When the brothers Harry and John Mariani, sons of an Italian immigrant in Manhattan who founded a wine importing company in 1917 named after his sister Teodolinda Banfi, an enthusiastic amateur winemaker, took over the business in 1967, they were looking for new beverages that would bring them more revenue. Up to that point, they had mainly imported Italian wines on a small scale, including a Brunello.
"Riunite on ice, that's nice"
The slogan made the lightly sparkling, light-red Lambrusco a national hit in the United States in the 1970s. It even became a popular drink among many young people in Northern Europe, turning them into wine drinkers for the first time. The history is a nice story to share under the Christmas tree while enjoying a glass of Brunello, the other success story of the Mariani family.Castello Banfi, 53024 Poggio alle Mura, Montalcino, SI - Prices and reservations
Castello Banfi, Brunello vineyards and a luxury hotel
While Banfi had had some success importing quality wines, the brothers wanted something that would appeal to a wider audience. In 1967, John travelled to Emilia-Romagna and met with a cooperative of farmers called Riunite who made a wine labeled Lambrusco. Harry and John specified that they wanted a special version of the wine for American palates - slightly sweeter and more sparkling. "Ultimately, we hoped this would become a competitor to Coca-Cola," Harry later told New York magazine. "We wanted this in the fridge, along with beer, soft drinks and orange juice." Supported by advertisements with the slogan "Riunite on ice - that's nice!", Riunite became the number 1 imported wine in America by 1983, with Banfi importing 11 million cases. The success of Lambrusco allowed the brothers to realize another dream - not just importing wine but making it themselves. In the mid-1970s, they hired Italian oenologist Ezio Rivella to explore vineyards in Tuscany. In 1977, they purchased vineyards outside the small town of Montalcino and established Castello Banfi.
Lambrusco Riunite brought the Mariani brothers the fortune they never expected, allowing them to buy a large number of acres of vineyards around Montalcino, which they renamed Castello Banfi, after their aunt. Castello Banfi became the flagship estate, and after a few years produced the top-quality Brunello di Montalcino wines we know today. The New York company Banfi became one of the largest importers of Italian wines and is still owned by the same family.
Starting a new adventure in Montalcino
It was an interesting location. Although the winemakers Biondi-Santi and a few others already produced Brunellos, the wines were largely unknown in America. John saw the potential. "It was a beautiful area - ideal for winemaking," he told Wine Spectator in 2007. Harry remembered another reason: "It was the only place in Tuscany where you could still buy large parcels of land and turn them into vineyards." The Marianis invested vast amounts of money and manpower. Rivella focused on new methods in the vineyard and cellars to produce wines that could be consumed in less than a decade yet would still age. In the 1990s, thanks to the Marianis' efforts, Brunello became Italy's new blockbuster wine in America.
The story of Brunello started in 1954
The story goes that in 1954 Marco Trimani, a wine merchant in Rome, received a message from the presidential palace. Those close to the head of state had heard that a great wine called Brunello was being produced in southern Tuscany.
They asked him for 24 bottles, wanting to have this phenomenon to be served at a state dinner. Trimani was not only a merchant, but also had an unparalleled knowledge of wine. But a wine called Brunello was completely unknown to him. What could he do? He asked around in Rome but came up empty-handed. So he took the train to Florence where, after several days of searching, he was ecstatic to get his hands on a few cases of Brunello.
The situation less than 70 years ago is illustrated by this story of Trimani. In and around the ancient hill town of Montalcino, there were only 5 Brunello producers cultivating around 50 hectares of vineyards. From 1975 onwards, around the time the Mariani brothers got involved with Castello Banfi, there was an enormous growth, which has led to the current number of over 200 producers and 1300 hectares of vineyards. Perhaps the greatest success story of the ancient world of wine.
Brunello, an aging myth?
Many people think of Brunello as a robust wine that can age almost indefinitely. However, ageing a Brunello for 20 years will almost always end in disappointment; by the time you open it, the wine will be long past its prime. Did you choose the wrong winery or vintage? No, this is where the myth gets in the way of reality.
A modern Brunello, with very few exceptions, is ready to drink about 10 years after the harvest. The wine is then both full and powerful, as well as lush and smooth. The myth of Brunello's longevity has everything to do with the location and winemaking style of Biondi-Santi, the pioneering company that made the wine famous.
Il Greppo, the vineyard where it all began, is located very high on the eastern edge of the Montalcino hill that dominates the Brunello area. The climate here is relatively cool, with a strong morning breeze and low sun exposure. When Ferruccio Biondi-Santi invented Brunello around 1880, these conditions were seen as ideal for winemaking because they resulted in wines with a lot of fruit.
And fruity wines were difficult to make at that time. But the flip side of this was that the grapes did not ripen perfectly, leading to a hefty dose of acidity and tannin in the wine. The result of all this was very lean-looking wines that needed extremely long bottle aging to become drinkable. Biondi-Santi's vintages of 1890 and 1891 only became drinkable after 1950. However, at international tastings in the sixties and seventies, they were found to have developed beautifully. The wine world was amazed by both the aging potential and the quality of these wines, and the Brunello myth was born.
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