Maestro Franco Biondi Santi
Interview by Oleg Cherne
The following is an interview in honor of the outstanding wine producer Franco Biondi Santi, known during his lifetime as the patriarch of Italian winemaking. His name has come to symbolize exceptional quality in traditional Italian wine. Franco’s family were among the first pioneers to create the amazing Tuscan wine Brunello di Montalcino. The history of the Biondi Santi winemaking family, the philosophy, and bouquets of traditional Italian wines—this interview between Oleg Cherne, Editor-in-Chief of Code de Vino, and Franco Biondi Santi covers it all.
Brunello di Montalcino DOCG is an outstanding Italian wine from the south of Tuscany. The wine is produced in small quantities using Brunello grapes—a local variety of Sangiovese. Brunello berries are larger than your regular Sangiovese, but their clusters are smaller, and the vines bear less fruit. This helps the grapes ripen better and makes the wine richer and more tannic. In turn, this allows it to mature more organically and store better. Traditional procedure prescribes maturing Brunello di Montalcino in barrels for no less than two years, then four more years in bottles before it can be purchased.
Only wine from Montalcino can bear the name Brunello. The terroir of this area is very diverse, its numerous hills dividing the land into different areas with their own microclimates. The lower part is hot and dry, and the upper (northern) part is colder with more rain. This affects the quality of the local wines, giving them a denser structure. Both the north and the south produce amazing wines, but they are very different.
«Mr. Santi, we are currently at Villa Greppo, your family’s villa. It was built by your grandfather, the famous Ferruccio Biondi Santi. What’s the idea behind this place, what makes it so special?»
«We specialize in making wines of exceptional quality. It’s our family tradition. Our family tree is very old—there are mentions of it in documents from the early 18th century. The female line starts with Catherine Santi, who married Mr. Jacopo Biondi. That’s where the double surname comes from. The first mentions of their family appear in documents from 1726.»
«There is also information tracing your family roots back to the 15th century.»
«True, but it was the early 18th century when Catherine Santi married Mr. Biondi, and the family officially started making wine. That’s when the Biondi Santi double surname appeared. My earlier ancestors were engaged in winemaking since the 15th century. And that’s no surprise—Montalcino has been famed for its wine for a very long time. Some historical records mention wine production here back in the 14th and even 13th centuries.
«The history of this villa dates back to the middle of the 19th century when my grandfather Ferruccio Biondi Santi—whom you’ve already mentioned—developed an interest in winemaking and began studying it. He learned a lot from his uncle Clemente Santi who was a renowned winemaker. Clemente Santi was the first person in the family to receive an international award at a wine competition in Paris in 1867. In 1884, the wine made by my grandfather Ferruccio Biondi Santi received that same award. His wine was of exceptional quality. It was awarded a silver medal at that exhibition. It was named the «Highest-quality red wine.»
«I must also mention the terrible disaster that befell Italian winemaking at the time: almost every vineyard became infested with the phylloxera aphid. Ferruccio began to study the disease that had spread from America alongside possible ways to combat it to cure the vineyards.
«One of the most effective methods he discovered was to take the roots of wild American grapes, since that’s where the disease had come from, and graft local grape varieties onto them. The taste and quality of the local wines stayed the same despite the new roots. It made Ferruccio Biondi Santi very famous.
«My grandfather is seen as the first person to make wine from Brunello grapes in this area. I would like to reiterate that my ancestors were involved in winemaking for a long time—since the 15th century, as you mentioned. But the history of Brunello di Montalcino started with my grandfather, Ferruccio.»
«What is the philosophy of Brunello di Montalcino?»
«The main quality that Brunello demands from its producers is patience. The regulations of Brunello production require the wine to age for four years from the moment the grapes are harvested.
«These regulations are based on studies conducted by my father, Tancredi Biondi Santi. They were adopted in 1930, revised in 1960, and only took effect in 1967. My father’s studies found that four years of aging in bottles makes for the best wine in Montalcino—that’s the basic aging period. It cannot be drunk any earlier than that. The wine can then be stored for a long time afterwards. It will remain in perfect condition even after a hundred years.»
