If I were to imagine what drinking gold would taste like, it would be a glass of Biondi- Santi Brunello di Montalcino. Last year, I posted about my fondness for brunellos and the nostaglia behind it. The traditional Brunello is an elegant, mouth-filling wine that is as deliciously approachable young, as it is in its finest, when aged and how it can age. I was very fortunate to attend a lunch several weeks ago at the beautiful Pelago Restaurant in Chicago with 7th generation, Tancredi Biondi Santi, celebrating the family’s new relationship with the luxury wine importer Wilson-Daniels (whose portfolio includes Domaine Romanee-Conti). The Biondi Santi Brunello is steeped in history and is literally “the real thing”.
It is rare that a wine can trace its origin to a single man. Starting in the mid-1800s, Clemente Santi recognized the quality of the vineyards at Il Greppo, situated at higher altitudes in the heart of Montalcino, a medieval hilltop town south of Siena. Clemente focused on red wines suitable for aging, creating racking and barrel-aging practices more advanced than his peers which won him an award for his “select red wine (Brunello) 1865” at the Universal Exposition in Paris.
Ferrucio Biondi, following in his grandfather’s footsteps, took such pride in the work of his grandfather, he united the two family names and became Ferrucio Biondi Santi. In the late 1800’s, he used massale selection (cuttings of the highest quality vines in the vineyard) to propogate the best clones of Brunello (little brown one), known as Sangiovese Grosso which has a bigger berry, thicker skin and tighter cluster than other duplicates. Oidium and phylloxera were huge problems in the vineyard and Ferrucio found the best clones and he then planted these clones on American rootstock. He did not use other grapes in the wine as was common at the time but used 100% Brunello and started aging the wines in large wooden barrels. He ultimately propagated the Brunello Biondi-Santi clone or BBS-11 from the vines growing on the prized galestro soils (rocky, schistous, clay soil)in the higher altitude vineyards (800-2000ft). With this, the modern day Brunello was born.
After Ferrucio’s death in 1917, his son Tancredi Biondi Santi continued the line of succession. Tancredi became the ambassador for Brunello and its ageability, even walling wines away during World War II. In 1966, Brunello di Montalcino became a DOC and there were 11 producers. In the 70’s, Tancredi’s son, Franco Biondi Santi took over all aspects of the Il Greppo estate, the vineyards and winemaking. He created a library of the older vintages. In 1980, Brunello di Montalcino became the first DOCG wine in Italy requiring a minimum aging of 4 years (5th calendar year after harvest) and Riserva 5 years (6th calendar year after harvest). At this time, there were 53 producers as the reputation of the Brunello wine continued to grow.
Today, Franco’s son Jacopo and his son Tancredi, represent the sixth and seventh generation carrying on the family legacy with now over 200 producers of Brunello di Montalcino in existence. But there is only one true original, Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcino.
Italian Wine Expert, Kerin O’Keefe in her book, Brunello di Montalcino: Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy’s Greatest Wines , calls Biondi-Santi Brunello, “liquid gold”. Jancis Robinson, calls it ‘drinking history“. Eric Asimov considers Biondi Santi as the greatest of all Brunello producers.
Biondi-Santi did make headlines earlier this year in the same light as Vietti, and Clos de Tart. Paris-based Européenne de Participations Industrielles (EPI, owners of Charles Heisdeck) bought a majority stake in Biondi Santi. Jacopo will continue as the President of Tenuta Greppo aided by his son Tancredi.
Tasting the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG Annata 2012 and Brunello di Montalcino DOCG Riserva 2011 at Pelago was tasting greatness. You can’t buy history in a wine lab, it has to have been lived. The Biondi-Santi Brunello’s are known for a traditional style of Brunello, firm tannins, deep structure, long, lingering finishes and ageability and 100% Brunello aged in the large Slavonian botte. There has been controversy in Montalcino over other producers using other grapes in their Brunellos but Biondi Santi have been advocates for 100% Brunello.
Tancredi told a story about tasting with his grandfather, a 100 year old Brunello (100 to his birthyear 1991) on his 18th birthday, so a 1881 wine in 1999 and how alive the wine was still. This was a telling tale about the ageability of the Biondi Santi Brunello and that the family has wines that old in their cellars.
The hallmark of the Biondi-Santi Brunellos that allow them to age is their balance and finesse based on the families knowledge and experience with the grape and their having the best terroir for the grape to grow, the best plots to grow grapes on, the soils, the altitude and the warmth and sunniness of Montalcino. They create wines that have drinkability now but the intensity and structure for long ageing. Brunello to me is a wine for the holidays, a wine for celebration and a wine that is decadent but restrained.
The 2012 Annata is 100% is sourced from estate vineyards of vines aged 10-25 years. The wine is fermented in concrete vats and than aged for 36 months in Slavonian oak, followed by 1 year in bottle. Jacopo calls it a graceful vintage, with an herbal freshness and slightly more concentrated than 2013 with an aging potential of 30-50 years.
The 2011 Riserva is 100% estate sourced from vines 25 years or older. Fermentation is done in slavonian oak barrels, aged for 36 months then 2 years in bottle. Jacopo calls it a wine of depth, complexity and harmonity with an aging potential of 70-80 years.
The good problem with these wines is that they have incredible aging potential but are so decadently drinkable now. If you have the opportunity to sip a Biondi-Santi Brunello do not hesitate one moment, say yes. Their prices reflect their stature but at the same time the prices are not in the exosphere (basically outer space) the way some of the Burgundy Grand Crus are.
The family has been using the same wine label on their bottles since 1945 and even explain the labels on their site. This was definitely a wine-lucky day for me sipping such an iconic wine and definitely “the real thing”!
Sources: Italian Wine Specialist Manual, North American Sommelier Association
Kerin O’Keefe, Brunello di Montalcino
The Biondi-Santi website