The Italian wine world lost an icon when Brunello legend Franco Biondi Santi, dubbed “The Gentleman of Brunello,” died over the weekend. He was 91 years old.
Franco—whose grandfather, Ferruccio Biondi Santi, invented Brunello in the late 1800s—learned the winemaking craft from his father, Tancredi, one of Italy’s most celebrated enologists. When Franco inherited the family’s Greppo estate in 1970, he remained true to his father’s traditions while also improving quality, starting with a lengthy collaboration with the University of Florence that allowed him to isolate the best Sangiovese clones on the estate.
Franco was an avid defender of traditional Brunello, and refused to rely on any winemaking techniques that could potentially change the quintessential characteristics of his wines. In the 1990s, he was criticized for not throwing out his large casks in exchange for new barriques that had become trendy throughout Italy. Instead, Franco shunned the small French barrels and often said, “Sangiovese is naturally rich in tannins and doesn’t need the aggressive tannins imparted by new barriques. I use only seasoned casks that allow the grape and terroir to shine through, without the chocolate, vanilla and toast of new wood.” Over the last decade, Franco’s wines have enjoyed a surge of interest, and despite their hefty price tag, are among the most sought-out Italian wines.
During WWII, Franco helped his father wall up the family’s old Riservas just before the Front passed through Montalcino in 1944. Years later, he held a number of now legendary vertical tastings with these Riservas—going back to the late 1800s—that demonstrated Brunello’s marathon aging capacity. Among his many contributions to the Montalcino’s success story, in 1990 he spearheaded a campaign to successfully block a massive landfill destined to be built on the outskirts of Montalcino that would have put Brunello production at risk.
“[Biondi Santi] was one of the most important advocates of the success of Brunello di Montalcino on an international level,” said Fabrizio Bindocci, president of the Brunello Consorzio. “It is owing to him that Brunello has become one of the most renowned and appreciated Italian wine brands. The consortium and the entire territory have not only lost a great winemaker, but also an outstanding man of deep sensitivity and humanity.”
Franco Biondi Santi is survived by his wife Maria Floria, their children Jacopo and Alessandra, and four grandchildren.