Sunset over Tuscan Castle

~ Sunset over Castello Banfi ~

Last month, in the throes of my housebound convalescence, I hosted a vertical tasting of Castello Banfi’s Summus;  9 vintages of this exceptional wine spanning three decades were meticulously uncorked, decanted when required and tasted together.  Fun and highly educational, “The Summus Summit” consisted of two phases.  Phase One presented the wines one at a time, in descending order of vintage.  Phase Two consisted of a second tasting of the wines alongside perfect food pairings;  Timballo and slow braised fennel infused pork roast.  Summus has always been a favorite of mine.  This tasting did nothing to change that perception. However, given my lengthy experience with this wine, I did not expect to be surprised.  But surprised I was.

Summus wine bottles showing Castello Banfi

~ The 1988 and 1990 Summus sport the original label of the wine, which was discontinued after the 1990 Vintage ~

When originally conceived, and during pre-release blending runs,  Summus was to be a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Pinot Noir; the idea being that the wine would be the marriage of three great wine regions:  Tuscany, Bordeaux and Burgundy. However, as the blends were created and tasted, it was obvious that the Pinot Noir was getting lost; dominated by the more masculine varietals.  Ultimately, the decision was made to remove the Pinot Noir and replace it with Syrah.  The Castello Banfi winemaker really liked the smokey, peppery character that even a little bit of Syrah could impart to the wine and thus, Summus was created.  The final blend would be 45% Sangiovese, 40% Cabernet and 15% Syrah.  This would be the case until the blend was changed with the 2003 vintage. Today, Summus is 40% Sangiovese, 40% Cabernet and 20% Syrah.

Wine glasses filled with red wine on a numbered tasting sheet

~ Phase One consisted of evaluating the wines on their own. ~

Castello Banfi Summus Verticale

We began tasting the wines from youngest to oldest.  To give you an idea, in the image above, wine #1 is the 2003 and they proceed numerically to the 1990 which is wine #8 in the back row.  The 1988 is off the tasting sheet and not pictured.

Summus 2003:  The deepest, darkest wine and the only wine in the tasting with 20% Syrah in the blend.  Garnet red. This has aromatic notes of leather, animal and a rich rum like nose.  On the palate, there is plenty of ripe plum notes, Christmas spices and powdered cocoa.  Even at 14 years of age, this has substantial tannins that need to resolve further. This is powerful and full bodied. The smokey animal notes from the Syrah are persistent. Brawny, with a long finish.  The most masculine in the tasting.  92 points. Winemaker Vintage Commentary:  A rainy winter saved the vines from stress during one of the most recent historic heat waves across Europe.  Rich fruit was harvested but yields were dramatically lowered.

Summus 2000:  Deep garnet in color and only slightly lighter than its 2003 sibling. Lovely nose of cherry, tobacco, menthol and eucalyptus is inviting.  Medium bodied on the palate, reflecting the vintage conditions.  Flavors of cherries, spices, white pepper and smoke are soft and restrained. Picks up some animal notes on the nose with aeration. 86 points. Winemaker Vintage Commentary: Torrid temperatures in August put the vines under heavy stress.  Harvesting was done early and at night to minimize the risk of extracting bitter compounds and aromas in the grapes.  It remains one of the most challenging vintages in Castello Banfi’s history.

Summus 1998:  We knew there was an issue here as soon as we poured the wine.  The burnt sienna color was a giveaway that this bottle had somehow been flawed along the way. Either oxidized, though the cork was fine, or subjected to heat.  Leather and tawny port aromas were madeirized.  The palate tastes like sherry.  Flawed, not rated.  Presented here since it’s pictured above and as I say, it’s educational.

Summus 1997:  The subject of much scrutiny when released because it wasn’t a fruit forward bruiser of a wine like many Super Tuscans of this vintage.  Yet, I wonder if those wines are as fresh and lively as this 20 year old is.  Deep garnet center leads outward to a ruby ring.  Menthol, crushed cherry and pepper comprise the aromas. On the palate, black and cracked green peppercorns are noteworthy with warm, spicy cherry flavors.  Medium bodied with only soft tannins remaining.  89 points. Winemaker Vintage Commentary: Wonderful weather persisted into September.

