Enrico Viglierchio of Castello Banfi wines visited St. John’s this week. It was a treat to attend both an instructional tasting and, later, a food and wine pairing dinner conducted by him.
International food and beverage corporations sometimes have a mixed reputation in the consumer marketplace. We’ve lately heard of the research to determine the perfect blend of fat, sugar and salt to make foods irresistible, but without any care to the health consequences. Mass-produced edibles often suffer from blandness meant to offend no one.
Wine producers like Castello Banfi, both big and small, also invest in research, but the direction seems to be completely different. Enrico’s instructional tasting covered Banfi’s main research objectives, and then we tasted some of the results of that research. It was obvious that Banfi was all about improving the quality and differentiation of its product.
Enrico spent considerable time discussing the origins and characteristics of the Sangiovese family of vines. Sangiovese is such an old vine, perhaps dating back as far as Roman times, that there are 600 sub-varieties with slightly different characteristics. The family as a whole is sensitive to local geo-climatic (soil, moisture, weather, exposure, etc.) conditions and many sub-varieties would have found a particular environmental niche.
Many of these sub-varieties would have been popular in the middle of the last century based on delivering high yields, but the market has changed and the emphasis is now on character and quality. Fifteen sub-varieties have been identified with superior quality characteristics, and Banfi has selected three of these for its plantings.
Enrico presented radar charts which were two-dimensional graphics of the intensity of the characteristics of each of the three clones — characteristics such as aromas of fruit, spice, flowers and earth; and structure elements such as acidity, tannin and colour.
One clone had more structure, another more fruit and the other more floral aromatics.
When the graphs were overlayed, the complete profile of the potential structure and aromatics that should appear in a Banfi Brunello di Montalcino was on display.
The next phase of Banfi’s research was to plot and analyze the differing soils in its vineyard locations. Differences in soil content, compaction and drainage would affect the nutrients and moisture available to the vines, and affect the selection of vines and rootstock. As part of the tasting, we were provided with barrel samples of the 2011 vintage from four vineyards with different soils and exposures. The differences between the vineyards were obvious on both the nose and in the mouth.
Banfi has also investigated the use of oak for aging its wine and fixing the colour of the Sangiovese. New fermentation facilities based on tanks built with a combination of wood and stainless steel have been constructed.
Brunello di Montalcino wines must spend a minimum of 24 months aging in barrels and Banfi has fine-tuned the timing in small and large barrels, as well as the types of oak used to make the barrels.
The learning continued at dinner, although at a more leisurely pace. Banfi has expanded from its origins in Tuscany in central Italy to Piedmont in the northwest corner of the country. There it has specialized in finding forgotten varieties and bringing them back to prominence.
One of these wines was the La Lus 2009 (there are a handful left on Last Chance clearance) made from the Albarossa grape. It was inky-black with a perfumed nose of raspberry, spice and earth, but was surprisingly smooth and supple to sip. It paired very well with a braised oxtail dish. Score: 15/Very Good.
Another obscure variety from Piedmont, at least to us, is the Brachetto d’Acqui which is used to produce a bubbly, low-alcohol, lightly sweet red wine: Rosa Regale 2012 (NLC $27.75). While that description may not entice you, I found this wine to be an exceptional pairing with the chocolate based dessert. Score: 14.5/Good.
Banfi has also pioneered bringing Piedmont varieties to Tuscany. The San Angelo Pinot Grigio 2012 (NLC $25.49) had much more body, aroma and taste than I am used to associating with this northern Italian varietal. The Tuscan environment seems to have made this grape capable of making a substantial wine in which the citrus elements beneficially accentuated the citrus ingredients used in the preparation of our tuna tartare appetizer. Score: 15.5/Very Good.
Banfi’s research in Tuscany is not only benefitting its high-end wines, but is also showing up in the more affordable Centine Rosso 2010 (NLC $18) which was served with some charcuterie. This wine had soft and bright cherry fruit aromatics with touches of spice, chocolate and vanilla. Score: 15/Very Good.
Steve Delaney is a member of the Opimian Society. Email him at email@example.com