aerial view of castello banfi in italy

When it comes to wine, a single word is endowed with a powerful, transportive capacity for taking the imbiber of a given bottle on a journey around the world. She isn’t just sipping on a luscious wine, she’s visiting that location in her mind, tasting the terroir, envisioning the way its many rows of vineyards snake along the assuredly charming rolling hillsides of its home region. Close your eyes, then, and say Montalcino to yourself. It’s no mere name on a label, it’s one of the most storied wine towns in Italy, and with a glass of a Brunello di Montalcino in front of you from a producer such as Banfi, a veritable piece of Italian wine history.

Wine tourists, food lovers, and luxury travelers flock to Tuscany each year for a personal pour of that paradise, and the Castello Banfi Wine Resort is a picture-perfect representative. Lavish countryside accommodations at the Il Borgo Hotel are joined with immersive wine and culinary experiences, from tastings and cooking classes to onsite Michelin-starred meals. As you drive to the property, yes, there they are: those vineyard-covered rolling hillsides, the winding, cypress tree-lined roads, and the verdant meadows filled with gnarled olive trees, along with the turn offs directing you to countless wineries and vineyards.

The Relais & Châteaux property isn’t just dubbed a Castello; it’s housed on the grounds of an actual hilltop castle — Castello di Poggio alle Mura, or castle of the hill of the walls — crenelated fortifications and towers and all, the site of which dates back to the Etruscan civilization. “The fortress you see today though dates to the 11th century,” says Cristina Mariani-May, Banfi’s third generation CEO. Born into the world of wine, she may be first and foremost a storyteller, a bundle of boundless energy and enthusiasm not only for her family’s legacy, but for the lifestyle that encapsulates it, and for traveling the world with a chance to share it with more like-minded souls.

castello banfi on top of a hill full of greenery in italy
Courtesy of Castello Banfi

The area around Montalcino was fought over between Florence and Siena, and other rival parties across the centuries, and wasn’t spared from more modern conflicts, either. “During World War II, this castle was occupied by the Germans,” Mariani-May shares. “But the resistance was all throughout the area, and we found a lot of interesting things stashed in the cellar.”

After more than half a century serving as wine importers, her family purchased the grounds and founded Castello Banfi in 1978. The estate sits amid 7,100 acres of land, including the hotel and castle, the production winery, and what’s regarded as perhaps the largest contiguous vineyard in the country, and one of the largest in the whole of Europe. “What’s kind of cool about Banfi is that we built this as Americans which is kind of strange right, coming ‘back’ here in the 1970s,” Mariani-May says of her Italian-American family. “It’s an American-made, entrepreneurial, bootstrapped story.”

A Stay at Il Borgo

Castello Banfi’s Il Borgo Hotel features 14 one-of-a-kind rooms and suites spread across the castle grounds in a village-like setting, with connected stone cottages dotting the landscape adjacent to the castle. Vineyard views and large, walk-in tiled showers are among the key in-room amenities, along with plush, red velvet furniture, terracotta floors, and numerous indoor and outdoor sitting nooks.

Il Borgo feels as if it’s an enclave of its own, an enclosed hamlet you could live within, but one of the best parts about a stay is despite the appearance of a remote and isolated locale, you’re well positioned to enjoy any number of excursions. That includes a visit to the town of Montalcino itself, with its famed fortress and quaint stone walking streets. Pop into Alle Logge di Piazza, a cozy, local favorite trattoria to get your first taste of the region’s cuisine.

a bedroom stay at castello banfi in italy
Courtesy of Castello Banfi

Montalcino is located within the province of Siena, and its eponymous historic city remains one of Italy’s most incredible underrated destinations. About 40 miles from Castello Banfi, Siena pulls in a mere fraction of the tourists that a nearby destination such as Florence is inundated with, with a wealth of history and preserved architecture to explore including its captivating cathedral — locals swear that the Duomo di Siena is Florence’s superior — and the sloped, shell-shaped Piazza del Campo around which the famed biannual Palio di Siena horse race is held. For a sit-down meal, visit Enoteca I Terzi, and for a more casual bite, such as porchetta or a charcuterie board, visit Pizzicheria de Miccoli, a shop that first opened in 1889.

