With vines dating back to the 1930’s Biondi-Santi is one of the iconic Italian wineries and one of the most prestigious in the classic region of Montalcino. It’s also very much still in family hands that stretch right back to the mid 19th century. Here Tancredi Biondi-Santi, the latest generation to work with the estate’s famous vines, shares the history of the winery, but also looks ahead at the steps being taken to make it as relevant in the future as it has been for so many decades. You can meet him and taste their classic wines at the Sangiovese RESET tasting on March 3.
If you are serious about truly understanding Sangiovese then you have to be familiar with the classic wines of Biondi-Santi that have helped make Brunello di Montalcino revered around the world.
You clearly have a lot of history to tell, but for those that don’t know Biondi-Santi can you share its story?
It is rare that the origins of a wine can be traced back to one man at a single moment in history, but that is actually the case with Brunello di Montalcino, which was invented by my great-great-great grandfather Clemente Santi in the mid 19th century. The first official vintage of Brunello is from 1888, and we still have two bottles left of this genesis vintage in our cellars at Tenuta Greppo, which is the name of my family estate.
In fact, when I tell the story of my family, for a great part, it is also the story of this classic Italian appellation. We started out as one winery producing Brunello, now there are over 200.
Biondi-Santi can today count on 31 hectares of vineyards. The estate “Tenuta Greppo” is located just two kilometres from the town of Montalcino, at a height of approximately 560 metres’ altitude. Here you find the fermentation and ageing cellars, surrounded by some of the oldest vines we have today, dating back to the thirties.
Biondi-Santi is renowned among wine lovers first and foremost for its distinctive winemaking style, driven by a vibrant freshness, and for its admirable ageability. In 1994 my grandfather organised a historical tasting of Brunello Riserva at the estate, where he opened two wines from the 19th century – the 1888 and the 1891. In this occasion Nicholas Belfrage, who at that time wrote for Decanter Magazine wrote: “Lovely sweet, almost youthful fruit on the palate, long, lingering finish; very impressive…would that humans could be as lively as this at 103.”
And your own story?
I am the latest generation of the family and have had the pleasure of living and working at Tenuta Greppo side by side with my grandfather Franco and my father Jacopo.
I grew up at Tenuta Greppo. It has always been a part of my life. Tenuta Greppo represents excellence for the territory of Montalcino, but for me it is simply “home”. It is a physical location, it is my work place, but it is also a historical, almost metaphysical place, where the myth of Brunello di Montalcino was born.
Seven generations ago, when Brunello di Montalcino was nothing more than an idea slowly taking form in my ancestor Clemente Santi’s mind, nobody could have imagined the prestige that this wine was to obtain and what it would represent for Montalcino, for Italy and for quality wine in general. Needless is to say that for me Tenuta Greppo is also where my heart is, from which all my childhood’s memories spring. I remember fondly the walks in the wine cellar with my grandfather Franco and my marvel in observing so many bottles that, back at that time, looked so mysterious to me.
How much of your wine do you export and what are your main overseas markets?
Biondi-Santi has always actively sought to bring our wine to the world markets, but more than splitting them between domestic and export markets, we like to think in terms of strategic markets, where we can communicate with informed consumers and operate in a contest of fine wines. Our main markets are Italy, the US, UK, Japan, Hong Kong and Canada – the traditional markets for fine wine, I would say.
Sangiovese is clearly a major part of your success story. What has and what is your approach to working with and making wines from Sangiovese?
Biondi-Santi produces only three wines, all crafted with Sangiovese Grosso: Rosso di Montalcino; Brunello di Montalcino; and Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. All three wines are bound together by a distinctive style, driven by a signature freshness, which makes them vibrant, and a specific balance which makes them elegant and very suitable for long ageing in the bottle.
Our wines are not for those who prefer heavily extracted, very full-bodied red wines. Biondi-Santi is for those who prefer to find in the glass a wine which can tell a story 150-years-old, a wine which releases its many aromas slowly and intimately. A wine with fresh fruit flavours, a contained alcohol content, rarely touching going beyond 13,5% vol. A savoury wine which accompanies most dishes easily. A wine for long ageing, for those who prefer to cellar.