«Does that mean that people who drink this wine also have to be patient? Would you say it’s not meant for those who are in a rush?»
«Of course, it’s a wine for patient people! Our family celebrated a special occasion a few days ago, so we opened a bottle from 1891. The wine was over a hundred years old, but it was excellent! We drank half the bottle and left the rest open for two days. When some invited experts and I tried the wine two days later, it seemed as though it had opened up even more during that time—its character had become even more apparent. It truly is a wine for those who have patience. Although I must admit, not everyone can wait a hundred years!»
«Is it true that the oldest wine in your cellar dates back to 1888? Or are there even older bottles?»
«I only have two bottles from 1888 left. It is indeed the oldest wine I have. There are also five bottles from 1891. We opened one of those recently.»
«Writer and critic Burton Anderson said your Greppo wine is meant for meditation. Would you agree with that?»
«The respected Italian wine critic Camillo Langone also called it a wine for meditation in one of his articles. He conducted the following experiment at a tasting: he opened up a bottle of the wine and tasted it every three hours to observe the difference, note the effect, and appreciate the entire range of flavors. It was clear to him that the quality of the wine only got better as time went on, despite the bottle being open. He concluded by saying, «It’s a shame that the amount of wine gets smaller and smaller every three hours.» When the bottle was finished, they didn’t throw it away. Instead, they rinsed it and enjoyed what was left of the wine diluted in the water. The water smelled and tasted the same as the wine. They deduced that even the glass bottle had absorbed the taste and the flavor of the wine. So yes, it is indeed a wine for meditation.»
«Does that mean that your wine is not best suited for a hearty meal but rather for reflection and a light snack, perhaps?»
«These wines are truly outstanding. If you do have them with a meal, pheasant or grilled chicken makes for a great pairing. So yes, you can have them with food. But wines that have been aged for fifty or sixty years, or wines from the 19th century, are best enjoyed on their own. They have powerful and complex flavors that can get lost to a certain degree. We take great care to make sure that our wine is stored and consumed in the best way possible. That’s why we attach a small guide to each bottle.»
«You don’t have young wines—they’re all older than four years, as per your regulations. When would you say is the best time to start drinking your wines? Yes, you can drink them after four years, but maybe it’s better to wait ten?»
«I make two kinds of wine from different parts of the vineyards. I use grapes that are five to ten years old for a simpler, lighter wine, while the truly exquisite wine comes from vines that are over twenty-five years old. Our oldest vine has been growing since 1936.
«The wines I make are considered ready for consumption after five years. But obviously, the more you let the wine age in the bottle, the better it gets. It becomes more and more refined each year. In France, for instance, they recommend drinking certain wines after twenty-five years of aging. The same goes for Biondi Santi wine: the longer the aging, the better the wine.
«For example, our 1955 wine was named one of the top twelve wines of last century by Wine Spectator. The list included wines from France, California… Ours was the only representative from Italy.»
«Are older wines more acidic?»
«Yes, wine can indeed get more acidic due to the transformation of the tannins. Some wines can also lose their rich color and become closer to a rose color… Not a deeper burgundy, but a lighter color.»
«That’s interesting because normally wine tends to get more maroon or carmine as it changes color, but yours becomes pinker.»
«Yes, we’ve seen this since 1888. Wine usually has a maroon color, but it becomes more complex over time. While our wine becomes pinker. Wine that turns brick-red, borderline brown, is not suitable for long-term aging.»
«Many people consider your wines to be philosophical. Some get even more specific and say that the wines belong to the school of stoicism. In your opinion, which school of philosophy suits your wine best? Roman, Chinese, Greek, for instance? What should I read in order to understand your wine?»
«Our philosophy, as I’ve already mentioned, is patience. In a way, our wine goes against the modern style—one certainly wouldn’t call it a modern wine. Very recently, a group of monks established a community in this area. Their main principle is patience too. So the philosophy of our wine does have a kinship with antiquity.
