Raccolta Selection: Banfi, April 2004

Geppetto was a master craftsman who dreamed of building something so perfect it would become real. The Mariani master craftsmen had the same dream and invested all their skills in building the perfect winery. Pinocchio needed a little magic to become a real boy, but, as no magic was available, the Mariani family had to settle for hard work and a lot of money to make their dream a reality. While there is not a lot of romance or magic in the Castello Banfi story there is a tremendous level of professional skill applied to their vineyards and winemaking. The result is an extensive portfolio of technically perfect wines. With their Brunello di Montalcino wines they go beyond technically perfect and seem to have found a bit of that magic Pinocchio required to become a real boy for they are indeed real wines.

1999 Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino

Every year it seems to arrive in your Inbox like clockwork: you could almost set your watch by it. It's the press release from Castello Banfi announcing that once again they have been awarded the grand prize at Vinitaly and crowned as Italy's best winery - for the 11th time in a row. At this point, we can assume it's more than luck.

Ninety wine pros swirled, swished and spat their way through almost 3,500 wines and at the end, when the last spit-bucket was dumped, Castello Banfi had yet again racked up more cumulative points than any other Italian winery and their 1997 Brunello di Montalcino was awarded the Grand Gold Medal as best wine of the fair. Success is a hard thing to argue with.

John and Harry Mariani invaded somnolent Montalcino in 1978 with their millions generated from the sales of Riunite in the United States and, "a vision to depart from conventional winemaking rules and craft products that would appeal to modern consumer tastes while continuing to satisfy the lofty demands of the connoisseur." It is fair to say that they have more than achieved this goal. However, the biggest gift the Mariani family has bestowed on wine lovers was not their own wines, but the fact that they almost single handedly caused the rebirth of Brunello di Montalcino and inspired a quality revolution that has improved all the wines of the Montalcino area. Before Banfi (b.b. on the Montalcino calendar) great Brunello was found at few estates. Today, (a.b.) there is a rainbow of interesting wines that range from austere, elegant classics to high extract, oaky fruit bombs. In 1977 b.b., there were less than 15 producers now, in 2004 a.b. there are more than 150 to choose from. As in Barolo and Barbaresco this revolution and the resulting explosion of styles and creativity has made these regions far more dynamic and the hot debate over which is best has propelled all of them into the international spotlight formerly occupied only by Bordeaux and Burgundy. A little controversy is a good thing for both quality and marketing.

I was glad to see the Brunello win the big prize for Banfi instead of the double capital letter duo of ExcelsuS and SummuS or the good student of the group, Cum Laude. As good as these wines are, for me, their Brunello di Montalcino wines have always been the most impressive. Research conducted by Banfi has redefined the brunello clones of sangiovese. Their study isolated over 600 clones of brunello and identified the best types for whatever results the winemaker is looking to achieve - be that quality or quantity. Banfi has used this research to maximum effect and produces excellent wines in the southern section of Montalcino, which was traditionally considered inferior to the more temperate northern area of the zone.

Whether you are a Banfi fan or hater, Castello Banfi has changed the entire meaning of the name Brunello di Montalcino and after three decades is now part of what Montalcino is and what it will be in the future. They are respected in Italy because they have given more than they have taken and Montalcino will be forever in their debt.

Raccolta Selection: 1999 Villa Banfi Brunello di Montalcino ($60)
Tasting notes: A radiant, brilliant ruby. Just translucent. Fresh ripe cherry, raspberry and violets lead the aromas, but the underlying tobacco and black truffle notes slowly grow and blend with the sweet fruit. Round ripe and full, but not heavy on the palate. The flavors are seamless and refined moving effortlessly from bittersweet cherries; to pungent tobacco; to sweet raspberry; to black pepper; to blueberries; to warm spices. The finish at this early stage is dominated by sweet dark fruits and round, integrated tannins.