Back at the property, consider spending an afternoon enrolled in its cooking class at a farmhouse down the road, where you might try your hand making tagliatelle from scratch and topping it with rich Tuscan ragu sauce. You’ll be enrolling yourself in a four-course wine-pairing journey at the same time, and so beforehand, perhaps work up your appetite via an e-bike tour around the vineyards. It’s the best way to gain an appreciation for the scale of the property and enjoy a scenic gaze of the surrounding land from a variety of vantage points. For a more low key or indulgent take on the Tuscan lifestyle, schedule a massage at the spa and then post up by the outdoor heated pool, with lounge chairs in prime position to soak up Castello Banfi’s envy-inducing views.

dining area at castello banfi in italy
Courtesy of Castello Banfi

Rejuvenated? Good. You’re going to need your strength for the show stopper, dinner at La Sala dei Grappoli, the Michelin-starred restaurant where chef Domenico Francone combines his Puglian roots with local Tuscan ingredients and dishes for a tour de force. Start the meal with a pour of Banfi’s Cuvee Aurora Blanc de Noirs 2016, an Alta Langa Metodo Classico from its Piedmont estate, and cap it with a 2015 Poggio alle Mura, a Reserva release only produced during exceptional vintages from Castello Banfi’s most prized vineyard.

“I love Sangiovese, because there’s nothing else like them,” Mariani-May says, expounding in between sips over the course of a lengthy meal at La Sala. “They’re made to go with food, and they open up as you drink them.” That food, an exorbitant collection of fanciful presentations and surprising riffs on classic flavors, is fodder for the dreams that fuel indulgent trips to Italy.

The property’s more casual restaurant, La Taverna, is run by the same culinary team and provides a lively setting to while away an evening with somewhere between too much, and just enough, wine and hearty fare. Consider a fried buffalo mozzarella dish served as a tantalizing appetizer that was really a classed-up, adult mozzarella stick. Everyone wins, whether you’re feigning maturity or childhood naivete. Pair it with something from the cellar such as the Castello Banfi Summus 2019, a three-grape blend with Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah, and you’re in store for yet another memorable meal.

Understanding Brunello di Montalcino

a wine shop at castello banfi in italy
Courtesy of Castello Banfi

While visiting Tuscany (and staying at an elegant wine resort), expect wine tastings galore. Following, a crash course in what you’ll be drinking along the way.

Brunello di Montalcino is made from 100% Sangiovese grapes and comes from its namesake town. Otherwise, you may be drinking your Sangiovese, an iconic grape from the region, in Chianti or a blend such as a Super Tuscan; the aforementioned Summus, for instance, fits into the Toscana IGT classification. It’s a grape that’s incredibly diverse, with many hundreds of clones, and one that’s expressive of its terroir and production. “The beauty of Sangiovese is wherever you grow it, you’re going to get a different wine,” Mariani-May says.

Castello Banfi has 29 distinctive sub-soils across its property, and from its inception was created as a real world R&D center focused on Sangiovese. Out of some 650 clones, 180 candidates were planted and tested, and a final group of 15 clones was chosen as capable of producing the highest quality wines that were also the most definitive of the land. “The clones best represented the characteristics of Brunello di Montalcino,” Mariani-May says. Those 15 were planted in 1992, and after five years (1997),  the first vintage was made with them.

Rather than hoarding that knowledge, Banfi took the bold step of sharing it with the region, helping to create what is now a thriving category. “We discovered something new, but we decided we were going to document it and show how others can do it, too,” Mariani-May says. There are now about 250 producers of Brunello, and production of Brunello di Montalcino, a DOCG-recognized wine — Denominazione di origine controllata e garantita, intended as Italy’s highest DOC classification — is capped at a given quantity.

outdoor dining area facing hills at castello banfi in italy
Courtesy of Castello Banfi

If you’re dipping your toe into the wine waters, the nitty-gritty might make your eyes gloss over. In which case, you need not worry yourself over grape clones and DOCG regulations. Instead, go back to the beginning, with that evocative tasting experience wherein a few ounces of wine can transport you halfway around the globe. “I believe the sense of place is so important to wine,” Mariani-May says. Even for her, it’s not the intricate tasting notes or the scientific terminology that captivates her attention. “What resonates are the stories.”

It’s why visiting a place such as Tuscany, seeing the tiny town of Montalcino for yourself, and resting your head at a place such as the swanky Castello Banfi is so essential, for connoisseurs and novices alike. It would be impossible to return from a trip to the region and not be a devoted fan of its wine and culture, its food and flavors, and the next time you’re at home and popping a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino, you won’t need to imagine what the destination would be like. Your own stories will combine with the region’s history and the grape’s sense of place for an irreplaceable sensory journey. And that certainly resonates.

Featured image courtesy of Castello Banfi