Biondi Santi a cooperative winery?

biondi santi

Alfonso weighed in yesterday with another earth-scorching post devoted to wines made “Under the Tuscan Scum” (and I highly recommend it to you, especially if you’re a sommelier working with Italian wine).

But the post I can’t stop thinking about this morning is another fantastic document culled from the archives of Il Poggione’s library. In this case, the entry for the “Cooperative Cellars of Biondi-Santi & Co.” in the 1933 handbook of wines from the province of Siena, published by the department of the agriculture at the university of Siena (frontispiece, above).

Many will be surprised to learn that the early modern incarnation of the Biondi Santi winery was as a cooperative cellar. But the document is rich with clues from and traces of another era in Italian and Tuscan winemaking that help us to understand better the origins of Italy’s wine industry today. I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing Alessandro Bindocci’s translation here so that I can comment each paragraph. You’ll find the original text in Italian on Ale’s blog.


The cooperative winery Biondi Santi & Co. was established in Montalcino in 1926 thanks to the praiseworthy efforts of a group of [land] owners who were wine producers. They understood the necessity and importance of promoting two of Tuscany’s classic wines: Brunello and Moscadello from Montalcino.

Today, few remember that Moscadello was nearly as important as Brunello in those early years. When the Mariani family (Banfi) went to Montalcino in the 90s, it’s great hope was to produce sparkling wines from Moscadello that could rival Moscato d’Asti (that’s why they brought down Ezio Rivella from Asti).

1926 is the same year that Luigi Pirandello published one of his most popular novels (Uno, nessuno e centomila). He would win the Nobel prize for literature in 1934, the year after the wines of Siena handbook was published (can you name any contemporary Italian writer today?) 

The farming companies who lead the cooperative winery are the following: Biondi-Santi, Cocchi Brothers, Padelletti, and Tamanti. Together, these farms have 1,200 hectares [planted to vine].

I was able to find this information about the Padelletti family, one of Montalcino’s oldest clans. And I discovered this document on the Tamanti legacy. As per my previous post on Brunello, the founding fathers of Brunello weren’t farmers who had raised wine for generations. They were rich land owners who saw business opportunity in the production of fine wine. I wasn’t able to find anything on Cocchi (in the short time I could devote to this).

Thanks to the topographic position and the geological nature of its soils, the hill of Montalcino produces grapes with exquisite flavor from which delicious wines are made — wines that have been known as such for centuries. The cooperative winery is located in Montalcino, 40 kilometers from Siena. The nearly railway station is in Torrenieri (on the Siena-Grosseto line), 9 kilometers from Siena.

In 1933, eleven years into Mussolini’s rule, the notion of italianità was in vogue in Italy: national pride in Italy’s natural, industrial, and commercial resources.

Today, many cite 1888 as the year that Brunello was “invented” and bottled as such. But this document reveals that it was famous even before Biondi Santi’s 1888 bottling. Today, Torrenieri is covered with vineyards planted to Sangiovese. In 1933, it was a railroad stop: shipping posed great challenges for wineries in that era (can you imagine a wine guide noting the location of the nearest port or railway station today?).

The cooperative winery produces more than 1,000 quintals of wine annually and it places its coveted products easily and lucratively in Italy and abroad.

The winery is endowed with highly modern equipment and well suited facilities. The technical director of the winery is Dr. Tancredi Biondi-Santi.

Perhaps the most interesting thing here is how Biondi Santi provided a new working model for Montalcino (and Tuscany in general): modern equipment, easy access to a supply chain, and a cooperative system that allowed grape growers to combine their resources.

Think how different things would be had Mussolini not come to power in Italy. Of course, Germany would have devastated Italy regardless. But, either way, the renaissance in wine described here wouldn’t have been interrupted by the conflict that followed the rise of fascism.

Ale, thank you for this fantastic document and wonderful post!

Brunello, for better or worse (or how I learned to love the fruit bomb)

Above: I recently asked legendary Tuscan enologist Carlo Ferrini (and historic consultant at Casanova di Neri) what he considered his great contribution to Italian wine. “I took the traditional role of the Tuscan enologist from the cellar to the vineyard,” he told me.