«Ancient culture is close to my thoughts, my own culture, and all the wines I make. Namely, that’s the Etruscan civilization that lived in this area before the Romans. It’s only natural that the origins of our wine trace back to that ancient culture, to our land.
«When it comes to modern times, the main qualities we invest in winemaking are patience, attention to results, and being able to abandon ideas. Sometimes we improvise in our winemaking and expect something incredible to come from it, but after another tasting we may realize that the wine isn’t at the level we anticipated. In that case, we can switch to a lower category for that wine, abandon the prestigious «Reserva» label and simply call it «red wine from Montalcino.»
«That said, its taste and characteristics will still be much better than those of your regular red wine.»
«To understand your wine, one has to be prepared to appreciate it. But let’s say that in order to appreciate it, I should read a philosophical treatise. What would you recommend?»
«I would recommend Virgil who wrote a lengthy treatise on growing grapes.»
«I see. And what about music?»
«Prelude to Act III from La Traviata. I also very much like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture commemorating Russia’s defeat of Napoleon. Its powerful instruments instantly create a feeling of strength and harmony. It’s not just a harmony of sweet and delicate violins but a harmony that becomes something truly powerful with stronger instruments coming into the foreground—drums, trumpets, and so on.»
«Would African drums suit your wine too?»
«If the rhythms coincide, yes, as wine is a rhythm of its own… Though I’m not too sure about that pairing.»
«Should Russian people learn to appreciate Tchaikovsky before they drink your wine?»
«Yes, one needs to be able to hear and understand Tchaikovsky and, of course, to understand wine. I have a wine—a rose—which is the perfect aperitif for listening to music.»
«And what poems would you recommend?»
«That’s a difficult one for me… I find it hard to give you an answer because I’ve devoted my entire life to wine over anything else. I’ve traveled a lot, I’ve given my whole life to this… During my lifetime, there have been huge changes in technology and winemaking, so I’ve dedicated all my time to wine. I have a degree in music, so I find it easier to answer those kinds of questions. But I couldn’t tell you about poems because I’ve pretty much spent my entire life focused on one area.»
«Well, actually, your wine is poetry!»
«Here’s something interesting: you use Yugoslavian barrels, saying that you consider them to be better than their French counterparts. This is quite uncommon. Could you tell us more about that?»
«It makes sense. Our grapes already have a strong character, so we don’t need to enhance it any further. French barrels are known for imbuing wine with additional scents and flavors. They become part of the wine. We don’t want to tamper with our wine. We want to let it mature naturally, without any interference.»
«I was recently in Australia where I visited a lot of different places, a lot of plantations, and there was a big discussion about corks—screw-tops and natural ones. 80% of the vineyards, quite large ones too, were convinced that screw-tops were better than natural corks. As someone who watches over wines with big potential, what do you think about that?»
«To understand the effect a cork has on wine, you need wait quite a long time. About five years ago, I had some visitors from Germany. They had made a glass cork and convinced me to use it in some of my bottles. When we reached an agreement, they asked, «When can we come and take a look at the results? Next year perhaps?» To which I responded, «Well, you should really come back in thirty years!» That’s how long it takes to truly understand how a cork affects wine. Wine that’s going to be consumed within six to twelve months can use any kind of cork, including glass or plastic.»
«And if that doesn’t work out, does it mean the wine will essentially be ruined?»
«I suppose I personally won’t be able to try that wine… I won’t get to see the end result. But if you’re interested in the intermediate results, you should come back next year. It’s been five years, and we’re going to open the first bottle. It’s important to follow traditions in this matter as well.»
«So wine needs to have a tradition? If that cork becomes a tradition in fifty years, we’ll talk then, right?»
«That all depends on the market. They might get away with it in Australia, but the great wines, like Tuscan ones… Would you have a plastic cork or a screw-top on a bottle like that? Let’s not forget that wine as a cultural object always represents tradition, especially when we’re talking about classic wines.»