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This is the blog of Steve Burkett of Italy, Our Italy

Stay Here-Eat Here-Drink Here: Banfi

Warning: This article may change your life forever! 

The Banfi Story

This is my longest article thus far...but there is a reason. I want you to know all there is to know about the Banfi Experience so that, you too, might enjoy this fabulous place.

In 1967, the Mariani brothers, John and Harry, traveled to Italy with the aim of importing a wine that would appeal to American tastes (we didn't have much of a wine palate at that time, did we?). They succeeded when they brought Riunite to the US. Remember the slogan, "Riunite on ice, that's nice!"?

[to refresh your memory, click here to see a '70s TV commercial for Riunite] 

By 1983 they had become the number one imported wine in America, with 11,000,000 cases of this popular wine having been imported. 

With funds in hand (you do the math on the sales of 11,000,000 cases of wine), they headed to Italy in 1977 to purchase around 1,800 acres of land just south of the town of Montalcino. Here, they established Castello Banfi, the centerpiece being the dramatic castle itself, which sits atop Poggio alle Mura, seen here in my digitally painted image.

From 1978, the goal of the two brothers was to create a state-of-the-art winery, combined with the most advanced science in the vineyards for the production of premium wines. The Mariani family has succeeded in a big way. 

John and Harry purchased properties in other areas of Italy that had established vineyards. But it is interesting to note that the thousands of acres that they purchased in the Montalcino area was mainly barren land, just waiting for them clear and plant.

Their Tuscan estate is most well known for their Brunello wine. Most people would agree that they were instrumental in bringing Brunello to center stage as Italy's premier wine. But, more on wine a bit later.

The Property

The Montalcino-area estate is comprised of over 7,000 acres. In the 18th century, a stone hamlet sprung up surrounding the Castello Poggio alle Mura. That hamlet became the borgo (hotel) and the principal tourist destination of the estate. Below is a photo of the castle, taken many years ago.

[click on an image for a larger view]

Today, the Castello Banfi still sits proud upon its knoll. 

Here are a few more photos of the property surrounding the castle. 

 

Here you can see one of the quiet courtyards, as well as the well-presented and educational Etruscan-glass museum.

Castello Banfi - Il Borgo (The Hotel)

For us, the main attraction of the property is the hotel, or 'borgo'. The Borgo is comprised of 6 rooms, 8 suites, and a junior suite. In this photo from their website, you can see some of the rooms that cascade down the hillside. 

And here is my wife, Ellen, as she returns to our room from the pool on a path through rosemary...a heady experience.

Our room was the fabulous Summus Suite. Now, we are not accustomed to staying in suites...and that is not what we had booked. But owner Pam Mariani was very sweet to upgrade our room to this extraordinary lodging.

I was so stunned by our accommodation that I think I took only one interior photo during our stay. That photo is from our living room (there was also a very large bedroom and an expansive bathroom...any of the three rooms exceeded the size of a normal hotel room).

The view from our room of the Tuscan countryside was like a painting by Cezanne! 

As I wrote to Pam, "We felt like royalty!" 

 

A full breakfast was made available each morning in the guests-only breakfast room. We opted to dine on the terrace under the glorious Tuscan sun.

And then there was the pool, where we spent the good part of one day. 

Cold, refreshing beverages await you!

 

We were joined at the pool by swifts that skimmed the pool to drink water as they flew by.

And what is that strange bird that kept visiting?

 

The greenery was well kept by the grounds keepers.

 

The Vineyards

A portion of Banfi's expansive vineyards surround the castle. Here are a few photos taken during our stroll through the makings of a future Brunello. 

In this photo, you can see that olive groves and grape vines align on the Banfi lands. 

 

Dining at Banfi

There are two dining options at Banfi -- La Taverna for a traditional, rustic lunch, and La Sala dei Grappoli for an elegant dinner.

     La Taverna

In this photo, the entrance to La Taverna lies just ahead.

La Taverna is a classical Tuscan restaurant in the shade of the medieval castle of Poggio alle Mura. Taverna Banfi is positioned beneath the vaulted arches of the former barrel cellars of the castle, where Brunello once rested in large oak casks.

But today, the menu offers the traditional dishes of Montalcino and Tuscany. 

