I recently traveled to Italy for 25 days to eat, drink, look at art and engage in other epicurean pursuits. I spent seven days in Tuscany, partly in Florence and the rest wandering around the Tuscan countryside. I took two day trips to the heart of Tuscany to visit the hilltop town of Montalcino in search of the esteemed Brunello di Montalcino, the king of wines made from the sangiovese grape.
At the top of my list was Biondi-Santi, the winery credited with the invention of Brunello di Montalcino and an icon among Italian wines. The first vintage from this historic property purportedly dates from 1865, made under the auspices of founder Clemente Santi. His grandson Ferruccio took over the property in the late 1800′s and began clonal selection to isolate the best possible vines to create a complex, full-bodied wine. Ferruccio’s pioneering work developing the ‘sangiovese grosso’ clone and his uncompromising adherence to the strictest quality standards earned him the title of ‘inventor of Brunello’. Ferruccio’s first vintage of true Brunello was 1888, of which the estate still has two bottles remaining. Ferruccio’s son Tancredi ran the estate from 1917 until his death in 1970, overseeing the replanting of the vineyards and a continued rise in quality of the wines. Tancredi’s son Franco managed Il Greppo from 1970 until his recent death at age 91. The property is now under the ownership of Jacopo Biondi-Santi, the sixth generation to operate the estate.
The striking old farmhouse of Villa Greppo lies at the end of a long tree-lined drive and is the first thing visible upon arriving at the estate. The estate sits at the top of a promontory with stunning views of the surrounding countryside from three sides. We met our guide, a tri-lingual Russian girl named Yana, who was extremely knowledgeable, passionate, and thrilled to be working as such an heralded estate. Yana took us around the villa and into the winery.
Yana explained to us that Biondi-Santi produces five wines: (shown above from left to right) the Rosso di Montalcino, the Rosso di Montalcino ‘Fascia Rosso’, the Brunello Annata, the Brunello Riserva, and a rosato di sangiovese not pictured. All of the wines are made from 100% sangiovese grosso, the distinctive clone of sangiovese that creates intense wines with incredible depth and longevity. Below is a little information regarding the differences between the wines.
Rosato: aged 18 months in stainless steel.
Rosso di Montalcino: made from 5-10 year old vines and aged 12 months in neutral Slavonian oak casks.
Rosso di Montalcino ‘Fascia Rosso’: the ‘red stripe’ label is used for the rosso in years where the Brunello wines are not considered sufficient quality to be bottled on their own and so are blended into the rosso. This technique creates a far superior rosso in those years. The rosso is aged 12 months in neutral Slavonian oak casks.
Brunello di Montalcino Annata: produced from vines between 10 – 25 years of age. The wine is aged 36 months in neutral Slavonian casks and has a 20 – 40 year aging potential.
Brunello di Montalcino Riserva: made from vines at least 25 years old and some as old as 80 years. Aged 36 months in neutral Slavonian casks and can supposedly be bottle aged for over 100 years.
The wines are fermented in resin-lined concrete tanks with the exception of the riservas which are fermented in neutral wooden vats. After pressing, the lots are stored in the concrete tanks to undergo malolactic fermentation until the following spring at which point they are transferred to barrels. I noticed that every property I visited in Tuscany left the wine in vat during the duration of malolactic fermentation. In Napa, the majority of producers barrel down shortly after primary fermentation is complete and the wine undergoes malo in barrel over the winter. When I asked the Italian vintners why they prefer the wines to undergo malo in vat versus barrel they replied “that is how it it is done”.
There isn’t one stave of new oak to be found anywhere at Biondi-Santi. The barrels on the right side of the above picture are over 100 years old.
The production at Biondi-Santi totals roughly 6,500 cases annually, with only around 800 of the riserva produced only in the best years. The estate also produces about 250 cases of olive oil per year as well.
Biondi-Santi poured only two wines during my visit, the Rosso di Montalcino and the Brunello Annata. This is understandable considering the Riserva ranges from $450 – $850.
2009 Rosso di Montalcino: This wine exudes a pale, brilliant sheen, glimmering in the light. The color is closer to pinot than to cabernet. The wine exhibits red fruit, rose petals, and earth on the palate. It is a lovely example of sangiovese at an attractive price point. This wine can be found in the states for around $50-60.
2007 Brunello Annata: Again, the brilliant garnet color of this wine catches the eye. Aromas of cherry, mushroom, and minerals. Firm tannin, soaring acidity, with sour cherry, rhubarb, flint, and tar character on the palate. The annata has far greater depth, intensity and length than the rosso and shows well even though it is a very young wine at the moment. I can see this wine aging for 20-30 years, easily. It is truly a classic sangiovese. The annata retails for about $120 – 150.
Montalcino is an amazingly picturesque flashback to the medieval era. I look forward to returning, hopefully for a longer time so I can taste at more properties. Thank you to the team at Biondi-Santi for the wonderful experience.