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The "Peccatto" of Old Bottles of Biondi-Santi

Posted: Jun 19, 2009 12:57pm ET

Yesterday a friend of mine gave me a bottle of 1981 Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino Il Greppo. It was incredibly generous of him, but I have to admit that I had doubts that it would be of very good quality.

The bottle had been sitting upright in a cabinet in the workshop of my friend’s antique store in Rome. "I don’t know how long it has been here," he said. "Maybe a couple of years?"

He didn’t seem bothered. He’s not into wine. Antiques, music, 100-kilometer marathons, living in the outback of Borneo (seriously), yes, but wine, no. "But I have heard that Biondi-Santi is special, so I want you to have it," he said.

"Grazie tanto!" I replied.

I, of course, knew that I had to drink it last night because I had a flight to Bordeaux the following day to attend VinExpo, the mother of professional wine fairs. We all know that you can’t take bottles of wine in your hand luggage with the way airport security is, and bringing a bottle of Biondi-Santi to Bordeaux is definitely like bringing coal to Newcastle as the cliché goes.

So I brought the red to dinner at the restaurant Pier Luigi. The sommelier was horrified when I told him that I wanted to drink it. "With fish?" he asked.

"Yes, with fish or whatever we order," I said in my bad Italian. "Could you put it on ice too?"

The dude was freaking out. He must have thought I really was a vulgar American. Biondi on the rocks baby! "Look," I said, "I just want to cool the bottle down a bit. It’s warm."

The sommelier agreed to decant the bottle and then place the decanter on ice. My friends and I drank a bottle of 2007 Franz Haas Vigneti delle Dolomiti Manna, which was delicious and perfumed with ripe fruit and crisp acidity. I then stuck my nose in the Biondi. It was cooked! It smelled of tanned leather, raisins and Madeira.

By that time, I had made friends with the sommelier and we both agreed the bottle was shot, even though the color was good and the level of the wine in the bottle above shoulder.

"Que peccato," I said—what a shame.

I ordered a bottle of 2006 Cantina Terlano Sauvignon Alto Adige Terlaner Quarz instead, and I began thinking about the experience. There must be so many bad bottles of old vintages of Biondi-Santi out there in the world, I thought to myself. (Old bottles of Gaja Barbarescos can have the same problem.)

The Brunello producer has had a great reputation for decades. Even Italians who know very little about wine know that Biondi-Santi is something valuable. And most keep them as sort of trophies, standing up in places of honor like a golf or tennis trophy on a mantle or shelf.

Biondi bottles that have not been stored properly abound in homes and restaurants in Italy. Many of the old bottles of Biondi-Santi that I have seen in Italy have been standing up in warm rooms for years, even decades. And that truly is a peccatto.

But what can you do? Just hope for the best.

Dr J Rosenblatt
Montreal, Canada —  June 19, 2009 4:45pm ET
James, what you are saying is so true. Two years ago when my wife and I with another couple were in Tuscany, we searched out and bought whatever 1997 Brunello's we could find. We purchased and opened on one evening the 1997 Poggio Alle'Oro, the CAMPOGIOVANNI, and the Castelgiocondo Ripe al Convento, which had all been purchased from little Tuscan stores. I'm sure the bottles had been standing on the shelves in these enotecas for years, with the sun eluminating them as the stars these bottles are. When we opened them, they were drinkable (the thought of not drinking them hurt more than the cooked odors and taste), but were really not very good. We learned a valuable lesson that day about buying trophy wines in small shops that have been standing on pedestals for years!
Matt Scott
Honolulu HI —  June 19, 2009 5:26pm ET
Interesting. Have you had an '81 Biondi-Santi that was stored prperly in recent times? Was '81 a good year for Brunello?
Michael Schulman
Westlake Village, CA —  June 19, 2009 7:50pm ET
It's such a shame when poor storage kills a great bottle. Here's another story to cry over.

I provided the wine to my mom's birthday a few years ago. I knew that everyone that was invited was in their late 70's to early 90's, and that nobody was really a wine drinker except a friend of my mother's. At the end of the meal my mom's friend was just nuts over the Ganarcha de Fuego, a wine I paid $8 for. I gave her a bottle to take home, and told her to enjoy it. In return she gave my mom a bottle from her cellar as a thank you. That bettle of wine remained in my mother's trunk for several hot days before making it to me. Needless to say the bottle was cooked. OK......here's the shame.It was a 1970 Mouton Rothschild. Yeah, the one that placed first for the French in the Judgement in Paris.
Que peccato, indeed!
Michael Bonanno
June 20, 2009 6:43am ET
LOL !James! a true wine lover. . . .
Johnny Espinoza Esquivel
June 20, 2009 9:28am ET
Well, good to know I'm not the only one. Here is my own:

Recently, I friend of mine gave me a bottle of 1986 Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon. I know his father is into wine. Indeed, he have a cellar. So my conclusion was, wine should be in pretty good shape. However, I did some research, knowing nothing about 1986 vintage in Napa Valley. It seems there were floods and lots of rain. There it goes my first impression. Going beyond, I did surf far niente's site. Lucky enough, I found the Cab notes for that year. Overall the info was positive even suggesting that wine should have some bottle aging. But 21-23 years of aging looks like too much for me. Besides, '86 vintage was not typical. Been honest with all of you I don't know what to expect.

As per Mr. Laube's review of the wine, it seems it's too late for that bottle. Any advice on this? Should I decant it? current storage conditions are OK, meaning there is pretty good humidity and cool temperature. I don't know what to expect. . .
James Moller
Washington, DC —  June 20, 2009 9:43am ET
I can do you one better:
About two weeks ago I was in visiting an old collegiate buddy. His mother mentioned she had an old bottle of wine that she ¿wasn¿t sure if it was any good.¿ Sitting in wine rack on the floor of her living room, right next to the heating grate, was a bottle of 1959 La Mission Haut Brion. The capsule felt glued on and you could see signs of seepage down the side of the neck. We're going to pry it open on the 4th, but I am as some might say not very confident.

