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  • Paolo Bianchini: from champion cyclist to winning winemaker

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    How turning down a pro cycling contract put Paolo Bianchini on the path to becoming one of Italy’s top winemakers with Ciacci Picclomini

    Photographs: Ciacci Picclomini & Offside/L'Equipe

    Paolo Bianchini’s sliding doors moment came as a young man when he had an offer to become a professional cyclist with the Tuscan team Furzi Mobilificio Piancastagnaio. He said no, finished his studies and ended up taking an entirely different path.

     

    “I don’t know if it was a good or bad thing. Perhaps I let an opportunity slip through my fingers. But also, maybe I discovered something else in my work,” he says. Several decades later, those who have tasted his company’s award-winning wine would certainly agree.

     

    An adolescent obsessed with bike racing and Franco Bitossi, he moved with his family from the northern Italian region of Brescia to the Tuscan town of Montalcino in 1972, as his father Giuseppe became a manager for the estate owned by Countess Elda Ciacci Picclomini.

     

    “We already saw what future we could give to it. He always thought ‘who will do it? I’ll do it.’ So much so that my dad helped to maintain Ciacci Piccolomini and created his little business.” Meanwhile, Paolo moved away from cycling to football for a few years, before picking up his racing bike again and winning three Italian amateur titles in age categories.

     

    After the countess died in 1984, she bequeathed the Brunello estate to Giuseppe, who started planting vines in earnest; in particular, their 12-hectare Pianrosso vineyard has become renowned. Their Ciacci Picclomini d’Aragona wines have gone on to win numerous national and international accolades. Struck down by illness, Giuseppe died in 2004 and could not see all the fruit of his labours.

    The Ciacci Picclomini d’Aragona estate is close to the strade bianche and barely a grape’s throw away from the finish of a memorable, grimy 2010 Giro stage. Indeed, there are a lot of similarities between the life of a cyclist and a viticulturist. “Cycling demands perseverance, so much creativity,” Paolo says. “It’s a sport you do on a team level, but you need to have a fundamental individuality and an enormous willingness to sacrifice. And also a certain craftiness, knowing to judge the right moment then seize it.”

     

    Read: Heroes in the Tuscan mud – scenes from a remarkable Strade Bianche

     

    “This is also something I’ve learned in my work. Because sometimes doing something like that, daring to go beyond, can be good. In this job, there’s no formula. You go from the valley to the summit, and each year is completely different from another. It’s something that allows you to use your imagination and emotions.

     

    “And sometimes, you need to make mistakes too, that’s normal,” he adds.

     

    Bianchini says he is proudest of their Brunello di Montalcino Riserva Santa Caterina d’Oro vintage. The 2012 wine has aromas of sweet pipe tobacco, truffle, plum, eucalyptus, underbrush and new leather and was recently named among the Gazzetta dello Sport’s top 50 best wines in the world. Patience is a virtue in this world of wine-making: the grapes were aged for three years in oak barrels, before spending a further twelve months in the bottle.

     

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    In 2014, Bianchini combined his work and his passion by converting one room in the complex into a cycling museum. Even the chairs there have track bike handlebar arm rests and colourful tape. Among the items on display, there is his Ernesto Colnago’s C59 Ottanta (limited to a run of 80 on the maestro’s corresponding birthday), signed rainbow jerseys from Italian world champions Mario Cipollini and Maurizio Fondriest and a Discovery Channel maglia from Paolo Savoldelli. “When they visit, the riders bring a memory of their own,” he says.

    It’s not just retired pedallers who are supping his produce either. “There’s so many current cyclists who have a passion for wine, I couldn’t believe it. Word of mouth gets around. Recently, my friend Daniele Bennati roomed with Mikel Landa at the Tour; he is also a fan of wine, and has made inquiries. Daniel Oss, Matteo Trentin too, [recently-retired] Manuel Quinziato has stopped by.” One assumes they make their trips post- season like good ascetic professionals.

     

    Read: How Marco Pantani’s Tour winning attack changed my life

     

    Work is never over for Bianchini; this summer, they continue to modernise their cellars and lay the groundwork for what will likely be more prize-winning vino.

     

    So, one big final question for him: does he prefer a long bike ride or a good glass of red? “I’d take the wine, but the the bike is something that helps you to enjoy it,” he replies.