My brother-in-arms and close friend flying winemaker Giovanni Arcari often asks rhetorically: “How many of the winemakers in Franciacorta actually make their living — their main source of income — from growing grapes and making wine?”

I’ve been thinking about Giovanni and his bleeding heart this morning after reading Alfonso’s superb post on Brunello di Montalcino wherein the latter applies his more than three decades of experience, observation, and wisdom to the situation on the ground in the ilcinese.

Even spanning back to Brunello’s ante litteram era, we discover that even for its founding father Biondi Santi, winemaking was not the primary source of income. In fact, Ferruccio Biondi Santi — Brunello’s nineteenth-century “inventor” — was the scion of a noble family with vast land holdings and immense financial resources. His ground-breaking experimentation in massal selection redefined the appellation. But, in turn, that appellation was defined by a handful of landowners who began to produce a “fine” as opposed to “table” wine following in his footsteps.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that wealthy northern Italians began to buy property there (and they probably wouldn’t have seen Montalcino as such a choice spot had the British not planted roots there and “manicured” the Tuscan countryside, giving it its idyllic patina that we know today; just ask anyone old enough to remember the second world war what it was like in Montalcino from 1945 through the 1960s when the British began to arrive).

Above: Ask any ilcinese over 50 and they will tell you that it was the British who planted the cypress trees in Tuscany in the 1960s.

Today, just scan the names that define the arc of contemporary Montalcino winemaking: Soldera, an insurance magnate originally from the Veneto via Milan; Illy (Mastrojanni), a coffee mogul from Friuli; Parsons (Il Palazzone), U.S. CEO extraordinaire… and of course, Mariani (Banfi), one of the leading importers of fine wine in the U.S. who went to Montalcino in the hope of creating a sparkling wine legacy and ultimately turned Brunello di Montalcino into a super market brand.

Where there were less than 20 bottlers of Brunello in the 1960s, today there are more than 250 members of the Brunello bottlers association.

To Giacomo Neri’s credit — whether you like the style of wine or not — his family started out with humble farm that Giacomo took over when he returned from his mandatory military service. I know this because I met Giacomo for the first time in 1989 on my second visit to Montalcino, when his wines tasted a lot different from the way they do today. Since his collaboration with enologist Carlo Ferrini began in 1993, his Casanova di Neri label has become one of the most sought-after wines in the world, winning impossibly perfect scores from some of our country’s greatest wine writers (what do Nadia Comăneci, Bo Derek, Ann Colgin, and Giacomo Neri have in common? Hint: it’s not their good looks).

I recently met Carlo Ferrini for the first time in Los Angeles, where he and I spoke on a panel together. I asked him what he felt, over the arc of his career, was his greatest contribution to winemaking in Tuscany.

“Before I began working as a consulting enologist,” he said, “enologists were traditionally tasters.”

“Like Gambelli?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered. “I was among the first to convince growers to replant their vineyards and to adopt more contemporary farming practices.”

And on the subject of Brunellogate?

“I’ve never believed that Merlot or any other grape should be added to Brunello,” he told me. “In Chianti, I’ve followed a Bordeaux model, using different grapes, grown in different sites, to create blends in line with modern tastes. In Montalcino, the wines have always been 100% Sangiovese. It’s my work in the vineyard that has made the difference. Not in the cellar.”

Whatever Ferrini claims and whatever we believe (and for the record, looking Ferrini in the eye, I believed him), the predominate and guiding style of Brunello has changed in Alfonso’s lifetime and my lifetime.

In the beginning, was the style of Brunello guided by a handful of wealthy families who saw big business opportunities in producing wines that could rival their French counterparts? Is it guided today by a small group of wealthy families who see financial opportunity (and tax-shelter vacation homes) in America’s thirst for wines in the global style?

The answer to these questions lies somewhere in between an alpha, an omega, and a brief window (1975-1993?) when Italy’s cultural prosperity delivered an optimism and fostered a belief that even luxury products should be the expression of the land where they were grown and the people who made them. It just so happens that that’s when Alfonso and I had our first contact with the wines.

