My recent trip to Italy wasn’t all about eating. There was some drinking going on, too.
During our stay, my friends and I had the chance to visit two special wineries.
Castello Banfi in the Tuscan town of Montalcino is as luxurious a temple of the vine as you’ll likely ever see. It’s housed in a medieval castle, Poggio alle Mura (Walled Hilltop), and it features an enormous tasting room and shop as well as an area where a 12-year-old balsamic vinegar is aged. A taverna and an enoteca, where you can enjoy the Banfi wines with either a snack or a meal, are also on the property. You can also rent rooms there, if your dream is to stay where royalty once lived and enjoyed the incredible Tuscan vistas.
For all the sense of history about the place, Banfi is not even 30 years old. It’s owned by the Mariani brothers, John and Harry, and their family. On the day we visited, Pamela Mariani was tending the tasting room bar, handing out glasses of the Cuvée Aurora Rosé, an elegant treat made from 100 percent Pinot Noir with a light touch of raspberry flavor. She and her husband, John (not the celebrated food writer), greeted guests, several of whom were making return visits.
Standouts that we tried included the 2011 Le Rime, a youthful blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio that is a perfect antidote to the summer heat and reasonably priced; the 2009 Belnero, a Sangiovese of deep red color and elegance to spare; the 2010 Chianti Classico Superiore, a complex Sangiovese blend with good acid structure that made it a natural with rustic Italian fare; and the Rosa Regale, a sweet sparkling red that is perfect with chocolate. All of these are available in the San Antonio area.
If you want to tour the production facilities, you’ll have to take a drive about a mile or two from the castle. You’re still on the property, which encompasses 7,100 acres, of which about one-third is planted to grapevines. There, you can see the stainless vats where the entry-level Centine (pronounced CHEN-tin-ay) is made in white, red and rosé. These wines, which sell for about $10 a bottle, are excellent values with full flavor. You can also see the tanks where the winery’s higher-end wines, such as Summus or its series of age-worthy Brunello di Montalcino wines, are stored before being transferred to barrels; these holding tanks are made with a combination of French oak and stainless steel, so that the grapes get oak exposure just after pressing.
Wander through the cellars and the barrels are stamped not just with the name of the cooper but also the name of the forest that the oak was harvested from.
Is it any wonder Banfi has earned the Best Italian Winery honor?
The epic scope of the Banfi winery, castle and all, could not be more different from the small scale charm of Fausto, a tiny organic winery near the town of Orvieto that has been in the family for several generations.
When we arrived, we were one of several cars that pulled up at the same time. The drivers of the others hopped out with several multi-gallon jugs, which they filled with their wines of choice before driving off again.
Our guide was also the owner, the winemaker, the bottler and probably chief cook and bottle washer. He led us into a dark, dank cellar covered with stalactites and not the tiniest bit of mold. (Winemaking is about fermentation, right?) Our first taste was a sweet red, which was not bad, but an odd place to start. I guess Americans prefer the sweet stuff, or at least the Americans that have visited Fausto in the past.
We also tried a fruity but dry rosé and a white that had a pleasant cherry flavor. Both were so charming that we couldn’t resist picking up a couple of bottles, at a price of about 3 euros ($3.50) a bottle. No label adorned either, but they were uncomplicated fun the next afternoon.
That is part of the appeal of Italy’s wine scene. Both ends of the price and production spectrum are serious about what they make, and they work hard to ensure that there’s something for all to enjoy.