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10 Things Every Wine Lover Should Know About... Biondi Santi

L-R: A Biondi Santi vineyard; Franco Biondi Santi tasting wine in the cellar; the estate's flagship riserva wine
© Biondi Santi | L-R: A Biondi Santi vineyard; Franco Biondi Santi tasting wine in the cellar; the estate's flagship riserva wine
Drunk by the Queen, hidden from view during WWII: the wines of Biondi Santi. (The head of the renowned estate, Franco Biondi Santi, died suddenly at the weekend. This interview by Kerin O'Keefe was one of his last.)

No. 1. Inventors of Brunello:

Brunello di Montalcino, one of the most celebrated wines from Italy, is synonymous with the Biondi Santi family.

The first recorded mention of a wine called Brunello was in 1869, when Clemente Santi won two silver medals for his “vino rosso scelto (Brunello) del 1865” at Montepulciano’s agricultural fair. His grandson Ferruccio inherited Clemente’s estates and his winemaking passion. In 1932, the Italian Ministry of Agriculture wrote a detailed report on Tuscan viticulture that declared Brunello to be “a recent creation of Dr. Ferruccio Biondi Santi from Montalcino.”

Although other local families began producing Brunello at the end of the 1800's, most stopped during the early 20th century and in the aftermath of World War II. Biondi Santi is the only firm that has continuously produced Brunello.

No. 2. The oldest bottles in the cellar:

Ferruccio’s son Tancredi conserved his father’s old vintages as well as his own, and Ferruccio’s grandson Franco later created a wine library of the family’s greatest riservas. The oldest bottles in the estate cellars – and the oldest bottles of Brunello in existence – are Biondi Santi’s 1888 and 1891 Riservas.

No. 3. The breakthrough:

The late 19th century was a turning point for Biondi Santi. The fate of the estate and the creation of Brunello are both intertwined with two destructive vine pests inadvertently introduced from the United States: the fungal spore oidium and, later, the sap-sucking phylloxera insect. Most producers during this difficult period concentrated on making red wines by blending sangiovese with other local red and white varieties and destined to be consumed young – such as Chianti. Ferruccio Biondi Santi had a different strategy.

In the late 1800's, he started a massal selection (choosing a vineyard's outstanding vines and propagating new vines from that budwood) to identify the best sangiovese grapes on his Greppo estate that were most resistant to oidium. Ferruccio later planted the offspring of these mother plants on American rootstock to combat phylloxera. He also started aging his 100-percent sangiovese for extended periods in large wooden casks.

“A century before it was an accepted practice in other parts of Tuscany, my grandfather Ferruccio began making full-bodied wines solely from sangiovese,” said Franco Biondi Santi.

L-R: Franco Biondi Santi examining a bottle dating back to 1888; aged bottles resting in the cellar
© Biondi Santi | L-R: Franco Biondi Santi examining a bottle dating back to 1888; aged bottles resting in the cellar

No. 4. Walling up the old vintages:

Over the decades, the Biondi Santis have held several vertical tastings of their Brunello riservas to demonstrate the wine’s marathon aging potential. But during World War II, these old vintages risked becoming spoils of war.

“At the beginning of 1944, as the front was getting closer to Montalcino, my father and I went to the cellars late one night and in near total darkness we walled up the room where we kept the old riservas made by my grandfather and father," Franco recalled. Hiding the riservas was essential: "My father said at the time, 'Either they’ll drink them or they’ll steal them.'" Not long after this, the front passed directly through the small hilltop town.

No. 5. The Queen’s wine

Until the late 1960's, Brunello was made in small quantities by just a handful of estates, and Biondi Santi’s limited production was consumed almost entirely in Italy. Then, in 1969, Italy’s President Giuseppe Saragat served Biondi Santi Brunello Riserva 1955 to Queen Elizabeth and other dignitaries at the Italian Embassy in London. The wine was a great success, reportedly also with the Queen, and the event generated articles on Brunello in both Italian and English newspapers.

The international attention apparently spurred strong interest in making the wine. The vineyard space devoted to producing Brunello – which had been regulated by the region's Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) status since 1966 – shot up from 56 hectares (138 acres) in 1969 to 156.5 hectares (386.5 acres) in 1971.

No. 6. BBS 11:

In 1970, Franco Biondi Santi started a long research project with the University of Florence to identify the estate’s best clones of sangiovese. He later replanted 50 percent of his vineyards with these selected clones, including BBS 11  the abbreviation for Brunello Biondi Santi 11, which is commercially available.

Biondi Santi's Villa Greppo
© Biondi Santi | Biondi Santi's Villa Greppo

No. 7. Oldest vines:

The most ancient vines on the estate are more than 80 years old. Of the 25 hectares (62 acres) planted to sangiovese, 5 hectares (12 acres) were planted between 1930 and 1972, and these are among the vines that go into the estate’s celebrated riservas.

“We make riserva only in outstanding vintages, and only from plants over 25 years old," said Franco. "The Brunello ‘Annata’ comes from vines aged from 10 to 25. The Rosso di Montalcino comes from plants aged between 5 and 10."

To keep his vines healthy, he shunned chemical herbicides and pesticides, which resulted in extremely low yields: 30–50 quintals (3,000–5,000 kilograms) per hectare.

No. 8. No selected yeasts, no barriques:

The Biondi Santi estate is the defender of traditional Brunellos, and in the 1980's and 1990's, critics often attacked it for refusing to use barriques. These critics have since backtracked and the estate is enjoying a new surge in popularity.

“Sangiovese is naturally rich in tannins, and doesn’t need the aggressive tannins imparted by new barriques,” Franco declared. "I use only large, Slavonian oak casks, some of which are very old but perfectly maintained. They’re neutral, so only the grape and the terroir are expressed, without the toast and vanilla of new wood."

The estate ferments its Brunello in resin-lined cement tanks and its riservas in wooden vats – and uses strictly native yeasts.

No. 9. Topping up:

Biondi Santi is the only estate in Italy to top up its customers’ old riservas exclusively with riservas from the same vintages – sourced from the family’s private cellars. The work is all done in the presence of the owners of the bottles and comes complete with a certificate of authenticity.

No. 10. What to drink now:

For the straight Brunello, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001 are all drinking beautifully right now, as is the 2003. Retail prices average between $145 and $325, depending on the vintage.

The Brunello Riservas, on the other hand, are longer lived, and vintages that are currently drinking well are the 1971, 1975, 1982, 1983 and 1995. Retail prices for the riservas range from about $425 to $875 for these vintages, with an average retail price of $521.

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