If you following along here at Do Bianchi, you already know the Brunello that I like to drink (Il Poggione, Brunelli, Soldera are my top three, whether I can afford them or not). And there will be plenty of time to write and discuss the wines that we love at our house…

Instead, please read Alfonso’s post: The Battle for Brunello. I’m just adding my two cents here…

In other news…

Today, Italian wine blogger Andrea Petrini, author of Percorsi di Vino, reposted this offer from Albana di Romagna producer Gabriele Succi (left): if you make a donation to one of the officially sanctioned channels for donations for Emilia-Romagna earthquake victims, you can send him a scan of the receipt via email and he will ship you the same value’s worth of his wine. He sweetens the deal by discounting each of his labels by Euro 1 ex cantina. He’s not giving a portion of proceeds to earthquake victims; he’s giving you the wine for donating.

Click here for the offer (in Italian) and links to official donation sites.

Italy’s greatest rosé? Biondi Santi’s Rosato di Toscana

I couldn’t resist translating this post by Italy’s top wine blogger Mr. Franco Ziliani for VinoWire today. And the mimetic desire was so overwhelming that I was compelled to post my translation here as well. I haven’t yet tasted the 2008 Rosato by Biondi Santi but the 2006 was fantastic. Until I get back to Italy, I’ll just to live vicariously through Franco’s post… Buona lettura!

When my fifty-fifth birthday arrived this year, I didn’t reach for a powerful red, nor an elegant Champagne, nor a juicy Franciacorta. No, I drank a stunning rosé on my birthday, perhaps the most important and most celebrated of all the Italian rosés (and probably the most expensive, since more than one online wine store offer it at Euro 33). I’m talking about the Rosato di Toscano, 100% Sangiovese, created by the Gentleman of Brunello, Franco Biondi Santi on his Tenuta del Greppo estate in Montalcino.

On another occasion, I wrote the following about this wine: It is the youngest child of the Greppo estate, a wine obtain by vinifying estate-grown Sangiovese at 16-18° C. without skin contact, aged for 18 months in stainless steel. We could call it a youthful Sangiovese, a quasi Brunello… in pink, obtained from young vines roughly 5 to 10 years in age. The vineyards are located in zones rich with stony subsoil and galestro [schist], with exposition to the North-East, South, and North, and elevation ranging from 250-500 meters.

I drank the 2008 Rosato di Toscana by the great Franco Biondi Santi with a simple however delicious, everyday dish: exquisite beef meatballs braised in tomato sauce and paired with green beans that had been sautéed with bread crumbs. We’re talking about enthusiasm cubed here: a truly extraordinary rosé in every sense.

Light cherry in color, jus of squab with an orange hue. Dry and direct on the nose, very salty and focusedd, dominated by red cherry followed by a gradual evolution of citrus ranging from pink grapefruit to mandarin oranges and citron. Then came notes of multi-colored Mediterranean maquis, tomato leaf, flint, and hints of rose. Together, they created a weave of color and mosaic of aroma.

Ample in the mouth, juicy, overflowing with personality and refined, ample layers of texture. Well structured on the palate, with vertical depth, endowed with focus, an absolute release of magnificent vitality and complexity.

A stony, salty wine, with perfect balance of fruit, acidity, and tannin (the magnificent tannin of Sangiovese from Montalcino). Great harmony, extreme polish, aristocratic elegance, and absolute drinkability despite the 13.5% alcohol and richness of this highly enjoyable Rosato di Toscana.

It would be suited to a wide variety of dishes, from Caciucco alla Livornese to fish soup, to baby octopus cooked in red wine to braised calamari with peas. But it also could be paired with a roast beef, braised beef, or even veal… and even a well-stocked pizza. Why not?

The greatest of Italian rosés and one of the greatest rosés in the world, including France. Chapeau bas!

