An outstanding ability to age is a feature of brunellos made by the Biondi-Santi family in Tuscany in north-west Italy. Most will keep for at least 50 to 60 years, and some brunellos more than a century old still drink remarkably well.
Near the end of last century, Wine Spectator magazine published its list of the 10 greatest wines of the twentieth century. The 1955 Biondi-Santi riserva brunello was on that list. In Italian, riserva means wine from an exceptional harvest.
The Biondi-Santi riserva is made from older vines on the estate aged between 25 and 80 years. The annata (Italian for regular) comes from vines aged 10 to 15 years. Many critics believe the vineyard’s altitude, ranging from 400 to 500 metres, contributes to Biondi-Santi’s trademark aromatics and acidity.
Clemente Biondi-Santi established the vineyard in 1880, planting sangiovese, a grape that re-invents itself and thus has a wide range of clones. Clemente’s grandson Ferruccio took his grandfather’s sangiovese clone – known as sangiovese grosso – and created what has become known as the modern form of brunello. Indeed, many argue that Ferruccio “invented” brunello wines as we know them today.
Ferruccio’s work was important because at the time the prized wine of Montalcino was a sweet white, the Moscadello di Montalcino, made from the muscat grape. Ferruccio experimented with low yields for his brunellos, plus long maceration (where the wine juice gets is colour from the grape skins), and long ageing in wood and the cellar.
Ferruccio’s son, Tancredi, wrote the standards for the laws that eventually were used to regulate brunello production. Tancredi’s son Franco ran the estate for many years until he died in April this year. His son Jacopo currently manages the estate.
Jacopo said his family avoided new oak because it changed the characteristics of the brunello. He preferred to focus on elegance and balance. All wines are fermented in neutral Slavonian oak for 18 days, and then aged in 7,000-litre oak casks for two to three years. Sangiovese is naturally rich in tannins and does not need the wood tannins from small barriques.
A riserva is only made in the best years and is released six years after the harvest. Fewer than 700 cases are made in those special years.
The 2006 riserva brunello is a marvelous wine, with aromas of raspberries and tobacco. It has the texture of sunshine and a lingering finish. The 1997 riserva demonstrated the capacity of these wines to age. It felt still like a young wine, though it had developed some tertiary characteristics of black fruit and hints of bergamot, the aromas one gets from Earl Grey tea. It is elegance in a glass.
A feature of Biondi-Santi is the process of “topping up” to replace wine lost through the ageing process. Tancredi Biondi-Santi, who assumed control of the estate in 1922, instituted this custom in 1927.
The level of liquid drops because wine escapes through the cork. Whisky makers call this disappearing part of the spirit the “angel’s share”.
The Penfolds company in Australia offers a similar service of “topping up” for its flagship Grange Hermitage, but uses wine from the current vintage instead of the same vintage.
For the riserva range, a member of the Biondi-Santi family inspects each wine and then tops up the wine with the same vintage of riserva before inserting a replacement cork and a new capsule. The vineyard then issues a signed certificate with the date the “topping up” took place.
Jacopo Biondi-Santi said he did not believe in artificial closures like the stelvin caps popular in Australia and New Zealand. The cork was the “lungs” of the wine and essential for longevity. “Screwcaps are OK for young wine, but you need cork if you want to age wine for more than a century.”
Biondi-Santi buys only the best corks for its riserva and receives first choice when it came to buying corks from the premier manufacturers in Portugal. These corks cost 1 euro each.
Jacopo Biondi-Santi respects his cellar so much that when he enters it he always wears a jacket and tie or suit. An appropriate gesture when one’s cellar contains wines made in the 1880s that still remain youthful and magnificent.