 

On our 2012 visit to La Taverna, we had a special tasting menu with wine pairings.

We dined well on both of our trips to Banfi. Here are some photos from our meal with our great friends, Debbie and Scott Kennedy. For more on traveling to Italy with friends, see my blog article titled, "Traveling with Friends". 

 

Both Daniela and Erney took care to make sure all was perfect, including the wines that were paired with our meal.

You can see that Erney is serving up our dessert wine, which is called 'Florus' -- it is hard to describe just how yummy this sweet wine is as it crosses the palate.

I have to say that it has surpassed Moscato d'Asti as my favorite dessert wine.

You can see the rich golden, straw-colored, dessert wine.

 

And here is the noon-time detritus that we left behind as we departed to explore the winery. 

     La Sala dei Grappoli

It is hard to top the fabulous lunch at La Taverna, but you will have to trust me when I say that La Sala dei Grappoli is an elegant treat. I am embarrased to say that I left my camera in our room when we dined there...so please settle for these photos from the Banfi web site.

 

The Winery

The Banfi winery is state-of-the-art. As new-comers, they were not tied to centuries-old traditions in wine making. So, Banfi defined state-of-the-art wine making through their revolutionary technical research and innovation. And do they keep all of their gained knowledge to themselves? No, they do not. They freely share all they have learned in wine making with their Montalcino-area neighbors, as they believe that it is not a single wine label that makes an area known to wine lovers, but a whole varietal area. As such, Banfi has put Brunello di Montalcino on the world-wide map. 

Here are a few photos from our tour of the pristine Banfi winery, which is about 2 miles from Castello Banfi. What you see is the incoming Sangiovese grape, the hybrid stainless-steel and wood, temperature-controlled vinification tanks, and the aging barrels and casks.

After vinification, their Brunello di Montalcino is held for a long, silent, two-year rest in wood, where it gains its distinctive characteristics of strength, elegance and longevity. There are more than 7,000 barrels laid out in orderly rows.  

They poetically say that this aging in wooden barrels and casks, "make up the heart of Banfi, which beats in the silent and peaceful ambiance surrounding our winery."

I can say no more.

Enoteca

But, there is still the Enoteca, or wine shop. Here, one can taste and purchase wines for shipment home, including wines that are hard for us to find in the U.S. 

And, let's not forget that you can purchase Banfi's extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar (read below regarding quantity), also. 

But, from whence does the balsamic come? Read on!

 

Balsameria

Banfi's balsamic is called 'Salsa Etrusca', in honor of the traditional methods of the ancient Etruscans.

While in the Enoteca, ask for a key to the balsamaeria. But be forewarned: prepare to have your head explode with the pungent, sweet goodness of aging balsamic! When you step through that door, as Ellen is doing here...wow! 

The grapes are harvested late, when their sugars are concentrated, and are then gently pressed.  The must is filtered and then simmered to reduce it in volume and further concentrate its flavor.  After cooling, it is transferred to wooden casks for 4 – 8 months.

In the balsameria, you can read about the process and see the barrels as the salsa balsamica ages. Note the linen cloths that sit above the evaporation hole in the barrel, held down with a circle of silver chain. 

During this aging, the process of “balsamization” begins.  Successively the balsamic is racked into progressively smaller barrels (from 60 to 25 liters) of different woods (oak, chestnut, cherry, ash and mulberry) until the filling of the 25 liter barrels. After about 12 years of aging, you can enjoy the salsa balsamica.

I was flabbergasted to learn from their website that, because of the long process and limited number of barrels, each year, only three liters of Salso Etrusca are bottled. Don't expect to find it available in the U.S. Because of its very limited production, pick it up in the Enoteca while you are there. 


Our thanks to Daniela, Erney, Gabriella, Lucio, Magdalena, Marco, Margherita,

Massimo, Paul, Sarena, and all of the others

who make our stay seem one as family, rather than clients.


You might ask, “Do you drink only Banfi wines?” I’d have to say when it comes to wines of Italy, it accounts for the majority of wines that we drink, both whites and reds.

Well, that's Banfi as we see it. A magnificent place...not to be missed when visiting Tuscany. And if you are able, please plan to stay for a couple of nights...or more. I know that you will enjoy it as much as we enjoyed it. 