Franco Ziliani

BREAKING NEWS: Franco Biondi Santi speaks out against proposed Montalcino changes

It would seem that the editors at Decanter and Gambero Rosso spoke too soon when they reported that Brunello di Montalcino great Franco Biondi Santi (left, photo via Weintipps) supported proposed changes to the Rosso di Montalcino appellation that would allow for blending of international grape varieties in Rosso di Montalcino (current legislation requires that Rosso di Montalcino be made with 100% Sangiovese grapes).

Last week, both publications cited him as a supporter of Brunello producers association president Ezio Rivella’s campaign to modernize the appellation. But evidently, neither contacted Biondi Santi — the grandson of the creator of Brunello di Montalcino and a towering figure in the history of the appellation — for comment.

“Three years ago I was in favor of the addition of softening wines or grapes to Sangiovese for Rosso di Montalcino,” said Biondi Santi in a phone interview today with one of Italy’s leading wine writers and top wine blogger Franco Ziliani, who quotes the signore del Brunello on his blog Vino al Vino. “Today, things have changed and my position is no to any change to the appellation.”

The proposed changes, he noted, would allow producers to transform 500 hectares of unsellable Sant’Antimo and IGT Toscana into Rosso di Montalcino.

“We would enter into the same thicket as 1966,” said Biondi Santi, “when the appellation ‘Vino Rosso dai Vigneti di Brunello’ was created.” [editor’s note: this appellation was changed to Rosso di Montalcino fifteen years later] “In the fall of 1966, Montalcino was obligated to found the Brunello Consortium, which became operative on January 1, 1967, with my father. After three months of negotiations with other producers, we decided not to enter the consortium because we strongly disapproved of how it was taking advantage of an equivocation at the time: the grape variety was also called Brunello and it was considered a subvariety of Sangiovese! Therefore, a no is indispensable in order to clarify.”

Terroir in Brunello (Castelnuovo dell’Abate, the Ramones, and James Brown)

I have a lot of posts lined up from our trip to Italy: this is the next in chronological order… A lot of folks have written me about our visits to Rinaldi and G. Mascarello (organized thanks to our extraordinary guide Franco) and as soon as I “move” through Tuscany and Emilia, I’ll post those tasting notes as well… but first some Montalcino terroir… thanks, everyone, for reading!

brunello di montalcino

Above: On our last night in Italy, in Rome, where we ate at an excellent if cantankerous Roman trattoria, we treated ourselves to a 2000 Brunello di Montalcino by one of my favorite producers, Poggio di Sotto, which lies in the southeastern sub-zone of the appellation, where the wines have an earthier and more pronounced mineral character in my opinion.

Our second day in Italy, we spent the morning in the farmhouse where we were staying (more on that later), sipping stove-top coffee and munching on cookies. After a quick visit to Montalcino proper, we headed south to Castelnuovo dell’Abate to visit one of my favorite people in Montalcino, Federico Marconi. As Fabrizio Bindocci said to me later that evening, when Federico walks into a room, you just can’t help but smile and be in a good mood. It’s really true.

brunello di montalcino

Above: Federico is one of the coolest dudes I know in Montalcino. We have a dream of creating a rock band called the Ramontalcinos (for our shared love of the Ramones; I think that we might also need to recruit McDuff for the project).

Le Presi, where Federico works, is a tiny winery and estate, founded in Castlenuovo dell’Abate by Bruno Fabbri in 1970. Bruno learned about winemaking and developed a passion for Brunello because he worked as an electrician in the legendary Biondi-Santi winery in the “Croce” subzone of Montalcino (just south of Montalcino proper).

brunello di montalcino

Above: One of the things that makes the Castelnuovo subzone unique is the presence alternating layers of sandstone and volcanic subsoils, as illustrated by this cross-section. Le Presi lies on the edge of Castelnuovo (literally newcastle) and one of its walls coincides with the ancient wall of the hilltop town. The volcanic deposits come from the nearby Mt. Amiata, to the south, once an active volcano.

