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.