winemaker paolo bianchini
Paolo Bianchini is a former cycling pro who now co-owns the esteemed Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona winery in Montalcino, Tuscany
Interviews 27 May 2021

Life Lessons with winemaker Paolo Bianchini

A former professional cyclist for the Colnago team, Paolo Bianchini is now the co-owner of Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona in Montalcino – which came to be the family wine estate in a twist of fortune. Here he talks regrets, Robin Hood, and how cycling is still his number one

Words by Adam Lechmere

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There can be few more extraordinary stories than that of the Bianchini family. In the 1980s, Giuseppe Bianchini was estate manager at the lovely Montalcino estate of Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona. The owner was the countess Elda Ciacci, widow of count Alberto Piccolomini d’Aragona, a direct descendant of Pope Pius II.

The countess died without heirs in 1985 and the Bianchini family heard the news that was to change their lives and the lives of their children – and grandchildren – forever. She had left her entire estate to Giuseppe, his wife Anna, son Paolo and daughter Lucia.

“It was a shock,” said Paolo Bianchini, now 60 and owner of Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona with his sister Lucia. “This wasn’t a simple gift but something huge. It was already a great property in Montalcino – but it was also a worry because of the size of the challenge. It was a big change for him and the family.”

Paolo and Lucia
Paolo Bianchini with his sister Lucia. Their parents Giuseppe and Anna inherited Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona unexpectedly in 1985

The Bianchinis found themselves owners of a 220-hectare estate in the south-east of Montalcino, close to the medieval village of Castelnuovo dell’Abate and with the Orcia river to the south. The Ciacci family had bought it in 1877, but its palazzo dates back to the 17th century.

While the contessa had dreams of producing great wines (she had written, “Giuseppe knows exactly what I want and he has the philosophy to produce a great-quality winery”), there were only five hectares of vines. Giuseppe began planting in earnest for the rest of the decade, and the first vintage of Brunello he released was the 1990.

There are now 55 hectares of vines and 40 hectares of olive groves. Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona produces three Brunello di Montalcino including the Riserva Santa Caterina d’Oro, two Rosso di Montalcino, three other wines and olive oils. The Brunellos are highly regarded, regularly garnering the highest scores from international and Italian wine critics.

Giro d'Italia label
This year, Bianchini has issued a limited release of the estate's 2016 Brunello di Montalcino to mark a local stage of the Giro d’Italia cycling race
Paolo Bianchini cycling label

While inheriting the estate was a shock for his father, it made the sports-obsessed 25-year-old Paolo examine his priorities. When the news came, he was juggling his twin passions of football and cycling, trying to decide whether to go professional or not. “I was very young and I was not sure I wanted to be part of a team. I tried for a while to be part of a football team but it wasn’t for me.”

He joined his father at the winery in 1985 but couldn’t shake off the cycling bug and went professional with the Colnago team in 1990, working in the winery when he wasn’t competing. Then came the next bombshell: Giuseppe was diagnosed with cancer in 2002 and Paolo left cycling for good a year later. His father died in 2004. “Not a day goes by when I don’t think about him,” Paolo says below. “I wish I could have spent more time with him.”

He dedicated himself to the winery, but cycling is his “passion”, Bianchini says. He owns some 40 bikes and reckons his Pinarello and his Colnago the most expensive items he’s ever bought. One room of the winery is a cycling museum with a permanent exhibition of historic bikes – and this year they have dedicated a limited release of their 2016 Brunello di Montalcino to the Giro d’Italia, for the Montalcino stage that took place earlier this month.

For all the fairy-tale nature of the story, there is nothing fanciful about Bianchini’s attitude towards Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona. He is fully cognisant of the fact that his estate is a mere newcomer compared to the likes of Biondi-Santi, which he considers a giant of the region.

The winery is still very young. We have a lot of work to do here for the next 20 or 30 years. One day my children might decide to expand to new terroirs, but before we do that we have to be 100% sure we are doing the right thing in Montalcino.”