I love the wines of Le Presi, which I first tasted at Vinitaly in 2009: they’re old-school Brunello, sourced from two small growing sites, just south of the town, vinified in a traditional style and aged in large cask. Like Federico, Bruno Fabbri (below) and his son Gianni (who now runs the winery and makes the wine) will tell you that the high concentration of volcanic subsoil (as you can see in the image above) gives their wines their distinctive minerality (and earthiness in my opinion). They call their top growing site “Muro Forte” (literally, strong wall, named after the wall in their cellar that coincides with the ancient town wall).

brunello di montalcino

Above: Tracie P and I really enjoyed talking to Bruno, who seemed happy to share tales of his earlier years, working at Biondi Santi, and making wine in Castelnuovo.

When I mentioned to Bruno that we were staying at the Il Poggione estate in Sant’Angelo in Colle (one of the southwest growing zones), he pointed out that Castelnuovo doesn’t have the same “maritime” influence (i.e., ventilation arriving via sea breeze) that Sant’Angelo has. Some would argue that the one or the other is better (can you guess which subzone Bruno favors?) but one this is for certain: the wines from Castelnuovo (at least those made in a traditional style) have different flavors from those produced in other subzones.

In the words of James Brown:

    Some like’em fat, some like’em tall
    Some like’em short, skinny legs and all
    I like’em all, huh, I like’em proud
    And when they walk
    You know they draw a crowd
    See, you got to have a mother for me

Let me just put it this way, the wines of Le Presi have a mother for me.

Next on deck, the terroir of the southwestern subzone and the fantastic farmhouse where we stayed.

Thanks for reading!

Wineries named in Brunello investigation


The server that hosts VinoWire is having problems today and so I’m unable to post there but I will do a detailed post asap.

Today’s Florence edition of the Italian national daily La Repubblica reports the names of the seven wineries investigated in the Brunello inquiry, dubbed by Italian authorities, “Operazione Mixed Wine” or “Operation Mixed Wine.” The five that were found by the Italian Treasury Department to have bottled wine “not in conformity with appellation regulations” are: Antinori, Argiano, Banfi, Casanova di Neri, and Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi. According to the article, Biondi Santi and Col d’Orcia were also investigated by were cleared by investigators of any wrongdoing.

Brunello, a peculiar form of wine writing, and Antonioni’s surface of the world

The mere exposure to the visible surface of the world will not arouse ideas unless the spectacle is approached with ideas ready to be stirred up.
—Rudolf Arnheim

For now we see through a glass, darkly…
Corinthians 13.12

Above: Alfonso took this Antonioni-inspired (Blow up?) photo of me while he and I were traveling in Italy last week with a group of wine professionals following the wine trade fairs, visiting wineries and tasting together. In reading the “signs” of the Brunello affair, I must employ my sensibilities as semiotician and see beyond the “surface of the world.”

Last Wednesday, two days after the conclusion of Vinitaly (Italy’s annual wine trade expo), the Italian daily La Nazione reported that 1) Biondi Santi and Col d’Orcia have been cleared of any wrong doing in the Siena prosecutor’s Brunello inquiry; 2) other wineries implicated in the investigation have declassified their wines and have reached agreements with the prosecutor, avoiding further action against them; 3) “preservation of evidence” hearings were to be held (on Friday) for Argiano, Frescobaldi, and Valdicava. (You can read my translation of the article at VinoWire.)

One of things that has kept many — or at least some — of us rapt in the imbroglio of the Brunello controversy has been the Sciascia-esque twists and turns it has taken. Even though Nino Calabrese, the Siena prosecutor, has never spoken directly about those implicated in the investigation (and although he has claimed to be “abstemious” when it comes to the media), he has used ciphered leaks and statements to the press to move his agenda along. He has never directly addressed the question of who was investigated but he did issue a statement in which he claimed that:

    Many of the companies implicated have violated the appellation regulations for Brunello di Montalcino DOCG and Rosso di Montalcino DOC… 6,500,000 liters of Brunello di Montalcino and 700,000 liters of Rosso di Montalcino were impounded. Roughly 1,100,000 liters of Brunello di Montalcino have been declassified to IGT Toscana Rosso. Roughly 450,000 liters of Rosso di Montalcino have been declassified to IGT Toscana Rosso.

