De Re Rustica: Banfi, Biondi-Santi, and Brunello di Montalcino

Brunello is an anomalous wine for Tuscany. Its famous siblings, Chianti Classico and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, both have many centuries of history and tradition behind them and evolved only gradually to their present condition. Brunello is both a young wine and a non-traditional – maybe even anti-traditional – one, a contrived wine, invented by a handful of agricultural experimenters in the final third of the 19th century. And Brunello has always been made from a single grape variety – Sangiovese – in a land where field mixes and blending have long been the norm.

I had reason to think a lot about these facts recently, when I joined two colleagues who really know and love Italian wines to lead a three-day seminar on the Sangiovese wines of Chianti Classico, Montepulciano, and Montalcino, sponsored by their three consorzi and held at New York’s International Wine Center. The Center’s head, Mary Mulligan, was America’s first woman Master of Wine, a program she now trains others for, and she is the author of many books, including several co-authored with her husband, Ed McCarthy, who was the third seminar leader. I was to lead the session on Brunello, and as anyone who has ever taught knows, no matter how familiar you may think you are with a subject, you don’t really know it – you don’t really even know what you know about it – until you have to teach it.

Most wine aficionados are familiar with the story of Brunello’s beginnings. Between 1863 and 1876, a group of Montalcino estate owners began exploring the varieties of Tuscany’s chief red grape. They researched “Sangioveto, Prugnolo, and Brunello,” the three versions of Sangiovese dominant in the Chianti Classico zone, Montepulciano, and Montalcino.

The records show that around 1865, Clemente Santi and Tito Costanti (both of whose descendants are still prominent Brunello producers) began vinifying Brunello in purezza – that is, by itself.  They were later joined in these experiments by other Montalcinesi. Local records show the “Società enologica di Montalcino” presented Brunello wines at the Siena exhibitions of 1869, 1870, 1871, and 1876. From this point on, the wine’s reputation seems to have been established, and Brunello graduated from being a novel experiment to being a viable if extremely limited wine.

And that, more or less, is where things stood in Montalcino for a long time. Clemente Santi’s progeny, the Biondi-Santi family, became the undisputed leaders in the field, but it remained a very small field. In the early 1970s, a hundred years after the initial experiments, there was a only a handful of producers of Brunello di Montalcino, and the wine’s reputation, despite being one of the earliest DOCs awarded, remained confined to its own region and the then-minute pool of Italian cognoscenti.

Of course there had been a few bumps in the road – World War I, the very late and very devastating arrival of phylloxera in Montalcino, World War II (some which was fought right around there), and finally, in the mid-1950s, the long-overdue end of the mezzadria, a sharecropping system that had kept rural Italy feudal for centuries. That legal change emptied the countryside, as peasant farmers who had been tied to land they couldn’t own fled as fast as they could to paying jobs (and indoor plumbing) in the cities. So at the beginning of the 1970s, Montalcino was a dusty little town, with a shrinking population and an equally shrinking economic base, still dominated by a few “seigneural” families, none of whom had any incentive to change anything – certainly not the way they made their wine.

Enter Banfi. In 1978, the Mariani brothers acquired their first property in Montalcino. From the get-go, Banfi stirred things up. There were resentments, of course. After all, they were outsiders, rich Americans, and we all know how pushy they are. But Banfi brought money to town, and jobs, and technology, and it’s hard to say which of the three was more unsettling. Stainless steel fermenters and temperature controls invaded the land of old, tartrate-coated botti.  Banfi’s entrance into Montalcino marked the dawn of the modern stage of Brunello just as surely as the 19th-century agronomists’ experiments marked its beginning.

Right from the start, Banfi opened its cellars to its neighbors. And almost from the start, the Marianis and their chief enologist Ezio Rivella began an enormous and rigorous program of clonal research and experimentation, working in cooperation with the University of Pisa and the University of Milan. They began with a pool of 600 (!) Sangiovese clones from all over Tuscany, and they quickly found out that Chianti Classico clones and Vino Nobile clones planted in Montalcino soils yielded a wine that was not Brunello and definitely not Chianti Classico or Vino Nobile.

Sangiovese adapts to very specific sites, and the trick was to find those clones best adapted to the peculiar soils and climates of Montalcino. So they narrowed the pool first to 180 clones, and then fewer and fewer, until they wound up with 10 clones that worked well in the various experimental sites. They finally concluded that a selection of three or four of them, chosen specifically for each site, would yield what to their mind was a characteristic Brunello. All these results have been published, and all the clones registered: They are available from nurseries for anyone in the zone to use.

Before I had to lead my seminar, I had known most of these facts. The realization that came to me, as I reviewed them for this session and as I spoke them to the group (a great group, by the way, of serious and attentive people), was that what Banfi had been doing was directly in the tradition of those 19th century experimenters. What Banfi’s clonal research amounted to was the logical continuation of what Clemente Santi and those other proto-agronomists had begun. I think it’s what the zone and its growers should have been doing for themselves all along (even allowing for the aforementioned bumps in the road).

Let me be clear about this, because I may be stepping on a lot of toes here. I’ll choose the most prominent example to make my point. I profoundly respect Franco Biondi Santi as a man and as a winemaker – but he is a conservator, not an innovator. As his most recent and best biographer, Kerin O’Keefe, puts it (in Franco Biondi Santi: the Gentleman of Brunello), “From his father and grandfather he inherited the vineyards and the wine that changed Italian enology. While his father perfected Brunello’s innate characteristics or tipicità, Franco Biondi Santi has dedicated his life to defending the identity of this great wine.”

That conservative stance, I think, typified the attitude of the Brunello establishment (such establishment as there was) at the time of Banfi’s arrival in Montalcino. Back then there were no more than a dozen producers in the zone, at best: I can only think of six or seven that I’m sure were active at that time. Now there are 250 growers, 208 of them bottling their own wine. I  believe that this is directly because Banfi set an example, opened the zone, and  freed the once-innovative wine from the weight of what had become a stifling conservatism. I don’t think this is a case of post hoc reasoning: I think this is cause and effect. I don’t claim that those numbers of producers necessarily reflect any improvement in the wine – but they certainly reflect an increase of prosperity for everyone in the Montalcino zone. And they certainly guarantee a much greater availability of the wine for anyone who wants to try it – and that has to be good.

Breaking news: Ezio Rivella, former Banfi chief enologist, has just been elected president of the Brunello consorzio.

One Response to “De Re Rustica: Banfi, Biondi-Santi, and Brunello di Montalcino”

  1. Michael Horne Says:

    Interesting article, Tom. The wines of Montalcino have always fascinated me and I’ve spent much time in the area tasting the “typical” Brunelli and found pretty dramatic differences in some styles. I’m a fan of innovation while carrying the past forward with you — something the Italians do well…. Whether it’s in the field or the cantina, the Brunello producers have much room to innovate while keeping the endearing aspects of their (relatively new) traditions

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