By Fred Tasker
MONTALCINO, Italy - In the rolling hills of Tuscany, where the sun casts a yellow-green glow over the landscape, causing the grape vines and olive trees to vibrate with color, every good-sized hilltop sports an ancient rock castle.
In the Middle Ages they were fortresses, grim redoubts from which warriors under siege poured cauldrons of boiling oil down onto enemy soldiers trying to top the walls with scaling ladders.
Today the better hilltops sport luxury resorts built around top-flight wineries, both created by ambitious renovations to those battered old castles.
One of the best is Castello Banfi, winery and resort with a Michelin-starred restaurant where white-toqued chefs ladle plates of wild-boar stew and truffled pasta. The $400- to $800-a-night hotel has plasma screen TVs and mammoth bathrooms. Masseurs ply the backs of guests with quite different types of oil - luxury skin-care products made of the region's famous sangiovese grapes.
The castello, just outside Montalcino in southern Tuscany, between Siena and Florence, is more than a resort. It's also a working winery turning out 125,000 cases a year of Tuscany's fabulous Brunello di Montalcino wine - a winery voted Italy's best nine years in a row.
Castello Banfi is the story of the pioneering Italian Mariani family that moved to America, made its fortune importing modest Italian wines, then returned on a mission to pull Tuscany out of its doldrums and into the top ranks of world wine.
"I'm very proud of what my family has achieved here," says Cristina Mariani-May, proprietor of Castello Banfi and the third generation of leadership of New York-based Banfi Vintners, America's biggest wine importer, founded by her grandfather, John F. Mariani Sr., in 1919.
"It has helped create a renaissance in Tuscan winemaking and contributed to Montalcino's growth from one of Tuscany's poorest hilltop towns to its wealthiest and most significant."
It's a compelling travel destination, luring 60,000 visitors a year, a pamper-yourself central point from which you can tour the wineries and restaurants of Tuscany and visit the neighboring hill towns with their own ancient castles.
A visit to Castello Banfi is a trip through Tuscany's turbulent past and its luxury-loving present. The ambitiously restored, tall-towered castle itself houses the Giovanni F. Mariani Museum of Glass, one of the world's top collections of vases, bottles, flasks and drinking instruments from the 5th Century BC to the present.
The castello's history is still palpable. Its old dungeon is now its wine cellar; its winding stairwells boast swords, pikes, breastplates and helmets from its violent past.
Downstairs is the Tuscan Taverna, a casual restaurant with dark wood and white plaster walls, serving local fare from wild boar stew to traditional Tuscan cookies dipped in its luscious dessert wine Florus. Just outside is Il Ristorante, with frescoed walls and five- and seven-course tasting menus and a la carte service. Banfi is the only wine estate in Italy with a Michelin One Star restaurant and a Wine Spectator magazine Award of Excellence.
Just down the hill is the Enoteca, a shop selling Tuscan wine, grappa, extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, honey, artisan pastas, cookies, local ceramics, wools, soaps, stemware, coffee table books.
Nestled safely beside the castle walls is Il Borgo, a luxury resort hotel that opened just last Thursday, created out of an 18th century hamlet. The rooms are huge, decorated by Italian designer Federico Forquet, with white-plaster walls and open-beam ceilings, sitting rooms, fireplaces and mini-bars almost too big to be called mini.
From the big swimming pool with terraced garden, you can see over the hills to the Mediterranean on a clear day. Also in the castle is a reading room with fireplace and facilities for cooking and wine-tasting events. And just past the Enoteca is another fascinating feature, La Balsameria.
"Il Borgo is a new way for visitors to enjoy the Tuscan experience," says Mariani-May. "After their grueling sightseeing around Italy's cities, a couple of days here will prepare them for the rest of their voyage."
Construction began on what today is Castello Banfi in the early 1200s. A good fort was crucial in those violent times. Italy was a tumult of city states that warred with each other over land, trade, gold, religion and simply who should be in charge.
Two of the biggest rivals were independence-minded Siena, in southern Tuscany, and the dictatorial, power-seeking Medici princes of Florence to the north. By 1260, after the Battle of Montaperti, immortalized in Dante's "Divine Comedy," the castle became Siena's first line of defense.
For centuries, the preeminent grape of Tuscany was sangiovese, which made the famous wines of Chianti to the north. In the 1880s, it was supplanted in the area around Siena and Montalcino by a sangiovese clone first called Sangioveto Grosso, later renamed Brunello. The new wine, Brunello di Montalcino, was inherently superior, but held back by poor growing and fermenting.
