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Two faces of Montalcino

Published:  18 January, 2007

A recent trip to Montalcino brought us into contact with two of the main players in the Brunello game: Castello Banfi and Case Basse. They may share the same denomination and even the same initials, but these two could not be more different from one another.

Banfi is an American-owned giant with an estate ranging over nearly 3,000 hectares on the southern slopes of the Montalcino zone, some 850 of which are planted to vines.

Of these, almost 250ha are dedicated to Sangiovese, 160 of these being officially recorded as Brunello' vineyards. But there are plenty of other varieties here too - red and white - of both French origin and Italian.

Case Basse is the property of Milanese ex-insurance broker Gianfranco Soldera. It has just 23ha, of which around eight are planted to the vine. 100% of these vines are Sangiovese.

Soldera is a fanatic for fruit quality, maintaining that the only way to that end is via a thorough understanding of one's ecosystem - the relationship of every minute aspect of it (soil, water, light, temperature and temperature variation, air movement, the role of insects and other organic creatures, not forgetting the motion of heavenly bodies) to all the others, and constant plant-by-plant vigilance. In a difficult vintage like 2002, his crop will be a virtual Beerenauslese, picked berry

by perfect berry, and his production may be as low as 4,000 bottles (around a third to a quarter of normal).

All replanting is with stock of massal selection, and production is subject to the rigorous exigencies of master taster Giulio Gambelli. The wines of Case Basse are aged in large, neutral Slavonian casks to avoid wood aromas, and when we visited in November 2005, the 2000 was still in cask. A bit of a dictator, Soldera does not permit spitting in his winery.

Banfi, as one can understand from its size, can't afford such luxuries as berry selection. Chief agronomist Maurizio Marmugi recognises that every move he makes in the vineyards must make sense both qualitatively and economically', the latter being a consideration that Soldera does not entertain until it gets to the final, very high, price. Banfi would obviously not disagree that fruit quality is essential to wine quality, but they obtain it in a different way. Since 1982 they have been running a clonal-research programme with the University of Milan under the direction of Italy's most illustrious expert

in viticulture, Professor Attilio Scienza. Over the years, via laboratory analyses, observation in experimental vineyards and microvinification, they have isolated 15 of an original group of 160+ presumed' clones. Of these 15, the most promising three - Janus 50, Janus 10 and BF 30 - were originally selected for multiplication at the famous Rauscedo nursery in northern Italy, following which they were planted out between 1987 and 1992. From the 1997 vintage these three have constituted the base of Banfi's new-old Brunello Poggio alle Mura: old because Poggio alle Mura was the historic name of the estate, hence the wine, prior to the coming of Banfi, deriving its name from the castle that is now Castello Banfi; new because it is one of the first wines, if not the first, in Montalcino - and probably Tuscany - to be made entirely from clones developed scientifically in the modern era. Banfi produces two other Brunellos: the standard one and the top cru Poggio all'Oro, the two crus being aged two years (the minimum required by the Brunello disciplinare) in 350-litre French-oak barrels. Between the three, in a good vintage they can get up to 700,000 bottles of Brunello at an average ex-cellars price of around e20, though the two crus are considerably more than that, and the normale distinctly less. It's a long way short of Soldera's average ex-cellars price of almost e100, but not bad business if you add it up. They do, it's true, have to pay around 350 employees plus make a profit for the owners.

Soldera will unblushingly assure you, Muhammad Ali-like, his wine is the greatest, and if you attempt to nominate other producers you deem capable of turning out the odd decent bottle, he will usually snort his scepticism. And it's true: Soldera's wine is an extremely fine expression of Sangiovese, perhaps the ne plus ultra of the genre: elegant, intense, relatively pale of colour, but complex, layered and long; not for the untrained palate; much nearer to traditional Burgundy than to modern Bordeaux. Banfi's Poggio alle Mura is of a more forceful style, of a deeper more modern hue, having more obvious fruit, structure and oak character - more of a Parker wine. We tasted the 1997, the 1999 and the 2000 and were reasonably convinced that the future of the majority of Brunello di Montalcino - not just that of Banfi but of all those working on new clones - is positive, if very different from that of traditional Brunello.

Whether that tradition, represented by the likes of Case Basse and Biondi-Santi, will even exist at the end of the century is questionable. No doubt Monica and Mauro Soldera, Gianfranco's progeny, will work hard towards ensuring that it does.