Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino (Tuscany), Poggio alle Mura, 2004 (Banfi Vintners, $82): Brunello di Montalcino was the first great wine I ever tasted. The occasion was dinner for two at Sabatini restaurant in Florence many years ago, when I was so young that the waiter thought me unworthy of Brunello and tried to steer me toward Chianti instead. In stumbling Italian, I explained to him that Brunello di Montalcino was not available in the U.S., and that I was therefore determined to taste it in Italy. I can still remember that glorious wine.
About a year later, Brunello finally became available in America. The brand was Poggio alle Mura and it was…well, far less spectacular than the wine I tried in Florence. But its arrival represented an important milestone for Italian wines in this market. Poggio alle Mura was the name of a 12th century fortress atop a hill, and the vineyards surrounding it, in the southern part of the Montalcino zone. About ten years later, John and Harry Mariani of the Banfi importing company bought the castle and its vineyards; they renamed the castle Castello Banfi and incorporated its vineyards into the wine estate they had begun to build several years before -- today, the largest and most innovative wine estate in the area.
The wine now called Poggio alle Mura is a single-vineyard Brunello di Montalcino grown and produced by Castello Banfi. Banfi also makes a Brunello blended from its various estate vineyards, as well as a Brunello Riserva called Poggio all’Oro from an older single vineyard.
Like Castello Banfi’s multi-vineyard Brunello -- but unlike its wine from the older Poggio all’Oro vineyard -- Poggio alle Mura Brunello grows from clones of Sangiovese identified and selected by Banfi through thirty-year trials in cooperation with the Universities of Pisa and Milan. The comprehensive project began with approximately 600 presumed clones of Sangiovese growing throughout Montalcino and, through micro-vinifications of 180 of these, eventually resulted in the selection and propagation of twelve clones that are now available to all growers in the zone. Castello Banfi’s vineyards are planted principally with three of these clones; Poggio alle Mura was the first of the winery’s many vineyards to be replanted.
Castello Banfi’s Poggio alle Mura Brunello thus is a modern wine from an historic property. Within the context of the wines from Montalcino, it is not a traditionally-styled Brunello but it is also by no means a rogue upstart. The Poggio alle Mura vineyards, replanted in 1992, are now in their prime. The winemaking regime includes aging in French oak barriques (first to third use) for 90 percent of the wine and Slavonian oak casks for the remaining 10 percent of the wine, but the raw material of the wine -- particularly in the excellent 2004 vintage -- is so rich and concentrated that the oak does not overpower the wine. It is a wine built for aging.
The wine’s aroma is fairly intense for Sangiovese, and it runs the gamut of the grape’s potential, from dark fruit to meaty, savory and mineral notes, and floral and tobacco nuances, as well as oak spice. In the mouth, the wine is full bodied and powerful, with 14.5 percent alcohol and all the tannin that you expect from Brunello, here rather silky in nature. The rich flavors echo the wine’s aromas with emphasis on dark fruit, leather, spice and minerality, and they have admirable depth and concentration. The long, fruit-and-mineral finish carries the wine’s flavors on and on.
Although this is a big wine, it is very sleek and rather compact at this stage. With aeration in large glasses, you can certainly drink it and enjoy it now, but patience will have its reward over the next ten to 15 years, and beyond.