Castello Banfi: how an American family created an Italian star
By John Schreiner
July 19, 2007
In the 1970s, when Baby Duck became Canada’s best-selling wine, Americans were guzzling a comparable Italian sweet fizzy red called Lambrusco.
The leading brand was Riunite, which was being imported by an agency called the House of Banfi. The founders of Banfi are a New York family of Italian origin called Mariani. Like Baby Duck, Lambrusco, which remains popular, helped generate a fortune.
The Mariani family ploughed the Lambrusco profits into the development of a fine Tuscan estate called Castello Banfi. They now own 2,900 hectares (7,100 acres) that encompasses many single vineyard sites and a restored medieval castle. (That is equal of the entire vineyard acreage in British Columbia).
The business is now run by the third generation: James Mariani and his cousin, Cristina. James recently swept through Vancouver to show some of Banfi’s wines. His cousin may be here next February for the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival, since Italy is the festival’s theme region in 2008 and Banfi is expected to be a participating winery.
Castello Banfi was founded in 1978 by John and Henry Mariani (James’s father and uncle). This was at a time when a number of outside investors were sinking money into Tuscany, rejuvenating that historic wine region.
Burton Anderson, in his 1982 book on Italian wine called Vino, noted this inflow of capital: “The most talked about outsider was House of Banfi, the largest U.S. importer of Italian wines, which had prepared some 1,000 acres of vines … at a place called Poggio d’Oro, or Golden Hill.” With admirable prescience, he added: “Given Banfi’s Midas touch, the new estate will probably live up to the name some day.”
In fact, Banfi has become one of Italy’s leading producers, thanks to a number of very clever moves by the Mariani family. One was the employment of winemaker Ezio Rivella. Now retired, he was one of the top Italian winemakers during the last quarter of the 20th Century.
Under Rivella, Banfi undertook fundamental and important research on the Sangiovese grape variety, Tuscany’s major native red. James Mariani notes: “Sangiovese is a major clonal proliferator, like Pinot Noir.” Some 160 presumed clones were catalogued and put through winemaking trials. Banfi has narrowed that down to 15 clones, three of which have been identified as particularly good. And to Banfi’s credit, the research has been shared with other wineries “to help raise the bar for quality in Montalcino,” the winery says.
(Montalcino is the village in the Brunello region of Tuscany, not far from the Banfi winery. Once one of the poorest of the hill towns, it is now an exceedingly prosperous wine town.)
The drive for technological advance continues at the winery. Banfi has developed new filtering and processing techniques that are gentler than conventional methods and leave more flavour in the wines. The winery also has patented unusual fermenters for red wines that combine stainless steel heads with oak sides. The rationale: oak vats are great for fermenting red wines but stainless steel is much easier to clean.
James Mariani showed three of the Banfi wines currently listed in British Columbia, plus two of the estate’s top reds that show up from time to time (hopefully at next year’s wine festival).
* Le Rime 2006 ($14.95).This is a blend of 70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Grigio, made in a fresh, crisp style with no time in barrel. It is a zippy and refreshing white whose delicate citrus aromas and flavours are retained under screw cap closures. 86 points.
* Principessa Gavia 2006 ($25.95). A white wine made from the Cortese grape, grown in the district around the Italian port city of Genoa. Mariani suggests that the grape has thrived there over the centuries because the wine is so good with seafood. This is a very tasty wine. It manages to be crisp and full at the same time, with floral and nutty aromas. 90.
* Cume Laude 2004 ($37.95). This red is one of the Super Tuscan blends, so-called because it combines Sangiovese with varieties formerly not even allowed in Tuscany. This 25% Sangiovese, 30% each Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and 15% Syrah. It is a harmonious red, with aromas of vanilla and red fruit. 88.
Banfi also lists two other Tuscan red blends: Col di Sasso ($14.95), which is Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon; and Centine della Toscano Rosso ($22), a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
* Brunello di Montalcino 2002 (approximately $65). This wine is made entirely from the Sangiovese clones selected by Banfi. Barrel-aged for two years, it is a rich, mouth-filling red with flavours of plum, vanilla and chocolate. The tannins are firm but not hard. 89. Not listed currently.
* Poggio Alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino 2001 (approximately $80). This is a single vineyard red from the estate. Also barrel-aged for two years, the wine is rich and sensuous, with flavours recalling plum jam. The ripe tannins will carry this wine to greater complexity with age. 93. Alas, not listed currently.