Friday, July 15, 2011

Visit to Biondi-Santi, Montalcino, Italy

The Biondi-Santi story is a tale encompassing innovation, pedigree, longevity, and adherence to founding principles and the manifestation of these characteristics in both the founding family and the clonal varietal with which they are associated. 

It is a story of innovation in the way in which the Sangiovese Grosso clone was isolated and nurtured to become what it is today -- one of the most revered and desired wines in all of Italy. 

It is a story of pedigree in that Ferrucio Biondi Santi, the Christopher Columbus of the Sangiovese Grosso story, was the grandson of Clemente Santi, a noted Sienese agriculturist and winemaker and, himself, the grandson of Georgio Santi, a noted Tuscan scholar.  Tha pedigree continues to suffuse the modern-day enterprise with the tenure of Tancredi Biondi Santi, son of Ferrucio -- and himself a renowned oenologist -- who implemented most of the managerial and operational principles which drive the company up to the present time, and Franco, his son, who exhibits the epitome of patrician stewardship.  Pedigree, as it relates to Sangiovese Grosso, is shown by the fact that the same clone isolated by Ferrucio Biondi Santi continues as the basis of the wine produced by the estate.  New vineyards at the estate are planted with buds from old vines.

Longevity, in terms of the winery, is manifested in the fact that there has been a continuous chain of Biondi Santis caring for the estate beginning with Ferrucio and continuing through Tancredi to the current regime of Franco.  The longevity in the wine is manifested by the length of maturity time required before it is approachable as well as its demonstrated ageing capability.  Numerous bottles of 100+ year-old Biondi Santi wines are currently resident in the winery's cellar.

Adherence to founding principles is manifested in the fact that the clone developed by Ferrucio is still the basis of the wine and the operating principles developed by Tancredi still guide the company's day-to-day operations.

So it was with great anticipation, and a sense of embarking on a pilgrimmage, that I began my visit to this shrine to Brunello, this hallowed gound; Il Greppo, the Biondi-Santi estate.  We made our way up a Cypress-lined driveway towards a vine-encrusted building where we were met by Lauren Cicione (at the time in the employ of Biondi-Santi but now owner of her own business, Tuscan Auteur) who was tasked with translating the Biondi-Santi mystique into something that mere mortals could comprehend.

Lauren began with some background information: The farm, Il Greppo, dates back to 1870; Ferrucio isolated the Sangiovese Grosso clone and produced the first wine in 1888; Tancredi Biondi Santi established the estate's production standards; and, Franco Biondi Santi, even though 80 years old, still runs the cellar and functions as the winemaker.

Il Greppo covers 150 hectares at elevations ranging between 300 and 500 meters above sea level.  The vineyards extend over 20 hectares of stone-endowed marl and are oriented towards the southeast, east, northeast, and south. 

The vines are spur-cordon trained with the oldest vineyards carrying 2200 to 3300 plants/hectare, the mid-aged vineyards carrying 5900 plants/hectare and the youngest, 4500 plants/hectare.  The Riserva wine is sourced from vines that are in excess of 25 years old while the Rosso and Rosato wines are sourced from vines that are less than 10 years old.

Some of the operational procedures, originally developed by Tancredi Biondi Santi, include: weed control through topsoil-turning; two green harvests to aerate the grapes; grape thinning towards the end of July to allow for better ripening; limited leaf removal before harvesting; hand harvesting; and careful selection among harvested bumches.  Yields are three to five tons per hectare with deselected grapes vinified and sold in bulk as table wine.

Fermentation is initiated with natural yeasts.  The Riserva grapes are fermented in Slavonian oak barrels, the Brunello in concrete vats, and the Rosato in stainless steel tanks. 

The must is kept in contact with the cap in a pumping-over process and temperature is controlled by cooling the must to 30 degrees during this process.  Maceration runs between 15 and 18 days followed by malolactic fermentation which occurs in the vat room.  The Brunello and Riserva wines are aged for three years in oak and 6 months in old barrels prior to bottling and are racked twice per year while in wood.

Production averages 80,000 bottles of wine and 3000 bottles of olive oil annually.  Brunello di Montalcino DOCG Annata production amounts to 60,000 barrels while 8,000 bottles of the Riserva is produced in exceptional years.  Rosso di Montalcino Fascia Rossa is produced in the years when grape quality is not high enough for the production of the Brunello.  About 12,00 bottles of Rosso di Montalcino is produced annually.  This wine is aged for one year in Slovenian oak and is ready to drink upon release.

As we concluded the tour we exited the cellar through a portal that differed from our entry and was confronted by a magnificent, solitary, powerful white dog which seemed to epitomize the wines of Biondi-Santi.  These wines stand alone.  Majestic, powerful, staring into the interminable depths of time.  Separated from the other producers by a fence constructed of pedigree, longevity, and adherence to founding principles.

Our group, mere mortals all, had been transported back to the beginning of time -- Brunello time -- and guided along a singular path unto the current day with Brunello di Montalcino's north star as our guide.  It was an elevating experience.


  1. Hey Keith -

    Nice post. To this day, the visit to Biondi Santi remains one of my favorite wine moments. I went their with my wife, and we were fortunate, Franco Biondi Santi was there and spent six hours with us (felt bad for the translator who was there the whole time as I asked every question possible; I am sure she switch to grappa when she got home).

    It was there that Franco introduced me to the true concept of slow aeration, opening some of the bottles we tasted 16 hours beforehand. His method and belief, is that his Brunello should be uncorked with a few ounces poured out, just to increase the air to wine ratio, and then left to "aerate" for 16 hours. To this day I still practice this method on his Brunello and many Barolo. I was fortunate enough to go back again with Sergio Esposito a year later, and Franco recognized me and rattled off the vintages I had tasted from the previous visit. Not bad for the Gentleman of Montalcino who was approaching his 90s at the time. When we got back we left some Biondi Santi open to aerate for two weeks, and the wines were still kicking - few wines have this structure.

    While many are quick to go the Brunello of Soldera these days for the pinnacle expression, no one can beat the history and kindness of this man and his estate and what they have done for Italian wine. Glad you got to enjoy the wine, history and estate. We will have to crack some Biondi Santi at out next tasting.

    All the best,

  2. Thanks Chris. As you mentioned, the wines that we tasted were opened the day before after a little had been poured off. Of course they were barely affected by this exposure to oxygen, they were so powerful. Look forward to bustin' open some Biondi Santi with you.