It’s the second day of harvest at Biondi Santi. It’s also the first harvest at Biondi Santi since the French group EPI, led by Christopher Descours, acquired a majority stake in the company in December 2016.
Biondi Santi is well known for producing acidity-driven Brunello di Montalcino with the potential to age for decades, if not a century. The ‘house style’ is clear and it is the very reason why so many have fallen in love with their wine.
“My father and my grandfather always told me ‘never change the wine, never change the wine’,” says Tancredi Biondi Santi, of the seventh generation of the founding family, who is studying viticulture and oenology at the University of Florence.
Still, changes are coming. Part of the cellar is closed for the installation of temperature controls in some vats. There’s also a brand new optical sorting machine outside the cellar, ready to go.
“We actually discovered today how it works,” says Biondi Santi with a laugh. “The machine works quite well, especially in a year like this where there are a lot of grapes that are not completely mature.”
Post-acquisition, Jacopo Biondi Santi, and the new CEO, Olivier Adnot, are still feeling their way.
“For me, it’s a great opportunity, but I’ve been told – and it is very clear – that I’m not here to make wine,” says Adnot, who has worked for the EPI group for 11 years. The former winemaker and managing director of Château La Verrerie arrived in Montalcino in March. “I am the CEO of this company, but being a winemaker helps.” He says that when organizing a restructure and coming to terms with what needs to be done technically, “it is better to be a winemaker than just a financial guy.”
The details of the acquisition and partnership between Biondi Santi and EPI have not been disclosed, but Adnot sheds some light how the deal came into play.
“Jacopo wanted to find a partner to help him develop the business. He went through the bankers and so, they approached each other this way and started to discuss. We had the opportunity to put all our forces together.” Adnot says that EPI has the know-how and financial means to upscale the quality, business and distribution. He adds that Biondi Santi had “thousands of proposals” and they chose EPI for more than just financial reasons. “The family stories are familiar,” he explains. “Christopher Descours is the only one to be the owner of his group and his companies, like Jacopo. The grandfather died a few years ago, like Christopher’s. And they were the same age. Jacopo and Christopher got along very well and decided to form this partnership.”
When it comes to the future of Biondi Santi, Adnot says, “We have this important responsibility to keep the tradition but also to experiment and to innovate. The philosophy of the family has always been to be the pioneer and the first to do something. We can’t just follow the others. This is one of the top Italian estates and, for that reason, we need to be the leaders in everything.”
Besides the new temperature control and optical sorting machine, some other changes are inevitable. For example, the labels will change slightly. At the moment they’re quite similar, and Adnot thinks they might be confusing to consumers. The lighter Rosso di Montalcino wine will not be bottled under the Biondi-Santi label, because “for us, Biondi Santi is Brunello. We are also thinking about stopping the Rosato. We can’t stretch the price from the very low price of Rosato to Brunello,” says Adnot. “We need to focus on the top – select the top and improve the quality.” He adds they are also thinking about a visitors’ centre, with a nice tasting room.
Trying to make changes without changing anything is no easy task. However, the preservation of the unique style of Biondi Santi's Brunello seems to be priority number one. This will be the first challenge for the new partnership – so far, the 2017 vintage in Montalcino is looking “odd” according to several winemakers. Severe heat has caused the vines to shut down in some areas resulting in unripe grapes. Quality will most likely be up to par, but quantities will be down.