With high praise for Argiano’s award-winning Brunello di Montalcino, winemaker and CEO Bernardino Sani shares his recipe for success, and his story, with Brian Freedman

Bernardino Sani, winemaker and CEO of the Brunello icon Argiano, is blazing a path forward by looking, in large part, to the past. This may seem counterintuitive for a man who has reinvigorated the historic estate by embracing the zeitgeist of today’s wine world, but his efforts have been undeniable: the 2018 Argiano Brunello di Montalcino was named Wine Spectators “Wine of the Year” for 2023.

This honor is the culmination of more than a decade of work, yet for Sani, it’s just the beginning. “Trying to make even more precise, elegant, terroir-driven wines” is his guiding principle, and working “together with the community to make Montalcino an even greater place to live, and find solutions to the big challenges of the future – global warming being the first of them for us viticulturists,” he says, are deeply important to him. So, too, are sharing the joy of Argiano and Brunello with a wider audience than ever before, from casual consumers to the most passionate collectors. The fact that he speaks in the language of technical expertise and pop-culture passion have made him an ambassador of sorts for the entire appellation, and raised Argiano’s profile to the stratosphere.

In 2012, when André Esteves was about to purchase the historic estate – its roots go back to 1580, and the purchase went through in 2013 – he pulled Sani aside and asked him what he thought would be needed to make Argiano one of the great wines of the world.

“My reply was, ‘André, probably we have to keep focusing on just a few things, but trying to do that in the best way possible,’ Sani tells me. “At that time, I was referring to the fact of going back to doing the Brunello that is a hundred percent connected with the history, with the tradition, with the typicity of the area, with the soil, with the environment. So I said to him, ‘Listen, we have to go back to trying to focus on Brunello, trying to make it the best possible, but not only the best possible. Trying to make something that speaks about Argiano that is easy to connect with the place, with the history, with what we are, with who we are.”

That was a tall order at the time. Brunello di Montalcino was in the midst of a bit of an identity crisis. Many of the wines, like so many others around the world, had slowly, inexorably grown bigger, more concentrated and higher in alcohol, and as a result had lost some of their historical character.

winemaker and CEO Bernardino Sani at the elegant Argiano winery in Montalcino

Pietro Ratti Maze Row Barolo Ratti

The best Brunellos, after all, have historically been as elegant as they are structured and long-lived. Yet as in so much of Bordeaux and Napa Valley and other top regions and appellations of the wine world, the chasing of higher scores and broader consumer appeal had led to a more monolithic style, often referred to as either modern or international in character.

In Montalcino, it was no different. “Argiano, in the past, was famous for modern Brunello, let’s say it clear,” Sani admits. “So, if you taste Argiano from 20 years ago, it’s aged in new barriques, barrels with a pretty high extraction, more leather, toasted notes. It’s a different wine.” Sani wanted to change that. He saw the potential of the property, and convinced Esteves that this stylistic turn to the past was the best path forward.

“I had in mind pretty clearly what the Brunello of Argiano should be,” Sani continues. “And it was also easy because of the kind of place we are: in the southwest part of the hill, with a mixture of clays and limestone in the soil. Those conditions allow you to make an elegant Brunello – to make a classic Brunello.”

Sense of place

Sani also wanted to change the perception of Brunello itself, a feat he has accomplished by introducing the wonders of Argiano in particular and Montalcino in general to a whole new generation, both in-person and through his groundbreaking work online. “I like to share emotions and passion with people,” he tells me. “I am very easygoing and love to meet different people and understand different cultures and backgrounds. Growing up in Siena has been a great school for this.”

In that ancient city, he continues unexpectedly, there is a great horse race called the Palio di Siena that occurs twice each summer, and that pits the different contrade, or districts of the city, against one another. It’s like the Super Bowl and the Kentucky Derby combined, but bareback and in the massive Piazza del Campo.

“You grow up in Siena in a very diverse environment, where older and younger people share happy and sad moments together, and there are no social barriers,” he explains. The bi-annual passions of the Palio embody this; that sense of openness, of striving to find common ground, has followed him throughout his life and served him well in his work with Argiano. And wine, especially his beloved Brunello, is a key means of accomplishing that. “Wine should be a great tool to connect different people,” he continues, “and sometimes Old World wine is too self-referential. That is something I try to avoid.”

Sani has succeeded brilliantly but facilitating the change – in both the wine itself as well as in the public’s perception of it – took time. His first step was to hire additional team members throughout the operation, from the vineyard to the winery to the consultants. Meanwhile, since his focus was on re-creating Argiano as a wine that’s deeply tied to its literal and figurative roots, he focused on working with locals who had an intuitive feel for the place itself.

“The architect who restored the villa is from Siena. The agronomist who became a really big part of the success is from Montalcino. The winemaker in the cellar who was doing an internship at that time is from here,” recalls Sani, explaining that the idea is to make the place speak for itself. “It’s so charming, so beautiful. We just help it: with the restoration of the building, the vineyards, and changing the winemaking a little bit. And then,” he adds, “I just try to be a good ambassador of the place. I’ve been traveling and working around the world, but I come from Siena, my family is from Siena, so I know the place, I know the history, I know the anecdotes, I know the other wine producers.”

Crafting perfection

Sani, meanwhile, introduced outside experts if and when needed – among the most important has been Pedro Parra, the renowned soil scientist and terroir consultant from Chile who has become a go-to resource for top producers around the world. The resulting soil mapping has helped the Argiano team understand the terroir better, the way various Sangiovese clones interact with the land in which their roots are sunk. He also cut out chemical fertilizers in an effort to force the roots deeper into the underlying geology: yet another way to tie the wines ever more deeply to this historically rich patch of the planet.

With the 2018 Brunello, they have hit a new peak of renown and achievement. It’s a vindication of the changes that he and Esteves have implemented, and the risks that all of that entailed. But that doesn’t mean that Sani is precious about it. True to form, he still speaks of the wines in a way that breaks down barriers and helps consumers – older and younger – connect with them.

Today, Argiano is better than ever, and is being enjoyed around the world by an entirely new generation of wine lovers. It easily ranks among the great estates of Italy and beyond, and its reputation just keeps on growing. “So far,” Sani tells me, “wine is a passion. It’s more than a job..” That much comes through in every sip of the wine, and in every interaction with the man who is carving out a vividly bright future for the storied, ancient estate.

Read more about Argiano and the wines.

“The idea is really to make the place speak for itself, as it is so charming, so beautiful. We just help it. We help it with the restoration of the place, we help it with the restoration of the vineyards, changing the winemaking a little bit”

Argiano CEO Bernardino Sani

Photography ©Helen Cathcart, Spinach

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