The article published last Wednesday does not cite its source but it would appear that the information came from the prosecutor’s office.

There is certainly some significance to the fact that the prosecutor waited until the day after the conclusion of Vinitaly to release this information. It’s not clear to me why he has singled out Argiano, Frescobaldi, and Valdicava — especially when Argiano opted to declassify voluntarily shortly after news of the inquiry broke.

Calabrese claims to be “abstemious” when it comes to the media (what an apt word choice!) but beyond the surface, he has certainly indulged in a peculiar form of wine writing!

A Roman sine qua non: la pajata

No stay in Rome is complete without a serving of rigatoni con la pajata: rigatoni tossed in a tomato sauce made with the small intestines of an unweaned calf, in other words, a calf that has been fed exclusively with its mother’s milk (today, in the post-mad-cow world, it is made with lamb intestines, as in the photo above). When the animal is slaughtered, the intestines are tied at either end. As the intestines cook, the rennet in the walls of the organ coagulates the milk and makes cheese. The resulting sauce has an inimitable creamy consistency… simply delicious. Last night at Perilli in Testaccio, I paired with a 1999 Taurasi Radici, which was showing beautifully. Ben had taglioni cacio e pepe and the owner also gave us some carbonara, which he makes with rigatoni instead of long noodles.

Running to catch my plane back to Berlin but wanted also to share this image of a 1992 Gambero Rosso Guide to the Wines of Italy being recycled, snapped in Testaccio. It’s good to know that the guide is being put to good use.

In other news…

The father of Brunello di Montalcino, Franco Biondi-Santi, has proposed a change in the Rosso di Montalcino DOC that would allow for other grapes besides Sangiovese. Read about it here.

92 Biondi Santi Rosso and 89 Grattamacco

Bandmate and neighbor Greg Wawro brought over a few aged Porterhouse steaks last night to pair with some big Tuscan wines that I had been saving: a ’92 Biondi Santi Rosso and an ’89 Grattamacco (note how dated and simplistic the label of the Grattamacco appears in the photo above).

The 1992 vintage is widely considered to have been a poor one in Tuscany: did Franco Biondi Santi use his top grapes for this Rosso that year? I think that this is the case since he made little or no Brunello that year… at least, there doesn’t seem to be any on the market. This bottle came to me via a self-described hobbyist of vintage wine who lives in Mondovì in Piedmont. It was so moderately priced that I couldn’t resist buying it. I wasn’t sure if it would survive the trip nor was I certain that the wine hadn’t lost its life. I decanted it about thirty minutes before drinking. Although the first aromas were not so pleasant, the wine opened up beautifully. It certainly had seen better days but for me, there’s nothing like the taste of old wine. It was bright and still had a lot of good acidity. Biondi Santi’s wines are made expressly to age and this one paired wonderfully with our bistecche alla fiorentina (alla Upper West Side).

The 1989 Grattmacco… pure hedonistic pleasure. I’m really not one for Bordeaux-style wines from Italy. But I had a chance to taste a lot of Grattamacco working for one of my former clients and really came to enjoy the wines. When I had the opportunity to buy this bottle at a discounted price (one of the perks afforded by the client), I jumped. Historically, Grattamacco has been made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sangiovese. This bottle seemed to be an even balance of the first two, with lesser amounts of the Italian grape. It was fantastic and paired beautifully with aged cheddar.

The best thing about the Grattamacco was how the wood (i.e., the barrique, the new oak) had integrated – or better yet – had had the time to integrate well. In this country, we are so accustomed to drinking young overly oaked Bordeaux-style wines, that most wine enthusiasts believe the prickly sensation in the back your mouth is a good thing. On the one hand we drank a wine that had no barrique whatsoever. Although the Rosso has passed its peak, it was still very much alive. An oaked Rosso di Montalcino would never last that long (fourteen years!). On the other hand, we drank a very modern wine where the flavor of the wine was not overshadowed by the new wood.

A judicious balance of Old World and New… the wines were some of the most interesting and rewarding that I have ever opened in my home.