Raise a flag, or your glass, to this Tuscan wine

in Wine by

By Celia Strong

So, I found myself recently sitting in a nice restaurant, tasting some wine (wines plural, to be precise). Really, though, just tasting, not drinking. And I was trying hard, in the dim lighting, to see the bottles clearly, especially one of them because I kind of really liked that one and I wanted to make sure I remembered which one is which.  After sitting, sipping, squinting to see the bottles, the one I liked seemed to have what looks sort like a weird label. So, I sat, sipped, tasted and squinted some more.

Finally, one last squint at the label, I got my nerve up to ask, “Is that a picture of a guy, astronaut kind of guy, holding a flag that he’s planting somewhere?” Looks like an astronaut planting a flag on the moon, claiming it for all of us? Our moon?” But, no, I was completely wrong. Thanks a lot dim lights!

But, wrong or not about the label, this is our wine for the week from Italy, Tuscany actually.

Tuscany is a region located on the western coast of Italy. If you think of Italy as a boot, because that’s what it is sort shaped like, Tuscany is on the front of the leg, just above the knee. After Piedmont and the Veneto, two more northern regions, Tuscany is the country’s third biggest wine producing region. And, behind Sicily and Apulia, more southern regions, it is the third most heavily planted region. Tuscany is the source for some of Italy’s best known wines: the red wines Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, all based on Sangiovese grapes; Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a white; and Vin Santo, a dessert wine.

There are 33 DOC wines made in Tuscany, and nine of the country’s top level DOCG wines. In addition, since the 1970’s, there are “Super Tuscans,” wines of very high quality that do not follow the laws of specific DOCs and DOCGs.

Although we have recently discussed the basic history of wine in Tuscany, let’s repeat a few bits and pieces. Repetition is one way to help us all learn more, but information also makes each wine we taste more interesting.

Wine in the Tuscan region dates back to the 8th century BC with the Etruscans, a lot further back than many other regions. Being located just to the north of Rome played a huge part in the development of wine in Tuscany.

The wine trade of Tuscany was based, back in time, in Florence where a wine guild was established in 1282. This guild regulated how Florentine merchants could sell wines, which wines, and more. Remember the law prohibiting the sale of wine within 100 yards of a church?  And no sales to children? Some things have not changed much since the 13th century. And some have.

The first recorded mention of Chianti described it as a white wine. Really. In 1685, a Tuscan author wrote a poem, 980 lines long, about the wines of Tuscany. (I have to guess he was doing some serious tasting, as well.)  Just after the Napoleonic Wars, at the beginning of the 19th century, Bettino Ricasoli, a statesman, inherited his family’s estate in Broglio, right in the heart of the Chianti Classico zone. Ricasoli worked to improve the estate and the quality of their wines. He traveled in France and Germany, brought back several new grape varieties and new vineyard and winemaking practices. With all his work, though, he found that the three varieties, already at home in Tuscany, did better there — Sangiovese, Cannaiolo and Malvasia. And, you guessed it, Sangiovese is our main grape for this week.

Sangiovese is the main variety of Tuscany for many reasons. It is the most widely planted grape in Italy and grows easily and has high yields. The hot, dry climate of Tuscany with its limestone soil, good for drainage, on south facing slopes makes an excellent home for this grape. Sangiovese is thin-skinned, ripens late and produces rich, alcoholic wines that last well. Its wines are fruity and naturally acidic, with aromas that are not aggressive (cherries, almonds, soil), and pairs well with Italian foods.  The majority of Tuscany’s vineyards are located at elevations of 500 to 1,600 feet, and get a lot of direct sun.

Even though Sangiovese is Tuscany’s most planted grape, different clones exist, 14 clones actually. Many towns claim their own clone — a result of the grape adapting to specific soils and micro-climates. Also, Sangiovese is very “oak friendly.” Traditional style Sangiovese wines show herbal and bitter cherry notes. Modern style wines from this grape show more fruit flavors, including plums and mulberries, vanilla notes from the oak barrels, and spice flavors. In the case of non-traditional Tuscan wines, including the “Super Tuscans,” the addition of small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah adds smoothness and body to the finished wine.

All of which brings us to our winery for this week’s wine: Banfi. Castello Banfi is a family owned estate and winery located in the Brunello area of Tuscany. Banfi operates on the philosophy of blending tradition with innovation. Their estate’s single vineyards are made up of over three dozen different sub-soils. On top of which, they do ongoing research on different clones. Four times the Castello Banfi estate vineyard in Montalcino has been named “Winery of the Year.” Their operations now include many Tuscan DOCs and DOCGs, other Italian wines, as well as some wines from Chile and Spain.

All of which gets us to BelnerO, not a typo. This red wine is spelled “BelnerO.”  (Big “B” and big “O.”)  This is a proprietary blend, yes a Super Tuscan, sort of. The exact blend varies a bit from year to year, but always mostly Sangiovese with small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. These are all estate grown grapes, from the stony, calcareous soil of Montalcino’s southern hills.

The grapes are fermented in Banfi’s patented temperature controlled French oak barrels. Then, the wine is aged for 14 months more.  It is not filtered. (That means we get a bigger textured wine.) The wine is a deep, intense purply red color. It has vanilla, tobacco and coffee aromas with cherry jam and prune fruit scents. The wine is smooth and soft in your mouth, with good tannins and a long, lingering finish.

Even though this wine comes from a great Chianti producer, it is a completely different style of Sangiovese, which is the whole point of blending, studying clones and everything else this company works to do.

So, we have a new, smooth and wonderfully flavorful wine that pairs well with beef, game, heavy seafood dishes, aged cheeses and friends.

And don’t forget the dim lights. You may not be able to see that the label is a knight in armor, planting his flag in a vineyard in Tuscany, but that’s OK. Plant some Banfi BelnerO in your glass, it’s New World style with Old World history. This wine will make your evening. For $24.99. Enjoy!