Franco Biondi Santi, the patriarch of the Tuscan estate many credit with creating Brunello di Montalcino, died April 7 at age 91. From his family's property, Il Greppo, not far from the town of Montalcino, Biondi Santi was a fierce champion of traditional Brunello, made from 100 percent Sangiovese and aged for five years before release. He believed the wines should live for decades, and they often did. He had firm convictions and stuck to them, even when it provoked conflict in his own family.
"If the world knows Brunello today, it is because of Franco Biondi Santi," Fabrizio Bindocci, president of the Brunello di Montalcino Consorzio and director of Il Poggione, told Wine Spectator. "We have always talked about Biondi Santi as the symbol of Montalcino."
Biondi Santi was born in 1922, and by the time he was 10 years old, his father was including him in tastings at the winery. Making Brunello was a decades-long tradition at Il Greppo, even though the wine was hardly famous then. In the mid-1800s, when sweet white wine was the local specialty, Franco's great-great-grandfather Clemente began making Sangiovese. The available evidence suggests these were the first Brunellos.
By the time Franco was born, his father, Tancredi, was exporting a small amount of wine to the United States. Franco studied agronomy and came home to work at Il Greppo during World War II. In 1970, Tancredi died and Franco took over—the property had 10 acres of vineyards then. Franco combined Il Greppo with the nearby Azienda Pieri, which belonged to his wife. Today, the family owns about 62 acres of vineyards and another 300 acres of olive trees and forest.
Biondi-Santi wines had developed fame by that time, but they would soon have competition. In the '60s, there had been a handful of wineries in the appellation and just 140 acres of vines. By 1980, there were 1,600 acres, and today there are almost 5,000. Hundreds of wineries now produce Brunello. Despite the gold-rush mentality, Franco stuck to his traditional practices—he ages his wines in large oak casks for three years and in bottle for two more, longer than the rules require. But the wines don't taste dated—
"The characteristic of Brunello is its longevity," Biondi Santi told Wine Spectator last year. "Nature is capable of creating beautiful things—you just have to wait."
Tall and thin, with an aristocratic bearing, Franco was proud of his work and uncompromising. He helped lead a faction that defeated a proposal brought before the Consorzio last year to allow grapes other than Sangiovese in Rosso di Montalcino, the shorter-aged version of Brunello. "He was a country gentleman," said Bindocci, "a friend who enjoyed the company of people, a friend with whom we shared a lot of battles. And finally, he was a friend who fought for the purity of Brunello."
In the early 1990s, his son, Jacopo, left to work in the Maremma, on Tuscany's coast, because he found working under Franco too confining. Jacopo would eventually return in 2010, but Franco still had the final word in the cellars.
Family shareholders will decide who succeeds Franco, but Jacopo is expected to take the reins. As Franco told Wine Spectator last year, "Surely it will be Jacopo. He has great respect for Il Greppo. And he has great DNA."
Franco is survived by his wife, Maria Floria, son, Jacopo, and daughter, Alessandra, and four grandchildren.