Once Upon a Time – Soldera Retrospective: 1977-2017


It remains one of the greatest tastings I have ever been a part of, either as an attendee or a host. Forty-six wines, all of them in superb shape. Even wines from smaller or less well-known vintages were sublime. Not a single bottle was corked or oxidized. The memories from this retrospective of Gianfranco Soldera’s wines will last forever.

Over the years, I have had the good fortune to taste many Soldera wines. I have visited the estate numerous times and hosted several retrospective tastings in New York and London. We wanted to do something special for the Vinous tenth anniversary, something that would likely never be repeated. A vertical of Soldera all the way back to the inaugural 1977 was an obvious choice.

The side conference room at The Grill serves as a staging area for glassware. Every wine is served in its own glass so that guests can revisit wines throughout the evening.

We had too many wines for a single lunch or dinner, so we opted for a 2-day format: dinner to start with lunch the following day. I divided the wines into thematic rather than chronological flights, as I always do, because that provides an opportunity to taste wines with similar attributes together regardless of where vintages fall chronologically. All the bottles were stored standing prior to the tasting. Wherever possible, we brought second and third backup bottles The wines were opened several hours in advance. I checked all the bottles to ensure they were sound. None of the wines were decanted. We skipped Champagne as an aperitif, as I wanted to focus on Soldera with no distractions, especially given the large number of bottles. Instead, we served some of the more open-knit vintages to start both meals. That was the first clue we were in for a treat, as even those wines were exceptional.

Video: In this video from 2012 Gianfranco Soldera discusses the Case Basse and Intistieti vineyards, including his first forays into albarello (head-trained) farming, and shares details on his approach to winemaking.

A Little Historical Background

Gianfranco Soldera grew up in Milan, where he spent the first part of his professional career as an insurance broker. As a young man, Soldera tasted the great wines of Piedmont and later became close with many growers and their families. After trying unsuccessfully for years to find land in Piedmont, Soldera chanced upon a magical piece of ground in Montalcino. At the time, prevailing wisdom dictated that the best sites were south-facing, as these were the warmest, a requisite during a time when the main challenge was achieving full ripeness. However, Soldera had a different philosophy. He chased luminosity above all else. Case Basse, a west-facing site in the hills of southern Montalcino, was ideally suited to capturing the entirety of the day’s sunlight.

Soldera and his wife, Graziella, were visionaries. She planted a stunning garden as part of a vibrant ecosystem that also comprised forest land and rich animal life, all with the desire to foster sustainability and low-intervention farming. These concepts are all the rage now, but were virtually unheard of in the early 1970s when this approach also carried far greater risk than it does today, now that generally warmer, drier seasons have made sustainable farming a far more economically viable choice than it was fifty years ago. That same spirit of innovation is one of the constant themes here, as we will explore in greater depth later.

From the outset, the wines from the property proved to be special. The first release, the 1975 Rosso dai Vigneti di Brunello, was still vibrant when I last encountered it a decade ago. Brunello di Montalcino followed in 1977. Soldera released his first Brunello di Montalcino Riserva in 1983, but it was not until the 1990s that Riservas started to become the focus. With the 2006 vintage, Soldera moved from labeling his wine Brunello to Montalcino Riserva to Toscana IGT for reasons I explain below.

Gianfranco Soldera was relentless in his desire to learn. He continually sought out subject matter experts, sponsored research and created the Soldera Award, an annual grant given to scientists pursuing ways to leverage technology to improve natural winemaking. Soldera’s first important collaboration was with noted consultant Giulio Gambelli, who arrived in 1976 and played a pivotal role, especially in the estate’s early days.

In 2006, Soldera began producing in-depth technical sheets for his wines. These are included in every case and are also available via QR code on the bottles themselves. Soldera’s technical sheets contain incredibly in-depth information on growing conditions, winemaking and other topics, such as the science behind the Soldera bottle, anthocyanin and sensory profiles, and recommendations for storage (bottles always standing, not sideways.)

Technical sheets included with each case provide consumers with unparalleled, detailed information on the wines.

But Soldera was not an easy man. He held to his convictions strongly and had no time for those without his intellectual firepower, which meant pretty much most people. “I have made 34 vintages, and 32 of them are exceptional,” he told me once. Even the university professors and researchers who were often present at my tastings never spoke unless spoken to first and, even then, expressed their views with unnatural modesty lest they incur Soldera’s wrath. From time to time, Soldera’s scathing commentary was perhaps over the top. But then there were the wines. And what wines. In front of 46 spectacular Sangioveses in this tasting, some of them from long-forgotten vintages, what is there to say? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s all in the glass. Soldera could be quite difficult, but I will take that every day of the week if these are the results.

