(Montalcino, February 26, 2007) Paleontologists studying ancient maritime soils at the Castello Banfi vineyard estate here in southern Tuscany unearthed the 5-million year-old vertebrae and ribs of a Pliocene era whale, the largest and oldest such discovery in this part of Tuscany. Scientists are confident in finding more of the remaining skeleton intact as they continue to carefully dig.
“Talk about terroir,” exclaimed Castello Banfi family proprietor Cristina Mariani. “We often find pieces and even whole shells of clams and mollusks, but this is far more significant. This discovery once again reminds us that the minerals and nutrients deposited millions of years ago are a big part of what makes this land ideal for nurturing noble grape varieties and giving complexity and flavor to our wines.”
The discovery was precipitated by that of a dozen shark’s teeth in the surrounding area, likely shed by predators feeding on the whale carcass shortly after its death. Upon discovering the first vertebrae, paleontologists suspected they were isolated but as they prepared to move them they discovered more. By Monday, February 25, a total of 24 football-sized vertebrae were unearthed, lined up in correct anatomical position and apparently coming from the tail end of the whale, meaning it is laying with its head pointed toward the medieval castle up the hill. “The state of preservation is ideal,” said paleontologist Simone Casati, who made the initial discovery on February 16 working under the supervision of Tuscany’s regional archeological superintendent. The group has discovered fossils of a dolphin in nearby Pienza and smaller whales elsewhere in Tuscany, noted Mr. Casati, but this is likely to be the oldest fossil by several million years.
Today the Mediterranean coast is nearly 20 miles away, but the whale dates back to a time when the area was part of the sea bed, resting under as much as 82 feet of water. “Because of the warm, almost tropical temperatures of the time, the sea was teeming with marine life,” said Mr. Casati. He noted that the cartilage disks were not completely fused to the bones, signifying that the whale was likely a young adult with potential for further growth at the time of its death.
Located at a bend in the cypress-lined road winding uphill from the village of Sant’Angelo Scalo to Castello Banfi’s hospitality center, the slope where the whale bones lay is concentrated with a rich, gray clay soil and is one of several spots on the estate speckled with fossilized and petrified seashells. “Over the years we have unearthed Roman and Etruscan artifacts, and now here is yet another significant layer that precedes those civilizations,” said Ms. Mariani-May. “It is quite fascinating, and, in a way, even humbling.” The estate is lending support for this discovery on its property, including use of earthmoving equipment to remove top layers of soil so that paleontologists may focus on the immediate area surrounding the skeleton.
Castello Banfi is internationally acclaimed for its clonal research to improve upon the regions historical Brunello di Montalcino, and making premier quality wines that are low in sulfites and histamines. It 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, Castello Banfi boasts a glass museum, enoteca, and two restaurants: the informal “Castello Banfi – La Taverna,” and the Michelin-starred fine dining “Castello Banfi – Il Ristorante.” The newest addition, Castello Banfi – Il Borgo luxury rooms and suites, nestled in a hamlet alongside the medieval castle, is scheduled to open on March 15.
Signature wines of Castello Banfi include the single-vineyard reserve Poggio all’Oro and unfiltered cru Poggio alle Mura Brunellos, proprietary cuvées ExcelsuS, SummuS and Cum Laude, and varietals Tavernelle Cabernet Sauvignon, Colvecchio Syrah and San Angelo Pinot Grigio.