When I was a kid, I read a lot of science fiction. On long plane flights I still occasionally pick up a book to read, and I still get a thrill from letting my imagination explore the fantastic possibilities of the future.
Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch as an analogy, but I get that same sort of thrill from exploring the world of wine. Every new wine offers an opportunity to discover and learn something new — to recalibrate my own sense of possibility.
On occasion, in my curiosity-driven stumbling through the world of wine, I come across a wine that completely redefines my understanding of a category. These wines make my head explode. They take my understanding of a particular kind of wine and they nonchalantly obliterate it, leaving me with a feeling of having just woken up from a dream.
This is one of those wines.
To call such experiences epiphanies may be a little overly dramatic, but it is both alarming and euphoric to have what you think is the truth of your understanding completely redefined in an instant.
I thought I knew what Brunello was, and what it was capable of. I’ve traveled in Tuscany, visiting many producers to sample their wines. I’ve eaten at fancy restaurants in Tuscany, buying older bottles out of their cellars to drink. I regularly attend trade tastings put on by the Brunello Consortium that showcase the latest vintage to members of the media and trade; and I attend the Gambero Rosso tasting every year, which highlights some of the best wines in Italy, bar none.
All the above doesn’t make me an expert in Brunello. Far from it. But I thought I had “a handle on it.” You know? A sense of what it tastes like in the barrel, after bottling, and with some age on it — even ten, twenty, or thirty years. I’ve considered myself pretty lucky for that experience, not only because of the education it has given my palate, but because it has allowed me to fall in love with the wine. I adore Brunello di Montalcino.
But I didn’t know just how much I loved it until I met the handiwork of Gianfranco Soldera.
Here’s how Sergio Esposito, owner of the Italian Wine Merchant, and author of a memoir called Passion on the Vine describes Soldera in his book: “Gianfranco Soldera seemed like your average retiree — a little grumpy and very hunched. He was short, with a substantial nose and belly, tufts of white hair around his ears, a mustache, and a pair of enormously messy gray eyebrows that gave him a consistently sympathetic expression.” Not exactly what you’d expect for someone that clearly qualifies as one of the visionary winemakers of the world.
Most of the way through a successful career as a commercial insurance salesman in Milan, Gianfranco Soldera announced to his business partners that he would be leaving the company just as soon as he found the right plot of land. He and his wife Graziella began searching for a small estate where the two could begin a new phase of their lives, he as a winegrower, she (a botanist by training) as a curator of roses. Apparently their search took them throughout Italy, to Piemonte, the Veneto, and finally to Tuscany, where thanks to a tip from Soldera’s uncle they discovered a plot of land with a tiny, disintegrating farmhouse south of the hill town of Montalcino in 1971 that felt just right.
It’s hard to describe exactly what the Solderas have accomplished in the past forty years, as most conventional descriptions fall somewhat short. They have not merely established a farm, or built a winery, or landscaped an estate. They seem to have created something that demands a new word, a word that can somehow convey a cross between a botanical garden, an ecosystem, and a living museum, not to mention what is widely regarded as one of the greatest wine estates on the planet.
To my knowledge Soldera doesn’t consider himself to be a practitioner of biodynamics, but he has certainly taken to heart one of the key principles — the creation of a balanced, complete ecosystem on his property. With a keen attention to pollinators, pests, grazers, predators, and the merely decorative, Soldera and his wife (who has planted more than 1500 varieties of roses on the property) have cultivated a chunk of Tuscan countryside into something close to edenic.
And that doesn’t even include the grapevines.
Though there are a lot fewer grapevines than most other plants on Soldera’s Case Basse estate. The land contains two tiny plots of vineyard: the approximately 4.5-acre Case Basse vineyard, and the approximately 13-acre Intistieti vineyard. Every vine is one of several various clones that Soldera ferreted out of nooks and crannies throughout Tuscany and propagated himself.
From these small plots, worked painstakingly by hand and completely organically (though not certified as such), Soldera produces about 1,250 cases of wine each year. That is, if he feels the wines are good enough.
The grapes are picked painstakingly in multiple passes through the vineyard, and fully destemmed but not crushed before they are dumped into big open-top oak fermentation vats. Without a shred of temperature control the wines ferment using ambient yeasts, with a long maceration, before ending up in the traditional old Slavonian oak barrels where they stay for at least four years and sometimes six. After the wines are bottled, they are aged for another couple of years before release. No fining or filtration is ever performed, and only a minimum of sulfur dioxide is used at bottling.
Just how this ambitious insurance executive turned himself into one of the greatest makers of Brunello di Montalcino in the world is a bit of a mystery. The help of one of the world’s foremost experts on Sangiovese, Giulio Gambelli, certainly didn’t hurt, but at the end of the day, Soldera has always made the wine. He set out to make, in his words, “the best wine in the world” and while I don’t think there can or should ever be a single best wine in the world, I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest that Soldera’s belong amongst the very top.
This particular bottle, opened by a stunningly generous friend in New York, has a slightly confusing label. While it bears the name of his Case Basse estate, the grapes for this wine actually came from the Intistieti vineyard instead of the eponymous Case Basse vineyard. This was the case for many years with the regular Brunello, until Soldera switched to feature the Case Basse fruit, and bottle Intistieti under its own label. Adding to the confusion, for several more years after this switch, the Riserva bottling continued to be made with Intistieti fruit.
Medium ruby in color, with a rim of orange seeping towards the red heart of the glass, this wine has an absolutely otherworldly nose of toffee, candied orange peel, and exotic wood aromas. These aromas shift and shimmer and transform into other passing smells the longer you keep your nose in the glass. When I first put the wine into my mouth it stopped me dead in my tracks. Had I not had the distinct pleasure of smelling it first, I can only imagine what the shock of utter deliciousness might have done to me. As it is, the wine knocked me back in my chair, and resulted in several expletives making their way into my tasting notes, the most legible of which is “holy fuck.” Sandwiched in between four letter words were ethereal flavors of sandalwood oil, redcurrant skin, raspberry, toffee, and aromatic dried flowers borne on a texture that was pure, sexy, liquid silk. This bottle possessed one of the greatest finishes I have ever experienced on a wine, with lingering flavors of sweet coffee with milk, butterscotch, and honey that I could still taste for minutes after a sip. Like so many truly great wines, this wine was purely effortless in its complexion. Singularly balanced, seamless, and above all, alive, the wine sang with the resonant clarity of a tuning fork, and is without a doubt one of the best things I have ever had the pleasure of putting in my mouth. Not to mention being the single best Brunello di Montalcino I have ever had.
While it’s tempting in a fit of melodrama to suggest that a wine this phenomenal only be enjoyed with the lights out and holding the hand of the person you care about most in the world, it loses none of its joy when paired with food. At this state of age, the wine has an incredible versatility that will allow it to counterpoint nearly anything (even artichokes, Soldera likes to point out). I would recommend drinking it with something that has a salty, savory, and aromatic edge to it so that the aromatic sweetness of the wine can really shine. Rosemary-rubbed, grilled lamb chops, anyone?
Overall Score: around 10
How Much?: I have no idea what this wine sold for on release, but it now sells at auction and on the secondary market for somewhere around $500.
You can find small quantities of many Soldera vintages available for purchase on the Internet.