Saturday, 15 August 2015

Dialogue with Banfi 

Castello Banfi, considered one of the top estates in Brunello, hosted a media lunch recently. It was an intimate event with around 10 wine writers, two ASC members, Paolo Fassina, Banfi’s Asia Manager, and Cristina Mariani-May, its co-CEO.

I had met Cristina briefly before and judging by her accent and her address I thought she was American, probably married into the family... but how wrong could I be! So it was nice that I could finally set the record right at the event. Cristina is in fact 100% Italian and the third generation owner co-managing the company with her first cousin. Yes, she lives in New York but so did her grandfather, who was a wine merchant, and founded the company Banfi. The company’s name was inspired by his aunt Teodolinda Banfi, a lady with a big personality who was the head of household at the Vatican and an expert on wine.

Longing to find its roots back in Italy, the family established Castello Banfi in Tuscany in 1978, gradually assembling a contiguous estate of 2,780 ha in Montalcino. Banfi is not the biggest estate in Montalcino but it does have the biggest single vineyard. Only about a third of the property is planted with vines, the rest is home to olive groves, fruit trees and woods. In addition, the family also owns the historic winery Bruzzone in Piedmont, now dedicated to producing sparkling wine.

Probably because of the American influence on discipline and the quest for perfection, John and Harry Mariani, the second generation, collaborated with the University of Milan on a Sangiovese Clonal Research project that eventually identified 15 clones out of 650 on the Banfi estate and the surrounding area that best represent the characteristics of the Sangiovese grape. Since 1992 Banfi’s new plantings of Sangiovese always have at least three or four of these 15 clones that are suitable for the specific soil and are complementary to each other.

The other thing that Cristina is proud of is the hybrid fermenters made of a combination of wood and stainless steel, which help produce the optimal wine: less stringent, softer and fleshier. The evidence? James Suckling rated Banfi’s 2010 as its best vintage.

The lunch turned out, it seemed to me, to be a two-way interview. While we were asking Cristina about the wine and the estate, she was quizzing the media at the table about the Hong Kong/China wine market with questions like why the Chinese prefer red wine, are drinking habits changing, what is the future of Italian wine in this part of the world, resulting in a lively and entertaining discussion. Although we all had different opinions, one thing for sure is that the recent consolidation resulting from the anti-corruption drive on the mainland is a positive thing in building a sustainable wine market in China. We should focus on the younger generation and instead of talking about wine in a technical and inaccessible way, we should help them to enjoy and welcome wine as part of their everyday lifestyle.

Going back to the wine, the welcome drink was Tener, a sparkling wine with an unusual blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay using Méthode Charmat (fermentation in tank). Simple but pleasant, it was perfect both as an aperitif and to pair with the shrimp spring roll we had for lunch. I particularly like the San Angela, a 100% Pinot Grigio IGT wine from Montalcino. It is richer than the typical Pinot Grigio from northern Italy because of the warmer Tuscan sun. These two value-for-money wines would be an ideal introduction to new consumers especially alongside dim sum.

The Brunello di Montalcino 2010, with its black fruits accompanied by hints of earthiness and spices, is drinking well now, thanks to those hybrid wood/stainless-steel fermenters, while the single plot Brunello di Montalcino Poggio Alle Mura 2010, with more depth and concentration, will age beautifully.

Banfi is certainly not the artisan producer one may be looking for in Brunello and its wine may be made with the American market in mind, but so what as long as it is made well and with such a passionate owner behind it?

Banfi is available from ASC Fine Wines.

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