The long line of approaching pines is quite amazing. Cypress trees, over a century-old have been so close planted that light is partially blocked. The sandy road, slim butts, a half-kilometre of single lane driveway just rubs into our mind how history stamps out Brunello country.
Here we arrive at the originator of Brunello, the famous, beguiling, long barrel-aged red from sangiovese, at the Biondi Santis. The family has records that it was planted in the region in 1827; before then wine from the white grape moscadello (muscat or moscato) was served to the courts in Florence and Turin.
The buildings are original, just as Franco Biondi Santi chose to harvest his first crop of a special selection of sangiovese, sangiovese grosso, now propagated all over the DOCG Brunello di Montalcino; that’s all you can grow, and the wine must be 100% that grape.
Up above, about several hundred metres on the cliff face lies the hill town of Montalcino, once a fortified outpost towering over southern Tuscany’s patchwork of green vines and grey olives. We are touring during the harvest, the bus groans up the hill, beside us locals are spreading canvas to collect deep green olives for the year’s oil extractions (frantolio variety mainly for extra virgin).
If Ferruccio Biondi Santi crushed his first grosso berry in 1883 then this makes his vines over 132 years-old. Well not quite as phylloxera struck and by the early 1900s vines were cured by grafting and replanting. So the oldest of the 25 hectares are 80 years, planted circa 1935.
Even more astounding is the aging barrels; the oldest was built in 1900 during phylloxera recovery time, there are no new barrels, no wines with wood perfumes, no wood influence, just 1.7-3 kilolitre neutral botti constructed of Croatian forest oak. They look old too, so preservation both inside and outside is the job of the repair staff (coopers).
Tour host Yana explains with passion and carefully-chosen phrases which separates the historical Biondi Santi aging systems from neighbours now selling wines from the same grape. Since the 80s there has been an explosion of new brands and vineyards, but we chose to visit the seat of all this Brunello history.
The wine company makes four red wines but may not classify four wines every year. That is best interpreted by the Riserva only being offered in the best years determined by the cantina’s tasting panel. So back to three wines a year!
The rarest wine though is the Rosso di Montalcino (grey label, red stripe) made from vines over 10years when a Annata (vintage Brunello) is not made, as in the wet years, 2014 and 2002. So in a usual, modest season two wines are made, Annata and normal Rosso.
To keep the story of selection going, only wines made from vines over 25 years are considered for Riserva standard; and the wine still spends three years in barrel like normal Annata, but is released close to a 6 year-old wine. Current is 2010, and before then 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2001.
If you really love Biondi Santi Brunelli di Montalcino or have a momentous occasion to drink one, there are Riservas from great past years available for sale on the property: 1990, 1982, 1964, 1955 and on request I guess, 1945, 1925, 1891, 1888 are listed on the private, direct sales sheet.
So as my great host Yana says “our quality outcome relies on what the weather gives us”. On my 2014 vintage visit the persistent rain spoilt the harvest while the 2015 drive down the cypress drive heralded a hot season, great wines and an early start to harvest in late September.
How did the 2008 taste (AUD 275)? Well there is a maker’s style here; as it is not decorated with oak aromas or tastes or characters there is a preservation of grape character be it of a seasoning contribution from the barrel environment. Look for nose strength, unleashed power of wild herbs, thyme-scent, mushroom, then controlled palate power, savoury first, recognise the earthiness, white pepper, powdery tannins, all building to a medium bodied power-pack of wine with backbone, spine, longevity. Drink 2020 onwards. The property suggest a shelf life of 35-45 years, so wine for another generation yet fun to drink now.
The every year wine, Rosso di Montalcino (AUD 90), is less complex but of the same ilk, released younger, drinking 2011 today, less savoury, more fruity, all oak aged, fruit sweet, red berries, drying, no deep wine colour, in fact semi-pale, always a little browning so as to be natural sangiovese.
Expect the baby Brunello-Rosso-to span 15 years though its point of enjoyment is youth, while Riserva is the opposite, 55-80 years a normal cellar span, and 1888 is a great memory wine as an example of this grape on this property aged this way.
Since establishment successive owners Ferruccio, Tancredi, Franco, the latter deceased in 2013, ran the property, now with Jacopo assuming this great responsibility to preserve the history.
Uncorked and Cultivated Wine and Food Tours visit Tenuta Greppo in Montalcino.