Paolo Bianchini, winemaker and former cycling pro, raising a glass of his Brunello di Montalcino at the tasting lunch in London in 2020
One of the things I shared with my first section editor on The Sunday Times many moons ago was a love of a good rags-to-riches story. The rise of the Bianchini family at Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona in Brunello di Montalcino would have been perfect. It isn’t quite rags to riches, but it’s a heart-warming story and all the more so because of the quality of the wines. Their style is notably elegant, which is something owner and winemaker Paolo Bianchini says he strives for, but they retain persuasive Brunello intensity and power.
Situated in the warm south east of Montalcino, close to Castelnuovo dell’Abate and the Abbey of Sant’Antimo, the estate dates back to the 17th century with a palazzo built in 1672 by Fabius de’ Vecchis, Bishop of Montalcino and Abbot of Sant’Antimo. It was bought by the Ciacci family in 1877, but the story of the wine doesn’t start until 1985, and the current owners, brother and sister Paolo and Lucia Bianchini, are only second-generation wine producers. In fact Paolo nearly wasn't: he used to be a professional cyclist on the Colnago team. He gave it up to take over the family wine business, but is still a keen amateur and founder of the cycling club Brunello Bike Asd, which raises money for charity.
In 1985 the estate was owned by Elda Ciacci, widow of the late count Alberto Piccolomini d’Aragona (a direct descendant of Enea Silvio Piccolomini, Pope Pius II). Her farm manager of 13 years was Giuseppe Bianchini, father of Paolo and Lucia. He had always wanted to plant vineyards and produce quality Brunello but the contessa wasn’t interested and the estate made wine only for its own and a little local consumption.
Giuseppe Bianchini got his opportunity after Elda Ciacci died in 1985. Soon afterwards he learned that, in the absence of heirs, she had left the entire property to him, elevating him overnight to a large-scale landowner and the resident, with his wife Anna and their children, of a historic palazzo. Not exactly from rags but certainly to riches.
When Giuseppe died in 2004, leaving Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona to his two children, he had established it as a respected wine estate. Paolo has continued his father’s winemaking philosophy of quality over quantity and his son Alex is now working in the winery learning to become “our future winemaker”. Joint owner Lucia heads administration and accounting and lives close to the modern wine cellar in nearby Molinello, while Paolo lives with his family and mother in the Palazzo.
Today the 220-hectare estate, which benefits from the temperature-moderating effect of the Orcia river lying to the south east, has 55.5ha of vineyard, of which 53ha are planted with the large-berried, thick-skinned Sangiovese Grosso. The other 2.5ha are planted with Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah for two Sant’Antimo DOC wines and a Sangiovese-based Toscana Rosso blend. The rest of the estate is given over to rolling hills, woods, pasture and 40ha of olive groves.
From the estate's 12-hectare Pianrosso vineyard, the jewel in the crown
The soils are galestro (typically Tuscan, rocky, schist-based clay) with iron-rich, marly red soil in the aptly named Pianrosso vineyard, which third generation Alex Bianchini says, “gives good minerality”. The 11.69ha vineyard lies at 240–360m, has the oldest vines (20–35 years) and is the source of the estate’s top Brunellos: the single-vineyard Pianrosso Brunello, produced in most but not all years since 1990; the Brunello Riserva, produced in 10 vintages from 1995 to 2015 and expected to be made in 2016 and 2019; and the Vigna di Pianrosso Riserva Santa Caterina d’Oro, also produced in 10 vintages from 1995–2015.
The top Brunellos are aged in the palazzo’s historic cellars. The others are matured in the Molinello winery, where all the wines are vinified. They’re fermented in stainless steel and glass-lined concrete and aged traditionally in large, Slavonian oak casks ranging in size up to 75hl and all are then matured in bottle for at least eight months. Paolo Vagaggini is the consultant oenologist.
Food suggestions are possibly superfluous, but it’s worth pointing out that the elegant, silky style lends itself to lighter food – as you can see from the menu served at lunch at IT, London – as well as to more typical Brunello pairings with roast meat, game, casseroles, meat ragùs, mushrooms and aged cheeses. Vegetarians and vegans are well accomodated.
Matching Brunello doesn't have to mean meat or game: Mezzi paccheri alla Genovese, pasta with a traditional onion sauce, part of the meat-free lunch served with the Ciacci Piccolomini Brunello wines at IT London
Tasted February 2021 on Zoom with Alex Bianchini
Brunello di Montalcino 2016, Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona
Aged in large, 20–75hl, Slavonian oak for 24 months, then 8 months in bottle.
Very perfumed with earthy, wood-forest sweetness, lovely bright fruit and gentle wafts of incense, sandalwood, baking spices and chocolate. A palate of pebble-smooth, silky tannins and appetising clarity, definition and presence. Sweet red fruit, smooth dark chocolate and spice cake with a cherry-kernel and fresh orange zest twist. Beautifully balanced and drinkable now, but will evolve over at least the next 10–15 years. 95+
Brunello di Montalcino Pianrosso 2016, Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona
Made only in the best vintages from a selection of grapes from the Pianrosso vineyard and aged for 36 months in 20–60hl Slavonian oak, then at least 8 months in bottle.
More intense, more floral aromas and a greater concentration and richness of fruit, both black and red, on the palate. Cedar-sweet intensity, spice and a suggestion of iron minerality. Even silkier, more polished tannins than the straight Brunello. Very long, very impressive. Already drinkable but still a youngster. 2022–2036. 97
Tasted February 2020 with Paolo Bianchini at a lunch organised by Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona's importer Mentzendorff
Rosso di Montalcino 2015, Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona
Open, inviting nose. Floral, black fruit, cherry and clove aromas. Elegant, silky, palate – more so than the average Rosso – with lively freshness, refined, cherryish fruit and delicate cedary spice all playing out in a harmony of sweet and savoury notes. 91
Brunello di Montalcino 2015, Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona
Deep, rich, concentrated, yet elegant, with violets, wild blackberries, woodsmoke and cocoa notes, melt-in-the-mouth but long-lasting tannins and a fine spine of acidity. Lovely sweet and savoury interplay. Extraordinary how drinkable it is (February 2020), but there’s no doubt that it has 10-15 years ahead. 95
Brunello di Montalcino 2010, Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona
A darker, less floral nose; black fruit and dried fruit sweetness with deep, savoury, beef stock and forest-floor notes. Fine-grained tannins, but firmer and marginally less silky than the 2015. Gives the impression of slightly higher acidity too. Becomes sweeter and sweeter in the glass. Now to 2025. 94
Brunello di Montalcino Pianrosso 2015, Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona
Slightly deeper colour than the straight Brunello 2015 and more intense on nose and palate. Black cherry fruit with a lick of orange zest, cake spices, mocha, dark chocolate, roast game, fern and pine-needle and delicate whorls of woodsmoke and vanilla. Persistent, but exceptionally fine-textured tannins alongside the freshness of fine-tuned acidity. Very refined and drinkable already, but has the concentration and balance to repay long cellaring. Now to 2035. 96/7
Brunello di Montalcino Pianrosso 2010, Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona
Deep garnet/quarry-tile red. Spicy sweet aromas and flavours of kirsch cherries, liquorice, violets, balsamic notes and clove. Layered, rich and powerful with cedary, spicy intensity but a lightness of touch and fine-textured length. Now to 2030. 95/96.
Photographs by Joanna Simon