Grape Escapes: Castello Banfi il Borgo

Wherever one looks in Italy, one

sees the overlapping of eras, centuries, and epochs, like so many layers of

glaze coating every surface with an indelible patina. Ancient terra-cotta pieces

and Roman coins lie about in the soil where tractors till, but the Italians take

these dejecta membra of history as a matter of course. Thus, when paleontologists

discovered the skeleton of a 5 million-year-old Pliocene whale at Castello

Banfi—the wine estate in the heart of the Brunello region of Tuscany—proprietor

Cristina Mariani-May observed that vineyard workers often uncover fossilized

clamshells and mollusks there. History, she notes, is merely part of the

terroir, the qualities of soil and light that make the property’s wines so

special. Certainly, few places can boast such an array of raw materials for

producing great wines, and even fewer still can match Castello Banfi’s alluring

atmosphere of mingled past and present.

Although the stone fortress that dominates one of the hilltops

on this 7,100-acre estate dates to the medieval period, Castello Banfi’s origins

are actually more recent. Mariani-May’s grandfather, John Mariani Sr., an

American of Italian descent, established the wine house of Banfi in New York in

1919. He named the firm for his aunt, Teodolinda Banfi, who impressed her nephew

not only with her strength of character, but also with an extensive knowledge of

wines gained during her controversial tenure as head of household to Pope Pius

XI, a childhood companion of hers. It was not until 1978—long after Teodolinda

passed away—that Mariani Sr.’s sons, John Jr. and Harry, acquired the estate in

Montalcino that bears her name. The traditions of hospitality that she mastered

at the Vatican are carried on at il Borgo, the Mariani family’s boutique hotel,

which opened in March.

Il Borgo ("the hamlet") is a picturesque cluster of stone

houses built outside the massive walls of the castle (originally known as Poggio

alle Mura) in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the wars between the Italian

city-states had largely subsided and it was safe to live without the benefit of

fortifications. These austere yet classically beautiful structures have been

refurbished to create a unique complex of 14 meticulously appointed rooms and

suites, each a unique and architecturally authentic expression of the period.

Beamed ceilings, stone and brick arches, ceramic tiles, and Tuscan country

furnishings set the tone, as do stunning views of the countryside, which is

transformed throughout the day by the changing light.

The grounds, which extend from the terraced swimming pool and

stretch up the sloping walkways to the castle itself, are planted with sweet

rosemary, fragrant roses, shimmering olive trees, and dusky cypresses. Guests

can stroll on sun-drenched stone slabs to the Enoteca to sample the estate’s

wines, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. The winery, too, is open for tours, as

is the glass museum, where examples of the Mariani family’s collection of

glassware—from the ancient world to the present day—is displayed. In the castle,

hotel guests can enjoy either lunch or dinner at La Taverna, the property’s

casual trattoria, which serves local specialties beneath a medieval vaulted

ceiling. But no one should deny themselves the pleasure of dining at Il

Ristorante, a Michelin-starred establishment, where chef Guido Haverkock serves

up a seven-course menù di

degustazióne that will dazzle the senses with

such delicacies as roasted duck with wild mushrooms or herb-encrusted

oxtail.

Still, creative cuisine and charming accommodations

notwithstanding, the true seductive power of Montalcino will always lie in its

undulating landscapes. One can imagine no better place than il Borgo from which

to explore this storybook sweep of hills and valleys, luminous light, and soft

blue shadows, in which ancient secrets and inspiring adventures await the

traveler’s discovery.

Castello Banfi il Borgo , +39.0577.877.700, www­.castellobanfi.com

($540–$1,150)

Location: At the southwest tip of the Brunello di Montalcino

growing region, about 10 miles from the hilltop town of Montalcino.

Accommodations:

The complex comprises nine uniquely furnished guest rooms and five suites with

queen-size sofa beds in their sitting rooms. All offer state-of-the-art

bathrooms, high-speed Internet connections, and flat-panel televisions equipped

with satellite programming.

Dining: Two

restaurants serve hotel guests, as well as the public. La Taverna (open to the

public for lunch only, to guests for lunch and dinner) is a casual restaurant

that is located in the castle and serves traditional country cuisine. Il

Ristorante’s elegant dining room, the perfect place for a romantic dinner,

specializes in Mediterranean fare and offers an extensive wine list. Breakfast

is served daily in il Borgo’s breakfast room.

Wine: Castello Banfi’s award-winning wines are made from

grapes sourced from some of the region’s most coveted vineyards. Although the

estate’s wines range from San Angelo Pinot Grigio to Excelsus, a Super Tuscan

blend, visitors should not miss the estate’s single-vineyard Brunellos, Poggio

all’Oro, and Poggio alle Mura.

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