The iconic cypress-lined drive to Tenuta Greppo in Montalcino ushers you through a quiet and shady passageway onto the spiritual birthplace of Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy’s most celebrated and historic wines.
This is the location of Tenuta Biondi Santi winery, previously owned by the very family credited with inventing the 100 percent Sangiovese-based wine in the late 1800s. Four generations ago, Ferruccio Biondi Santi produced what would become the first commercial bottling of oak-aged Brunello di Montalcino in 1888.
Today, Tenuta Biondi Santi is part of an important trend that is changing the landscape of this popular and profitable wine appellation. It is among the largest—and definitely the most symbolic—of Montalcino’s wine estates to pass from Italian family ownership to foreign investors. Other recent acquisitions to non-Italian buyers include La Cerbaiona (sold to American venture capitalist Gary Rieschel), Podere Salicutti (now owned by a German restaurant entrepreneur), Podere Brizio (sold to Argentinian business Alejandro Bulgheroni) and Poggio Antico (bought by Belgium’s Atlas Invest).
In late 2016, the Biondi Santi family signed a partnership deal with France’s luxury goods firm Européenne de Participations Industrielles (EPI) for a majority stake. According to the Italian financial daily, Il Sole 24 Ore, the deal was valued at 107 million euros. It includes the brand, the Tenuta Greppo property and 26 hectares of Sangiovese vines. The total property includes 47 hectares of land at Il Greppo and 105 hectares in Pieri. Annual production is 60,000 to 80,000 bottles depending on the vintage. The Paris-based EPI holding company is owned by Christopher Descours. The group owns the Charles and Piper-Heidsieck Champagne labels (and Piper Sonoma in the USA). The Descours family also owns Château La Verrerie in Lubéron area of the Rhône Valley.
Following the death of Franco Biondi Santi at the age of 91 in 2013, the business passed onto his son Jacopo Biondi Santi and other heirs (Jacopo’s mother and his sister). Jacopo remains active at the estate as does his son, Tancredi, who is becoming the new face of the Tenuta. Although I was not independently able to confirm this myself, the Italian daily La Repubblica reports that Jacopo Biondi Santi has maintained a 7.99 percent stake in Tenuta Biondi Santi Spa.
The Chief Executive Officer is Olivier Adnot who was born in Champagne and would later become winemaker and director of Château La Verrerie.
I visited with Olivier Adnot and Tancredi Biondi Santi in mid-January to get a better sense of the strategy for the future. When you speak to members of the Montalcino wine community, a common fear expressed is that the new French ownership will disrupt the Biondi Santi production philosophy that is so firmly rooted in local tradition. Both men assured me that this is not the case.
“We don’t want to change tradition,” Tancredi tells me. “We want to keep the Brunello exactly the way it is but we can also improve.”
Olivier says four million euros will be invested in Tenuta Biondi Santi over the next two to three years. “We will invest in technology, but we don’t want to make a technological wine,” he says.
The winery purchased an optical sorter for selecting the best berries after harvest. Stringent fruit selection will consist of manual selection in the vineyards, followed by post-destemming selection on a vibrating table, and the optical sorter as a last step. More static pumps will be purchased and technology for automatic temperature control. The winery will be renovated to optimize storage and bottle stacking. Two of the large oak casks will be replaced with smaller botte from manufacturer Garbellotto. “The idea is to move towards micro vinification,” says Tancredi.
Some replanting work will also take place in the vineyards, famously planted to the BBS11 Sangiovese clone. The estate’s oldest vineyards were planted in 1936 (that fruit usually goes to the Riserva). Tancredi’s grandfather Franco Biondi Santi completed significant replanting work in 2006 and 2007. Some 14 of the estate’s total 26 hectares are located just outside the winery perimeter at Tenuta Greppo. This area will be the focus of significant replanting efforts.
“We don’t want to think of the estate in terms of total surface area, but rather in terms of individual vines,” Olivier tells me: “Each plant is precious and we can optimize quality by being more precise.”
Another big change will be the late release of the Brunello di Montalcino Annata. Brunello is usually released five years after the harvest. Tenuta Biondi Santi will now wait six years instead. The 2013 Brunello di Montalcino will be released in January 2019. The estate will continue to sell the 2012 Brunello di Montalcino that is on the market now.
“We want to give more pleasure to our customers,” says Olivier: “Brunello needs to age and that’s the message we want to send.”
The Rosso di Montalcino Fascia Rosso (the so-called red banner special bottling) will be discontinued. Olivier says it caused too much confusion in the marketplace. Only produced four times in the estate’s history—in vintages 1989, 1992, 2002 and 2014—the Rosso di Montalcino Fascia Rosso with the red banner across the front label indicated that all fruit from the estate was downgraded to Rosso status (and no Brunello was made). The Fascia Rosso was cleverly started by Franco Biondi Santi to indicate a higher quality Rosso di Montalcino in what could be considered a bad vintage for Brunello. Even through the Fascia Rosso will be discontinued, the regular Rosso di Montalcino will continue to be produced as before.
In terms of the top-shelf production, Tenuta Biondi Santi has created a vintage pairing package in which the newest release is sold to certain clients along with an older vintage. The current 2011 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva has been paired with the 1997 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. “We wanted to tell the story of two vintages,” says Tancredi. “The pairing represents opposite choices. The 2011 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva was bottled recently but it has a different structure and concentration next to the beautifully evolved 1997 vintage.”
Important personnel changes are also underway at Tenuta Biondi Santi. The new Commercial Director is Giovanni Lai who has worked at Falesco and Tenute del Cerro in the past. The estate is now imported by Wilson Daniels in the United States.
My upcoming reviews from Biondi Santi will be published in Issue 235 at the end of February. Only the Biondi Santi 2015 Rosso di Montalcino was reviewed because that is the only new release to date. That wine will be released in June. At the moment, the current releases remain the 2012 Brunello di Montalcino Annata and the 2011 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. I reviewed these wines last year and you can read my impressions here.
The next vintage will be the 2013 Brunello di Montalcino, to hit the market in January 2019.