Write if you plan to go. Maybe we can meet for a nice lunch or elegant dinner, just as we did with these friends.

Steve, Ellen, Debbie & Scott

 
 
 

Here are the webpages you will need to learn more about beautiful Banfi:

Ciao for now,

Steve

 

p.s. Well, as I can't resist, one last, parting view of this magnificent retreat...

Stay Here: Borgo San Felice

We thank our lucky stars that Hector steered us toward Borgo San Felice. You’ll thank your lucky stars that I steered you there.

When you visit Tuscany, here is a gem of a place for you to stay - right in the heart of the Chianti Classico area! We were encouraged to stay at Borgo San Felice by our good friend, Hector Galice, former manager of our favorite Il Fornaio restaurant. Hector extolled the virtues of this beautiful property, and I hereby echo his extollations. 

The Borgo

Just part of the beautiful grounds of Borgo San Felice

This former village was purchased by a visionary hotel-development group several years ago. The village was compact and had the basis for the amenities that would be needed for a world-class hotel. They did a fabulous job in their conversion, and on the two occasions that we have stayed at the Borgo San Felice, we have been very pleased. 

[click an image for a larger view]

One of my digital paintings of rooms at Borgo San Felice

 

Borgo San Felice is the only Relais & Chateaux 5-star hotel in the Chianti Classico area of Tuscany. It is about 9 miles from Siena and you can reach it from Florence in an hour. 

The Reception entrance where you will be warmly welcomed

It is just a few miles from Borgo San Felice to historic Siena, as seen here.

Siena is just a short drive from Borgo San Felice

The town that preceded Borgo San Felice was founded in the 8th century and hasn't changed much since that time. Here are some photos of the 'village' location of Borgo San Felice.

The Rooms

The rooms are, of course, charming - as one would expect of such a property. We found the rooms to be well appointed and had everything we needed, including a very nice bathroom.

Here is the early morning view from one of our lovely rooms.

Here are a couple of photos showing rooms that you could experience yourself. 

The Vineyards

The Borgo is surrounded by acres and acres of vineyards that supply the grapes for the excellent San Felice Winery. Here are some photos that I took very early in the morning from within the vineyards. 

Here is the San Felice Sunrise taken within the vineyards 

Here is the San Felice Sunrise taken within the vineyards 

Ristorante Poggio Rosso

There is plenty from which to choose for breakfast

OK, the food is outstanding at the Poggio Rosso restaurant. We really enjoy the breakfast which can be taken on the patio of the restaurant. Here is a sample of breakfast treats.

 

The interior of Poggio Rosso is comfy-cozy, as you can see in these two photos from the Borgo San Felice website.

The piano player adds special charm to your evening

The real jewel is the dinner, often served while a very talented piano player (seen here with my wife, Ellen) adds to the charm of your evening. 

 

Scott selects a Chianti Classico to go with our meal

Poggio Rosso's wine list is extensive, and is weighted toward Italian wines -- and of course, those of the San Felice Winery.

Here is our friend Scott making the decisions for the first red of the night.

 

I'll now torture you with numerous photos of the scrumptiousness that awaits you at Poggio Rosso, ending with desert and a nice cup of coffee. Click on a thumbnail image to get a closer look.

The Gardens

Finally, here are a few more photos showing you the lovely gardens at Borgo San Felice.

We thank our lucky stars that Hector steered us toward Borgo San Felice. You'll thank your lucky stars that I steered you there.

Click here for the San Felice website.

And here for the San Felice Winery.

 

 

I will close with a photo of two very satisfied Borgo San Felice patrons -- my wife and me.

My wife Ellen and myself, enjoying a glass of Perolla Vermentino

 

Ciao for now!

Steve

Beautiful Places: Castello Brolio

Today I want to tell you about a beautiful and important Tuscan castle in Italy -- Castello Brolio. What makes this castle so important? Well, read on.

The Castle

Here is a photo of Castello Brolio as it sits today in mid-eastern Tuscany. 

Castello Brolio today

Castello Brolio today

This still-inhabited castle is owned by the Ricasoli family, who has lived in the castle for almost 900 years. Though the first stones of the Brolio Castle date back to the middle ages, the castle did not pass into the hands of the Ricasoli family until an exchange of lands in 1141. 

