Baby or Bath Water? – Castello Banfi Belnero 2006

A wine lecturer once went on a rant at me about Castello Banfi. His near soliloquy went along the following lines: Horrific overproduction, wines made to please the American masses, no expression of the region, confected grape juice etc. Thankfully, I escaped before we got talking about ‘Brunellogate’.

So essentially that was that with me and Banfi. Brunello di Montalcino, as with Amarone and Barolo, is a luxury purchase for me, so I have to ensure that I chose my wines wisely. So between the rant and the memory of a less than enjoyable Castello Banfi Rosso di Montalicino that I’d tasted previously, when I want to buy Brunello, I avoid Banfi and head straight for Il Poggione or Col d’Orcia.

When thinking about this blog post, I opened up the 2011 Gambero Rosso to get some more information on Castello Banfi. It turns out it’s not that big at all; It’s absolutely massive – 9 million bottles per year and 850 hectares under vine. Compare that with Col d’Orcia (800k bottles and 142 hectares) and Il Poggione (500k bottles and 123 hectares). Yes, you’ve read that correctly – you could add the production of both Col d’Orcia and Il Poggione together, multiply it by six, and you still would have less bottles per annum than Castello Banfi. The other thing that struck my mathematical mind was that if I calculated the number of bottles produced per hectare of vines, I got the following results:

Castello Banfi – 10,588 bottles per hectare

Il Poggione – 4,065 bottles per hectare

Col d’Orcia – 5,634 bottles per hectare

I know that there are probably hundreds of different other factors which influence final yields but to my non-professional wine brain, these figures were startling*. A quick look at the Banfi website will also tell you that they produce a phenomenally wide range of wines. The question in my mind is no longer whether they produce great Tuscan wines but instead, how on earth do they produce drinkable wine at all in those quantities?

So it was with a sceptical eye that I picked up a bottle of Belnero 2006 to taste as part of my ‘Baby or Bathwater’ Brunello test. I deliberately didn’t choose a Rosso di Montalcino, as I like to think of Rosso as standing on its own two feet away from Brunello. Belnero is a ‘newish’ IGT wine (first vintage 2005) from Banfi that is predominantly Sangiovese but with some Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon thrown in (I think that sound you are hearing is the ‘Brunellogate’ elephant in the room!). I picked this wine up for a reduced price of €19.95 (was €48.95) in The Corkscrew. I didn’t want to include pricey wines in ‘Baby or Bathwater’, but a quick look at ‘wine searcher’ will tell you that it can be had for a similarly low price in a few other merchants around the world, so it squeaks its way into this tasting on that technicality.

I tasted this wine over two evenings, not because I was being judicious with my alcohol intake, but because I just didn’t enjoy it very much on day one. It was very closed and the only detectable aromas to me were faint hints of cherry and a very clear, but not intense, note of black pepper. I popped in the vacuvin and decided to return the next evening. It probably didn’t help that I was in a bad mood when I removed the cork from the bottle; not exactly ideal for critical observation!

The second night was much better; stewed bramble fruit (mainly raspberry I thought), sweet spices and coffee on the nose, with plum and blackberry jam on the palate. Much, much better indeed and there was also a vague earthy Tuscan character emerging in the wine now. I thought it also had good length but I found the whole package a little too soft for my tastes.

So was this a baby or bath water? I am totally torn on this one. Judging from Twitter, people clearly love Belnero and I would agree that once it opened up, it was indeed beginning to resemble a baby Brunello of sorts, but maybe just not the kind of Brunello that really gets my juices flowing. To me, good Brunello and has an elusive combination of power and finesse. A baby Brunello, in my mind, should be hinting in this direction at least.

In terms of price / quality, and forgetting about the baby or bath water theme for a minute, I thought this was a good value wine for €20. If you see it in your local wine store and haven’t tried it before, definitely pick up a bottle and see what you make of it; I know many people will love this style. I’d like to try some of the other vintages to see if they are similar in style or whether they have a bit more ‘oomph’ and class to them – classy ‘oomph’ if you will. So I’m sitting firmly on the fence with this wine and for me, Belnero 2006 is neither baby nor bath water. My vow to try other vintages though at least means that I won’t be as quick to dismiss Castello Banfi wines in future, which is a far more open-minded view than I had when I bought the wine. That counts for something, right?

P.S. – Once again, I want to stress that Banfi aren’t marketing his wine as ‘baby’ Brunello. As I outlined in previous the previous “Baby or Bath Water” post, I’m just on the hunt for affordable wines which are alternatives to the established classics.

*Given the recent discussions in the comments for this post, I feel it is worth clarifying the crude yield per hectare assessment above. As stated, there are likely many other factors to consider in the assessment of yields. These figures are not the yields for Belnero, Brunello or indeed any specific wine. They are also not grape specific. Banfi’s yields for Brunello are likely far lower than these, although this is also probably true for Col D’Orcia and Il Poggione. I’ve included this information as I feel it is potentially relevant to Banfi as a whole and their winemaking philosophy. But really, I just found the figures interesting.