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Making Grape Strides

The world-famous wines of Montalcino owe much to the spirit of American enterprise, as Christopher Lim learns first hand on a visit to Tuscany.
Nov 26, 2016 5:50 AM

Montalcino is an Italian town in southern Tuscany, two hours' drive from Rome's Fiumicino Airport. It is almost synonymous with Brunello di Montalcino, the most famous wine it produces.

Up until the 1970s, Montalcino comprised relatively small producers, partly because its profusion of microclimates - areas with distinct soil and weather - encouraged it, and partly because that's just how the economy evolved.

This all changed when Castello Banfi arrived there in 1978. With its contiguous estate of 2,830ha, a third of which is vineyards, Banfi is the very definition of large-scale wine production.

Despite the name and the historical Poggio alle Mura castle that inspired its bottle labels, Banfi is actually an American enterprise named after the founders' grand-aunt. And the optimism, industrial know-how and scientific ingenuity they brought with them left an indelible mark on Montalcino. It probably isn't too much of a stretch to say that the area as a whole, and Brunello in particular, wouldn't have both scale and consistency today if it weren't for Banfi's injection of capital, research and development, and publicity.

Italian-American brothers John and Harry Mariani were successful importers of fine wine into the United States, but were having problems getting their hands on enough Brunello. Instead of pressuring the myriad of small producers to produce more, they decided to move to Montalcino and do it themselves. Co-founder John F. Mariani, Jr - now Chairman Emeritus - recalls that in many ways, the endeavour felt like starting from scratch because no one had done a systematic study of the land, water tables, etc.

Banfi did this and made these finding available to all. "All ships rise with the coming tide," John F. Mariani likes to say - a maxim echoed by his granddaughter Cristina Mariani-May, who now helms the family business together with her cousin, James Mariani. And indeed, all the ships have risen.

But it was a big bet, not the least because of the nature of Brunello, which is made from the Sangiovese grape. By law, Brunello must be aged for at least two years in oak and at least four months in the bottle; six months in the bottle in the case of higher-grade Brunello Reserva. And Brunello can only be released five years from the harvest year; six years in the case of Riserva. That's a long time to hold inventory, and requires not just clairvoyant forecasting of supply and demand, but the stomach for long-term investing.

Today, Banfi produces millions of bottles of wine annually, including Brunello of top-notch quality. And that doesn't even include Banfi's estates in Piedmont. Castello Banfi Brunello 2010 was awarded a gold medal and declared Best of Class at the 2015 Los Angeles International Wine Competition, among numerous other awards and medals.

It continues to share R&D. In its winery sits huge hybrid steel-and-oak fermentation tanks designed in-house, which blend the best of temperature controlled machinery with the complex influence of wood. And it welcomes everyone to take a look and learn.