Barone Ricasoli winery is the fourth longest-lived company in the world in the same place. Barone Ricasoli is the oldest winery in Italy.

Castello Brolio is on the border between the former city-states of Sienna and Florence and has been the stage for numerous disputes, with the heavy-weight Florentine city-state duking it out against fearsome Sienna. In the photo below, taken from the ramparts of the castle, you can see Sienna in the distance to the right of the photo. [This photo has been made into a tile backsplash which sits behind our kitchen range] 

View from the ramparts of Castello Brolio looking toward Sienna at top right

Battle-scarred brickwork of Castello Brolio

Being a castle, one would expect it to be attacked, right? And it has been, as through the centuries the castle has suffered attack and destruction in numerous historical battles; from Aragonese and Spanish attacks during the 15th century, disputes in the 17th century, to bombings and artillery attacks during the Second World War. Evidence of attack can still be seen today, as in this photo.

 

 

Here are a few more photos of this well-built castle. As always, click on an image to see a larger view.

And the expansive views from the Castello Brolio are magnificent.

Panorama from the ramparts of Castello Brolio

My wife as she sketches a beautiful contryside

An on-site villa for rent

The Baron

Here is photo of Baron Bettino Ricasoli. 

Baron Bettino Ricasoli

What he lacked in looks he made up for in money. At 3,000 acres, the Ricasoli vineyards are the largest in the Chianti Classico area. Because of his integrity and austerity, he was known as 'The Iron Baron'. 

This elaborate family tree, reproduced in a print dated 1584, is also one of the first paintings depicting the Chianti area.

 

 

 

 

The Baron as the Creator of Chianti

Besides being the second and then seventh Prime Minister of Italy, Baron Bettino Ricasoli was a far-sighted wine entrepreneur. As a matter of fact, it was the Baron who created the age-old formula for Chianti wine.  After more than thirty years of research and experiments, he divulged his formula in a letter in 1872, where he wrote, 

...I verified the results of the early experiments, that is, that the wine receives most of its aroma from the Sangioveto [today’s Sangiovese] (which is my particular aim) as well as a certain vigour in taste; the Canajuolo gives it a sweetness which tempers the harshness of the former without taking away any of its aroma, though it has an aroma all of its own; the Malvagia, which could probably be omitted for wines for laying down, tends to dilute the wine made from the first two grapes, but increases the taste and makes the wine lighter and more readily suitable for daily consumption…
— Baroln Bettino Ricasoli in a famous letter addressed to Professor Cesare Studiati at the University of Pisa

 

You've probably seen wine labels with the designation "Chianti Classico". The geographical location of Castello Brolio puts it in the Chianti Classico region. And note that the 'Classico' extension does not designate more quality per se, but means that it is produced within the classic region of the official Chianti region. If the Chianti region were a donut, Chianti Classico would be the donut hole.

Here you see the neck of a bottle of Barone Ricasoli's Rocca Guicciarda Chianti Classico Riserva (And how do I know that's what wine this is? Because I drank it!).

This seal with the black rooster is your guarantee that you will be drinking Chianti Classico. It is also a DOCG wine, which stands for 'Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita' and is your guarantee that the wine meets the government's control standards for Chianti Classico. 

Since 1993, Baron Francesco Ricasoli, 32nd Baron of Brolio and Bettino's great-grandson, has taken the hundreds of years of wine experimentation and experience into the plantings of new varietals and newly created wines. 

Our Favorite Barone Ricasoli Wine?

How many times have you been at the wine store and seen a pretty label and you turned to your partner and said, "Hey, this wine looks good"? 

With our favorite Barone Ricasoli wine, you can have a pretty label and a pretty wonderful wine. Pictured below is the Rocca Guicciarda Chianti Classico Riserva that we consumed at a little restaurant in Radda in Chanti one fall afternoon. 

And hey, there are several. yummy Barone Ricasoli wines. You can see all of them on their website.  

And if you happen to be in Tuscany, our instant-friend Barbara here can help you put together a selection for shipment back home. The wine shop is located just below the castle.

And, if you join the Friends of Ricasoli Club, you will get discounts and other special offers. 

 

So, I hope you enjoyed a tour of one of Tuscany's classic wineries, it's creator, and the castle that still guards the ancient vineyards there.

 

Ciao for now,

Steve