Corkscrew, decanter filled with red wine and 9 wine bottles of Summus

~ Nine vintages of Summus. The 1990 rests in the decanter ~

Summus 1996:  The commentary goes like this.  The biggest problem with the 1996 vintage in Tuscany, is that it came between 1995 and 1997.  Oh, the precocious oft neglected, middle child.  This is deep garnet in color with only a slight fade to brick at the rim of the bowl.  Menthol, green pepper, cherries and toasted spices on both the nose and palate. This displays more complexity than I would have expected.  Leather notes emerge with some air.  This is really quite good.  Taking on more of a Sangiovese profile at this age. 90 points.  Winemaker Vintage Commentary:  The second half of this harvest was interrupted by rainfall. As a result, although quality was good, the quantity was rather low.

As we were getting into the older vintages, I was reminded of my long held belief about Summus, a belief that became very obvious and true as we progressed through this tasting.  In its youth, Summus is often dominated by the Cabernet and even the Syrah in the blend.  Notes of menthol, animal, pepper and smoke seem to occur in the younger vintages.  As Summus ages, those traits seem to mellow considerably and the Sangiovese seems to exert more influence. Notes of leather, herbs, tobacco and anise become more noticeable.  This was interesting to witness.

Summus 1994:  Lighter garnet in color and displays a much broader brick rim.  On the nose and palate there are warm cherry notes punctuated with leather and herbs. Smooth, refined and devoid of tannins.  This is aging and on the downward side of the hill. Some balsamic notes were beginning to emerge with aeration. 84 points. Winemaker Vintage Commentary:  Hot and dry summer contributed to water stress on the vines and a reduced yield.

As I said at the outset,  I did not expect to be surprised, but I was.  In fact, we all were.  The final three wines of the tasting, in fact the oldest three wines in the tasting,  were head and shoulders above the other vintages presented.  These remaining three are extraordinary and suggest patience in allowing finer vintages of Summus to mature.

Summus 1993:  1993 was an “average” year in Tuscany.  However, for the Castello Banfi micro-climate, it was a superb vintage.  Witnessed by the bottling of their single vineyard Brunello Riserva for only the 2nd time in six years, mother nature smiled on the estate.  This oddity of nature and place benefited Summus as well.   The 1993 is deep garnet with slight bricking at the rim of the bowl.  This is delicious.  Incredible mouthfeel, velvety and long with flavors of cherries, dark chocolate, and sweet tobacco that extend to the nose and palate.  This has elegance and power.  Long, powdery cocoa finish.  I love it!  94 points. Winemaker Vintage Commentary: Timely showers at the end of summer prevented water stress from a dry and warm summer.  Perfect maturation of the grapes.

turned over ploughed dirt and grape vines

~ Turned vineyards on the Castello Banfi Estate, Montalcino ~

Summus 1990:  Still a deep garnet color with barely any lightening toward the rim of the glass.  The nose is replete with anise, shoe leather, cherries and plum. It is simply lovely to smell.  On the palate, the wine is nothing short of stunning.  Loads of cherries and plums are joined by Christmas Pudding and spices.  Spectacularly rich, yet fresh and vibrant, this even improved as it aired and was spectacular with the braised pork.  97 points.  Winemaker Vintage Commentary: Ideal vintage conditions resulted in the perfect maturation of grapes and physiologically mature tannins.

Summus 1988: Deep garnet color with a wider 1/2″ brick rim near the bowl.  Yet again, it’s youthful looking.  Dried flowers, cherries, leather and animal combine to form the harmonic aromas and the flavors echo the nose with clean, fresh precision.  This is amazing – almost an elegant version of the 1990.  This gets smooth and softens on the long, cocoa driven finish.  Displayed even more plumpness to the fruit when paired with the meat.  Outstanding.  95 points. Winemaker Vintage Commentary: Ideal vintage conditions lasted well into September which allowed harvest at the ideal moment.

This tasting was extraordinary.  Being able to examine wines across vintages like this and instantly compare them, highlights the character, lineage and similarity of the wines that cannot be understated.  Here are the wines in my order of preference:

Summus 1990, Summus 1988,  Summus 1993, Summus 2003, Summus 1996, Summus 1997, Summus 2000, and  Summus 1994.  At the outset of the tasting, I wondered how drinkable the 1990 and 1988 would be.  Now I wish I had a cellar full of them!

Want to find these wines?   Summus at Wine Searcher


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