Cycle museum
Part of the Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona winery is a cycling museum with classic bikes on display

What was your childhood ambition?

It may sound trite, but I always wanted to be who I am. When I was a child I dreamed of working and living in the countryside – it made me feel free, and today I feel the same.

What do you know now that you wished you’d known when you were 21?

That time and age work things out. When I was young, I had no patience at all – now I understand that things can be very different with a bit more patience and time.

What exercise do you do?

I ride my bike a lot, and I love running near my vineyards with my dog Rio (a very naughty Jack Russell).

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?

I wish I was less sensitive.

Colnago bike
Pedal power: one of Bianchini's favourite possessions is his top-of-the-range Colnago bicycle

What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?

A bike! It’s my passion. I own more than 40 bicycles – my favourites are my Pinarello and my Colnago. The most I ever spent on a bike? €16,000 (£13,800).

If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?

The place where I live, very close to the estate in a little village called Castelnuovo dell’Abate (with a population of less than 200), is the most amazing place in the world. It’s a magical and peaceful place, and I would honestly choose to live here.

If you could do any other job what would it be and why?

I would be a policeman. It’s a profession that has always charmed me – I’d like everyone to follow the rules.

What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island?

I’d like to take my father’s watch. Failing that, one bottle of my Brunello di Montalcino. It’s the perfect companion for everywhere you go.

Diabolik
Dinner-party guests
Bianchini's dream dinner-party line-up includes cartoon Robin-Hood-style thief Diabolik, as well as screen stars Sophia Loren and Roberto Benigni

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?

My wish is to have more time to spend with my loved ones.

If you were king of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?

I would lower taxes for less fortunate people and raise taxes for richer people.

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?

My icons since I was a child: Sandro Pertini [the seventh president of Italy, 1978 to 1985], actors Sophia Loren and Roberto Benigni, and Diabolik [the legendary cartoon master thief who robs from the rich to give to the poor].

What’s your secret talent?

I haven’t discovered it yet.

Francesco Moser – Paolo Bianchini
Millefoglie – Paolo Bianchini
Paolo Bianchini is a huge admirer of fellow cyclist-turned winemaker Francesco Moser, and he also has a soft spot for millefoglie cream cakes

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Millefoglie cream cake. It is also the much-loved cake of choice for special events in my family – maybe that’s the reason why I never get tired of it.

When were you happiest?

When my children Alex (31), Ester (28) and Massimo (11) were born.

Who do you most admire?

Francesco Moser, the Italian former professional road bike racer. He is also a great winemaker [the Francesco Moser winery is in Trentino]. He’s a simple and honest man, and we share the same passions – wine and bikes.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“Drive safely”, to my children.

What’s your greatest regret?

That my father passed away in February 2004, before our new cellar was completed at the beginning of 2005. I wish I could have spent more time with him. I am sure he would be very happy to see how the winery has grown up and developed. Not a day goes by where I don’t think about him.

Zucchero – Paolo Bianchini
Il Pozzo trattoria – Paolo Bianchini
Italian singer Zucchero is one of Paolo Bianchini's favourite artists, while his restaurant of choice is Il Pozzo at Sant’Angelo in Colle

What time do you go to bed?

10pm, more or less. I usually wake up very early.

What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?

I love Italian music. It depends on my mood, but I usually love to listen to pop music. I love Biagio Antonacci, Ligabue and Zucchero.

What’s your favourite thing in your wardrobe?

My tailor-made electric-blue suit, from Sartoria Toscana in Arezzo.

What’s your favourite restaurant?

I love meat, and my favourite dish is Fiorentina steak (with a good glass of Brunello di Montalcino). I usually go to local, very simple family restaurants, where I know that the meat is excellent. I like places where I feel at home. Two of my favourites are Il Pozzo at Sant’Angelo in Colle, and AmorDivino at Asciano.

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