The winemaking at Biondi-Santi is quite simple. It is the vines and the soil which talks. Everything is “hand-made” in the vineyard, and the selection is extremely severe, both during the picking and at grape receival in the cellar. We tend to harvest quite early, to maintain the freshness, and we ferment our wines with indigenous yeasts in tanks of cement or Slavonian oak. Our wines age in large casks of Slavonian oak and undergo a long bottle ageing before they are released.
What changes have you made to your viticulture of Sangiovese in recent years?
Not many. The approach to viticulture has always been quite natural at Tenuta Greppo, following the credo that the better you know your vineyards, the better you can help them during the various phases of the vegetative cycle. We are growing cover crops in the vineyards – designed for the needs of each vineyard based on soil type and exposition – in order to give them the substances they need, as we make sure that the soil is as loose and porous as it can be, to permit the root system to dig deep.
We have recently started a very interesting project of parcelisation in our vineyards, but I would prefer to speak more about that in the future when I have more findings to share.
What do you see as your target markets in the future and why?
In Europe we have always considered – and will continue to consider – the UK as a strategic market. Switzerland is another market that we are looking to develop further. Oversees we are considering how to best consolidate and further expand our presence in Asia, as we believe that this is where the biggest expansion potential for the moment. We changed our importer in the United States three years ago and are still in the process of building up our distribution and there is certainly space to grow outside of the traditionally strong areas of New York, Chicago etc.
Do you find certain export markets prefer certain styles of Sangiovese. If so what are the differences?
I find that the style of wine preferred by the informed wine lover has changed over time. In the nineties and during the first decade of the new millennium there was a strong trend towards “Napa style” wines, which saw the development of the Super Tuscan category in Italy, which is very far from the style of wines we produce at Tenuta Greppo. I now see wine lovers and the sommelier community coming back to more terroir-driven, refined wines with a higher degree of perceived freshness – Old World Pinot Noir style, so to speak.
Why are you coming to Sangiovese RESET event in London?
Walter Speller’s work on educating the UK buyer and wine lover community about Brunello di Montalcino is passionate and informed, and for that reason I am happy to participate. It is indeed a premium event. The UK market is one of our top three export markets. We come to the UK many times each year and especially like to organise small, intimate tasting events, where we can have personal contact with trade and consumers. The UK is certainly one of the markets where one finds the most informed consumers of fine wines from the old world. This community generally looks more towards France that towards Italy, but we feel welcome and well exposed.
Can you give some reasons to UK buyers why they should taste your wines?
As said above, there is nothing more quintessentially Tuscan than a bottle of Biondi-Santi. It is Sangiovese Grosso – a variety indigenous to Italy – and it has been produced with the same style and respecting the same artisanal production method for decades. It is the ultimate, authentic Tuscan wine experience and the UK wine lover has the palate to appreciate it.
Which channels of the UK market do you think your wines are best suited for?
We market most of our wine through the on-trade channel, but also sell through premium off-trade outlets. We are very happy to work with Liberty Wines, who are experts in promoting fine wine. I could think of no better match.
What price points do you sell at?
Our primary wine, Brunello di Montalcino, can be found on the shelf at around £125 and the Riserva, depending on the vintage can be found around £400. The Rosso di Montalcino, our youngest wine, around £58.
- The Sangiovese RESET takes place on March 3 at London’s Royal Horticultural Halls. You can find out more and register here.
- Jane Hunt, a Master of Wine with over 20 years of experience in organising large scale trade tastings and seminars with an almost exclusive focus on Italy, and Walter Speller, Italian correspondent of www.JancisRobinson.com have come up with the Sangiovese RESET concept.
- This new initiative follows two very successful editions of ‘Nebbiolo Day’.
- Participation at Sangiovese RESET will be by invitation to a select group of up to 90 of the best Sangiovese producers from central Italy. Seminars led by experts on the country and the grape variety, its past as well as its future, will deliver additional in- depth information, education and lively debates.
- Sangiovese RESET is a full day’s immersion in Italy’s Prima Donna grape number one: Sangiovese. A first for this variety, Sangiovese RESET brings together producers from a wide number of contrasting regions of Italy where Sangiovese is grown and will illustrate how this widely planted grape performs in different climates and soil types with varying viticultural management systems.