The leading wine estate in Montalcino, Biondi Santi with its long, illustrious history has been under new ownership and guidance for the past six years.
Never forgetting the golden era that made Biondi Santi world famous, this estate could rightfully be accused of having lost its way. Apart from the rare flicker of past inspirational nectar, prior to this purchase, the glory years had been few and far between.
The French wine investment group EPI took overall control in 2017 and in 2018 appointed Giampiero Bertolini as CEO of Biondi Santi.
Since then a new team has been working exceptionally diligently under the guidance of Giampiero Bertolini and Christopher Descours, CEO and President of the privately owned EPI Group.
I recently spent a few hours with Giampiero catching up with the recent changes and innovations that have taken place since 2017.
Giampiero explained to me in great detail the fundamental work that has transpired over the past 5/6 years; firstly one needs to understand the vineyards, the soil make-up and its pros and cons, then evaluate how the vines engage with that soil structure within an estate with 33 hectares (81 acres) under vine.
Soil analysis was high on the agenda and needed to be conducted in a methodical and scientific way, by a true authority on this subject such as “the soil whisperer” Pedro Parra, the world renowned terroir expert from Chile.
The project started with aerial mapping of the vineyard, including the new 6.7 hectares acquisition. Pedro Parra then instructed 32 pits to be excavated to depths of 2 to 3 metres where samples were taken at various levels for meticulous analysis back at the laboratory in Chile.
Following considerable investigation, 12 separate plots were defined. The importance of this survey and its findings, cannot be overestimated because the soil composition is vital in assisting vines to grow to their full potential.
The data obtained defined levels of phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen. Vines also require Magnesium, Boron and Zinc. In general terms, a pH scale of 1 to 14 is used where 7 is neutral, less than 7 the ground is classified as acidic, greater than 7 is considered alkaline. Somewhere between 5.5 and 6.8, assists the roots to acquire the optimum nutrients they need from the soil
Also taken into consideration are vineyard slope, orientation, drainage, layout, exposure, micro climate, compost, herb planting, moon phases, etc.
The vineyard manager needs to fully understand the soils composition and redress the balance in either direction to improve the quality and sustainability of the soil. Basically it is all about balance.
Once the above is established, the correct clones of rootstock to apply in that particular plot of terroir can be selected.
The Biondi Santi estate has 3 clones in the oldest vineyard planted in 1930’s. The famous BBS11 clone (not suitable for most of the soils), was found to only work well in the least most powerful soils on the estate.
Precious rootstocks nursery safely fenced in on the tennis court of the Biondi Santi Estate
A selection of 40 clones were chosen for replanting and after a study 15/20 of these went forward for further study. A study of this kind will take between 8/9 years before being fully understood, the goal being the right clone in the right terroir. All this work is supervised by the viniculture and winemaking director: Federico Radi.
A final word on the vineyards, a new structure has been designed to assist the vine in their growing season, it’s a flexible structure that can divide the new growth from either side, therefore protecting bunches better.
So with studies of soil and clones well under way, the next steps were (1) Rearrange the existing cellar (2) put a plan in place for a new cellar.
At the point of handover to EPI group the cellar was totally unworkable to anyone other than the late, great Franco Biondi Santi.
Understand these changes and improvements were not happening one after the other, but all progressing at the same time.
The new cellar was designed with every possible advantage incorporated within its form, with the wellbeing of the end product always taking centre stage. Finally the design was put before the planning department and various sub departments to wait for approval. (As a property developer in a past life, I am totally versed in the numbing time planners can and always seem to take in reaching a positive decision).
At the time of writing not a square metre of footings for foundation has yet been dug.
In the interim the existing cellar has undergone various non structural changes, to accommodate the annual sequence of harvesting and wine making.
The fundamental problem was the lack of space, both operational and storage, this was confounded by the introduction of new smaller casks from Garbellotto, who have made casks for Biondi Santi since the late 1960’s early 1970’s. Garbellotto is widely regarded as the Rolls Royce of barrels.This was an "absolute must" purchase to keep the new wine making process to requirements.
Even harvest time has seen major improvements too: the selection of grapes continues by hand but now receives two selections before being subjected to a ‘ Grape Optical Sorting Machine’ yes! they do exist! This machine detects chlorophyll in the product and removes green and unripe berries, leaves and grass as well as imperfect fruit. Infrared light detects less than perfect berries and removes them by pneumatic air jets as they fall from the conveyor belt before a screen.
Fermentation usually takes 16/18 days. Rosso aging takes 12 months, the Brunello di Montalcino release time has now been extended from 5 to 6 years, the Riserva (when bottled) from 6 to 7 years.
The blending process has also undergone significant change. The recent Rosso underwent 9 full sessions before a final blend was agreed, this is overseen by an internal committee of the heads of the various departments in control of the vineyards and cellar as well as the CEO.
And then the wine is tasted by a second committee made up of MW’s and wine professionals.
The total investment in time and finance is colossal. The winery makes approximately 95,000 to 100,000 bottles per vintage. 65% Brunello di Montalcino, 25% Rosso and 10% Riserva when quality demands.
The legacy of Biondi Santi, this famous, historic winery has found a new, caring, professional team to attend to all its needs with the ultimate aim to protect and enhance the future of one of the world's greatest wine estates.
© Tony Wood Italian Wine 2023