ Return ~