Then came the Americans.
It's an Italian immigrant story with a twist. In 1919, Giovanni Mariani emigrated from Italy to New York, and, later called John F. Mariani, Sr., founded a wine importing business called Banfi in the city of Old Brookfield. It prospered for decades but began to grow explosively in the 1950s, when his son, John Jr., and John's cousin, Harry, came into the business.
In 1967 they shrewdly introduced Reunite, a soft, sweet, simple Italian Lambrusco they felt would appeal to U.S. soft-drink lovers. Reunite became America's leading wine import for 27 years. And Banfi became America's biggest wine importer.
But John Jr. and Harry had loftier aspirations. In 1978 they branched out back into Italy. They knew the wines of Tuscany, particularly Chianti, had fallen into disrepute from decades of short-sighted poor quality. They set out to pull Tuscan wines into the ranks of the world's top wines.
Thinking big, they purchased 7,100 acres of rolling land near Montalcino - planted then in corn and olives.
They spent $100 million planting newer, better grapes, renovating Castello Banfi, building a state-of-the art winery just down the hill, equipping it with expensive French oak barrels and temperature-controlled, stainless steel fermenting tanks.
Today Brunello di Montalcino, by Banfi and other local producers, is considered one of the world's great wines. "Chianti on steroids," fans call it.
BANFI'S BALSAMIC VINEGAR SOLERA
La Balmaseria at Castello Banfi is a cellar in which wine is blended and aged into Banfi's version of that iconic Italian gourmet condiment, balsamic vinegar.
Banfi's is called Salsa Balsamica Etrusca. It's made by simmering grape juice down down to half its original volume, then aging it in a "solera system." In the solera, the juice is aged in a tiered system of five barrels - oak, chestnut, cherry, ash and mulberry. Each year a bit of vinegar is moved from the oak barrel to the chestnut barrel, replacing vinegar moved from the chestnut barrel to the cherry and so on, with each barrel smaller due to evaporation.
At the end it's nothing like the $7.98 bottles of balsamic vinegar salad dressing on U.S. supermarket shelves. It's deep, dark, heady, pungent, sharp, sweet and viscous, with complex flavors of caramel and roasted chestnuts.
At $70 per five-ounce bottle, gourmets prize it, sipping it by itself in tiny portions or dribbling a few precious drops on ripe strawberries, cheeses, even ice cream.
WINING AND DINING AT CASTELLO BANFI
Il Ristorante, Banfi's Michelin one-star formal restaurant, offers a five-course tasting menu with wines for $180, including:
_"Gnocchi" - potato dumplings with red porgy and white truffle, with Le Rime 2004, Banfi's blend of chardonnay and pinot grigio.
_"Petto di Germano Reale" - wild duck breast on celeriac and apple puree with mushrooms, with Rosso di Montalcino, a Banfi sangiovese.
_"Coda di bue" - oxtail in an herb crust with polenta and French beans, with Poggio Alle Mura 2000, Banfi's flagship Brunello di Montalcino.
Some Banfi wine tasting notes, with stateside full-bottle retail prices:
_2005 Banfi Centine Rose, Toscana IGT (sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, merlot): light body, tart cherry flavors, spicy and crisp; $9.
_2004 Banfi Centine Red, Toscana IGT (sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, merlot): medium body, black sweet cherry flavors, intense, crisp; $12.
_2001 Banfi Summus, Sant'Antimo DOC, a "Super Tuscan" blend of brunello, syrah and cabernet sauvignon: heady, rich and smooth, with flavors of mulberries, black plums and black pepper, long finish; $66.
_1999 Banfi Poggio Alle Mure Brunello di Montalcino DOCG (100 percent brunello): saturated inky color, aromas and flavors of licorice, black plum and mint, liqueur-like viscosity, big, ripe tannins; $81.
_2004 Banfi Florus Moscadello di Montalcino DOC, Late Harvest: medium-sweet dessert wine, oranges, honey and cinnamon, intensely fruity; $20 per 500 ml (two-thirds) bottle.
IF YOU GO:
_Castello Banfi winery, Montalcino. (011-39-0577) 877-500 or www.castellobanfi.com. No charge; tours daily at 4 p.m., reservations required.
_Hotel Il Borgo, (011-39-0577) 877-700 or www.castellobanfiilborgo.com (same number for hotel and restaurants). Rooms $520-$1,105.
_Taverna Banfi restaurant, five-course Tuscan tasting menu with wines $80 per person; three-course $60.
_Ristorante Castello Banfi, five-course tasting menus with wines $110-$182 per person.