The Ghost of ‘Dr. Franco’

How a new team is tweaking Montalcino’s legendary Biondi-Santi

The Ghost of ‘Dr. Franco’
The legendary winemaker Franco Biondi Santi's legacy looms large, even as the vineyards and winemaking at Il Greppo estate evolve. (Robert Camuto)
Nov 2, 2021

The late Franco Biondi Santi’s old, battered oak desk sits in a corner of the winery with his personal effects, including his worn, black, leather notes portfolio and his houndstooth fedora. It’s as if “Dr. Franco,” as he was known around Montalcino, will be returning any moment.

“Dr. Franco is always in the hearts of the people who worked with him and knew him,” says Biondi-Santi’s current winemaker, Federico Radi, 45, who arrived here in early 2017 after the Descours family and their French luxury goods firm EPI bought a controlling interest.

I feel lucky to have spent some time with Franco Biondi Santi a decade ago—two years before the Montalcino winemaking legend’s death in 2013—when I was researching a cover story on him for Wine Spectator.

This fall, I revisited Biondi-Santi’s Il Greppo estate and was surprised how the man’s spirit still fills the place and the minds of a new staff.

In 2019, EPI (which also owns Champagne brands Piper-Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck) bought the remaining shares of Biondi-Santi. Since then, Franco’s heir, Jacopo Biondi Santi, and grandson Tancredi have left Il Greppo to focus on their Castello di Montepò estate in Tuscany’s Maremma region. For the first time, this estate that created Brunello di Montalcino in the 19th century is without a Biondi Santi.

But Dr. Franco’s influence lives on.

“We are not Biondi Santi,” Radi explains. Boyish-looking, with long, bright-red hair and a beard, he puts his hands over his heart. “But we want to take care of Biondi-Santi. It’s an Italian heritage. And every step we take, we think three, four or five times before we do it.”

“All of us feel the weight on our shoulders to keep the legacy,” he adds.

As my colleague Bruce Sanderson reported last year, Biondi-Santi’s new CEO, Giampiero Bertolini, set a direction of “evolution not revolution,” investing in the vineyards and retooling the cramped cellars to allow for vinification by vineyard parcel.

 New Biondi-Santi winemaker Federico Radi amid the vines
New Biondi-Santi winemaker Federico Radi has been replanting and retraining vines, as well as vinifying plots separately, to better understand their differing characteristics. (Robert Camuto)

I wanted to get down into those vineyards and cellars to see what evolution looks like. So I spent an afternoon with Radi, who made wines at Isole & Olena in Chianti Classico and Mazzei’s Belguardo estate in the Maremma before he received a call from Descours asking him to apply for the job here.

Most of the change at Il Greppo involves paying more attention to the vineyards. “Before, there wasn’t a vineyard manager,” says Radi.

One of the first things the new team did was in-depth exploratory studies of the soils and subsoils throughout the vineyards. In addition, they did a massal selection, propagating cuttings from Il Greppo’s three historic vineyards, which were planted just after World War II and total about 2.5 acres.

Not everything was in great shape. Radi has been planting areas that had been uprooted years ago and filling in spaces left from vine die-off—all with the idea of maintaining Biondi-Santi’s diversity of Sangiovese clones and biotypes.

“We will replace the same material in the same place,” says Radi, walking through the old Il Greppo plot, notable for its stony marl known locally as galestro, behind the winery. The other two old plots are “Moscatellaia” on clay-schist soils and “Crosina” on sandstone. “What we have here is something we have to respect with all our power.”

In the past four years, he has vinified each of the historic parcels separately (as always, with indigenous yeasts)—something that Biondi-Santi’s cramped winery didn’t allow. More room for winemaking was created by moving storage and labeling to a warehouse outside Montalcino. Out of the 70 vineyard acres now in production, 12 parcels in all are now separately vinified.

“We do not want to produce another kind of wine,” Radi says. “What we want to do is know all our ingredients.”

Biondi-Santi has long produced three wines aged in large casks: entry-level Rosso di Montalcino, longer-aged Brunello di Montalcino and a top-level Brunello Riserva (produced in most, but not all vintages).

Under Dr. Franco, the selection was made according to vine age. Under the new team, it will be made according to grape quality and an evaluation of the resulting wines, with the lots showing the most complexity going to make the higher-end wines.

There have been other intriguing changes throughout the estate’s vineyards, all designed to enhance soil life. Radi’s team has stopped tilling vineyards in summer, as that can damage soil structure, and instead moved to using a mix of parcel-specific cover crops that are tamped down during the growing season to serve as mulch.

Under the guidance of agronomist and master pruner Marco Simonit, Biondi-Santi is moving away from the regimented system of cordon-trained, spur-pruned vines—adopted here at the end of the 20th century because it was thought of as easier to maintain—to a range of taller, more traditional growing systems that often resemble a flattened two-armed version of albarello (head-training) or the arching, Y-shaped, Guyot-like “Capovolto Toscana.”

Not only should the newer training systems be more resistant to diseases such as esca, but it’s also hoped they will prolong the lives of vineyards.

“We want to eventually achieve an average [vine] age at Biondi-Santi of 65 to 70 years,” says Radi. That’s about double the age now.

All the experimentation in the vineyard, from rootstock to pruning methods, focuses on adapting to climate change while preserving the traditional qualities of the wines.

“Climate change is evident,” Radi says, “but Biondi-Santi Brunello must be a wine that is fresh and not high in alcohol.”

In the winery, aside from adding more small vats for fermentation, Radi has replaced some of the oldest aging casks dating back to the 1890s as part of what he calls a “soft renewal.”

“Even if those barrels were well-maintained, they were still wood,” he says. “From a microbiological standpoint, it was dangerous.”

Dr. Franco, often stubbornly conservative, might not agree with everything going on here.

I imagine him protesting, “There was nothing wrong with my grandfather’s cask! Why throw it away?”

But you walk away from here with the sense that the changes being made will help keep the integrity of Biondi-Santi for a long time to come.

“Biondi-Santi is something more than us,” says Radi. “And when you have that, you have to face it with humility.”

People Sangiovese Italy Brunello di Montalcino Tuscany

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