C'est dommage
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  June 20, 2009 10:06am ET
James since you will be in France, I was curious if you have heard anything from Bordeaux on how the growing season has been so far? Flowering? Things looking better post hail?
James Suckling
 —  June 20, 2009 12:13pm ET
Juan. Decant, pray and serve it!
James Suckling
 —  June 20, 2009 12:15pm ET
Karl. I was just walking in the vineyards of Haut-Bailly this morning, and the baby crop looks good. Some vines were it by hail in May but they look fine now. I saw a few shot berries in the bunches, but, otherwise, it all looks good. People are already trimming canopies and cutting back some bunches.
Franco Ziliani
Italy —  June 20, 2009 2:02pm ET
James the real problem stay in very bad storage - "standing up in warm rooms for years, even decades" like you say, of many bottles, sort of trophies in restaurants and houses, of venerable old vintages of Biondi Santi Il Greppo Brunello di Montalcino, not in a questionable and dubious quality of this wines... I have many times the chance to taste old and very well stored vintages of Brunello of Mr. Franco Biondi Santi and the results are amazing! Please, next time don't forget to open the bottles in broad advance, some hours before you taste, so to allow to the delicate and elegant taste of this authentic expression of Montalcino's Sangiovese to have a full expression. The modern Brunello's or assumed "Brunello" don't need time and you don't wait for their expression, but for old and venerable vintage of real Brunello, like Il Greppo, to wait and give time to wine is fundamental... saluti (you live in Italy and you can understand Italian language) Franco Ziliani
Tom J Wilson
Canada —  June 20, 2009 3:11pm ET
Most of the time, those old and expensive vintage wines, are gifts on top of gifts, going from one person to onother like used cars....Meaning, people did not pay with own money, otherwise will have more care about, or asked around how to do it.....Five years ago, a women ask me if I was intrested of some old free wines, 2cs 1974 Amarone Quintarelli, 2cs 1974 Amarone Masi, magnums ecc.Sad yes, but when I went to her house, instead to go in the cellar, she took me in the garage !Wines where left there 15 years before, since son closed own restaurant.Bottle after bottle, all garbage, I keep few each as trophy label!!The bottle of Brunello Riserva 1891 which Franco Biondi Santi, open few days ago to celebrate is 60 wedding anniversary, according to loco people was excelent...not bad for a 118 years old wine.Meaning Mr. Franco did care about !James where you there ?
Albert Jochems
The Netherlands —  June 20, 2009 3:33pm ET
What a sad story. And yes, I've seen several bottles from Biondi Santi or Gaja in restaurants in Italy. Standing upright on a shelf behind the bar. I even saw a bottle of Sassicaia once in a restaurant in Castiglione della Pescaia.

James, have you had an eighties Biondi Santi recently that was in good shape? I don't see you writing a lot about older vintages of Brunello. I would love to read about your take on that!
James Suckling
 —  June 20, 2009 4:18pm ET
Thanks Franco! I have had some great bottle of Biondi Santi too. Sadly this was not one of them!!
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  June 22, 2009 12:06am ET
James;My first thought in reading this is: Is this just another J.S. assault on Biondi-Santi; or a blog on poor wine storage?I decided on the first. Since you decided to have a Brunello with fish, before even opening the wine, it was a slam on the wine. You have consistently rated BS poorly for over ten+ years now, similiar to many other traditional made Brunellos, or Barolos, or etc. I recently had the 85 and 90 BS, and they were beautiful classical Brunellos that will continue to age and improve for probably decades. A recent 95 was still drinking youthfully. But they're not you're type of wine and we understand that.Ok, but;I wish you would someday explain your hangup with B.S. You are far to good of a wine critic, and wine lover, to constantly be taking these personal continual shots at this one winery.
James Suckling
 —  June 22, 2009 3:15am ET
Sandy: That's sort of harsh my friend. I was just communicating my experience with old bottles of Biondi Santi in Italy. I mentioned that the same happened with old bottles of Gaja, if you read closely. This said, tradition is not an excuse for poor winemaking. I taste blind so I am making no assault on Biondi Santi. I am just not a fan of overly acidic wines no matter where they come from in the world. I wish Franco made the best wine in Italy with all of the pedigree of his estate. Alas, he doesn't. But some of the greatest wines from Italy came from Biondi Santi in the past such as the 1955 and 1975.
Louis Bruno
June 23, 2009 12:30pm ET
I had a similar experience with a 1969 Biondi-Santi I bought at a restaurant in the Dolomites. I offered the owner 100 Euro for the bottle that had been sitting on his shelf for at least 20 years. Beyond dead, veramente un peccato..
Johnny Espinoza Esquivel
July 6, 2009 2:21pm ET
James: Returning back to the question related to Far Niente Cab 1986. Unfortunately, the wine was lost. I can't even pull out the cork. It was literally mush! And as for the wine, well tart acid smell like vinegar (not good vinegar)and on the palate, well, meaningless to say anything. I was having a couple of friends for lunch yesterday (July the 5th). I open a couple of bottle of Argentina Malbec Dona Paula 2005. As a meaning of comparison it was an interesting exercise, I mean, tasting those Malbecs againts the Far Niente Cab. Then you are able (we were indeed)to understand the differences between a corked-past wine and a good bottle (The malbec were more on the varietal side than the terroir side, but they were good anyway.

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