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The Brunello Wines of Montalcino
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No Tuscan wine-tasting pilgrimage would be complete without a visit to the famous Brunello vineyards found in the Montalcino area. Unlike their younger sister vines in northern Tuscany around Lucca and Montecarlo, records showing the production of the red Brunello wines in Montalcino have been traced back to the 14
th century.

In fact, Tuscan wine making goes back to Etruscan times, when grape-vines were imported from the Orient and planted in the coastal areas of Maremma and Livorno. The Romans continued to cultivate the vines, savouring and delighting in the pleasures of wine drinking, and later, shrewd merchants began to plant vineyards further inland on the hilly slopes to cope with and capitalize on the growing wine consumption.

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Montalcino itself is a small medieval hill–village, perched on top of one of the gentle undulating slopes of the Siena province and enjoying stunning views over the surrounding countryside. Vines grow on the lower slopes of the hillside to the north east of the village, sheltered by the largest mountain in southern Tuscany, Monte Amiata. The resulting shelter from storms moving in from the south means that the Montalcino hills have one of the warmest and driest climates in Tuscany. This micro - climate and diversity of the maritime soils, rich in calcium and clay have provided a region where the Sangiovese grapes, used for the Brunello, ripen more fully and successfully than anywhere else in Tuscany, growing large and juicy and often ripening up to a week before those grown in the Chianti region.

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Due largely to the successful production of the Biondi-Santi family, particularly from the end of WW11, Brunello di Montalcino had developed a reputation for being one of Italy’s most prodigious and expensive wines. This success encouraged other winegrowers, and in the 1950s a few local winemakers decided to actively promote Brunello di Montalcino as a fine wine. When they first formed their consortium in 1967 there were just 16 producers; now there are more than 250, formed mostly of small farmers and family estates, and in 1968 they were granted DOC status. (Denominazione di Origine Controllata)

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One of these estates is that of
Castello Banfi, formed around an impressively restored medieval castle and producing more than 10 million bottles of wine annually. Banfi’s vineyards are organic; they have pioneered research using the latest technologies to produce a Brunello wine of exceptional quality, winning them several awards and giving them world-wide recognition.

The castle itself is impressive with an enoteca, two restaurants, luxury rooms and suites, and a museum dedicated to ancient glass, Etruscan pottery and the skeleton of a 5 million year old whale fossil unearthed on the estate.

On arrival, we were offered a refreshing aperitivo, a Brut from the family estate in Piemonte, made up of a selection of grapes - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Bianco and served with Parmigiano. It had a fragrant bouquet and tasted dangerously good – for me, better than any Prosecco or Champagne – and at only €13 a bottle!

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Looking round the winery, we were told that the Sangiovese grapes used for their Brunello wines are selectively harvested by hand and sorted individually before being aged in oak, in specially patented hybrid fermenters.

The current aging requirements established in 1998 dictate that Brunello wine should be aged in oak for 2 years and then in a bottle for at least 4 months, (at Banfi it is 8 – 12 months) before being released for consumption

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Aromas such as blackberry, chocolate, black cherry and violet are often associated with the Brunello, and tasting t
he Banfi version I was struck by the wonderfully velvety intense bouquet of this full-bodied wine, with its sensations of liquorice, cherry and vanilla.

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The authentically medieval restaurant is located in the vaulted cellars of the castello, and alongside its excellent wines, provides Tuscan meals of exceptional quality.

The table was laid with the estate’s own olive oil and balsamic vinegar, wonderful as an accompaniment to bread and a simple fresh side – salad.

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The complimentary starter – beef carpaccio – was delicious, as was its alternative, a fine salt cod with ricotta.

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The main course, veal with potatoes and spinach was beautifully presented and the meat cooked to perfection.

The highlight of the meal for me was the dessert. I chose a home-made almond and plum torta, served with a fresh orange sorbet. The warm comfort food paired with a fresh, zingy and refreshing sorbet was a heavenly match.

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The almond parfait served with a wine sorbet was also delicious.

We left the castle feeling pleasantly full and distinctively impressed. The Banfi estate is a definite
must do on everyone’s list of places to visit in southern Tuscany.

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