Despite his considerable achievements, Soldera remained a cult figure for most of his life. Up until fairly recently, the wines were mostly known only to a handful of cognoscenti. In my opinion, Soldera’s introspective, demanding personality and a lack of other producers in the vicinity with similar ambitions prevented him from achieving more acclaim. If Soldera had been a producer in Burgundy, Bordeaux, Piedmont or Napa Valley, the wines would have achieved far greater renown.

Today, the estate is run by Soldera’s children Monica and Mauro, and their spouses, Gianpaolo Franco and Valeria Farina. Franco has been at the estate since 2003 and currently oversees all vineyard and cellar operations, which guarantees a level of continuity that is so critical for small, family-owned estates.

Gianpaolo Franco and Monica Soldera in the heart of Intistieti.

One Estate, Two Iconic Vineyards

Case Basse is tucked away in the southern reaches of Montalcino, near Sant’Angelo in Colle. Soldera chose this site based on its luminosity, a trait he valued more than heat, the common measure of top vineyards at the time. The estate encompasses 23 hectares, of which approximately ten are under vine, four at Case Basse and six at Intistieti. Elevation is a modest 300 meters or so.

The heart of the estate, including the winery and family home, develops around the Case Basse vineyard. Soldera planted his first vines here in 1972. Subsequent plantings followed in the early 1980s, late 1980s (following the frost of 1985), 1990s and then in 2004. The original vineyard was planted with east-to-west rows, meaning fruit sees quite a bit of sun on the south-facing side and less on the north-facing side. For this reason, the north-facing side is de-leafed. Soldera chose this orientation after looking at maps of other vineyards and using his background as an insurer to determine an arrangement of rows that offered the greatest protection from hail. Soldera installed a network of underground drainage canals here after the 2002 season when heavy rains presaged a pattern of more extreme weather events that marked a clear break from what had been the norm.

The original Case Basse vineyard, planted in 1972 with the relatively low density favored at the time and with high canopies. Bunches are trimmed at the wings and the ends to counter the natural tendency of Sangiovese to set large bunches. Leaves are removed only on the north-facing side, as shown here.

Intistieti lies a few hundred meters from Case Basse. Soldera first planted this parcel in 1973. Like Case Basse, Intistieti has seen several additional developments and replants over the years. The vineyard sits a bit lower than Case Basse in a relatively open valley marked by soft, undulating contours. Soils are rocky with rich mineral deposits, pretty similar to those at Case Basse, but there is less moisture and overall humidity here. The terrain is markedly poorer, something that is evident in smaller canopies vis-à-vis Case Basse. For those reasons, Intistieti ripens earlier than Case Basse and also produces bigger, more structured wines than the silkier softer Sangioveses of Case Basse, something that was evident during the period when Soldera vinified the two vineyards separately.

Interestingly, Soldera planted the majority of Intistieti with north-to-south-facing rows, which means exposure of the fruit zones are east and west-facing, with the exception of two small sections where that was not possible. Whether he did this because of the contours of the land or after some learning from Case Basse is unclear. Still, the former is more likely given that vines in Case Basse were only a year old when Soldera planted Intistieti, making the likelihood of applied learnings unlikely. On the other hand, Soldera always prized light more than heat, so perhaps there was a change in his views in the early days. Or Soldera might have made a decision based on the warmer microclimate in intistieti.

Intistieti includes an experimental 0.4-hectare parcel planted in 2010 with albarello (head-trained) vines as part of a research project sponsored by the winery. The results have been quite positive. Among other things, vines trained albarello-style require much less water, always a concern in today’s world. As a result, all new plantings are done with albarello training using two spurs.

Video: Gianfranco Soldera discusses the 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014 and 2013 harvests, the importance of natural rainfall and the 2010, which was bottled exclusively for charitable events and auctions.

Farming & Winemaking

From the very beginning, Soldera pursued a low-interventional, natural approach to farming, although he never sought any formal certification. Most of the vineyards are trained on double cordons with vertical shoot positioning. Bunches are trimmed at the wings and the ends to counter the natural tendency of Sangiovese to set large bunches. Leaves are removed only on the north-facing sides of Case Basse, as explained above. Whenever possible, vines are replaced singly as needed rather than replanting entire parcels. Vines are not hedged; rather, the tops of canopies are braided together at the upper level of the training wire, a practice known as accapannimento or tressage.

Tasting through the various casks in the Soldera cellar is always a deeply educational experience, as the wines are so transparent of their respective growing seasons.

The stark, minimalist cellar lies 14 meters underground, where walls made from rock allow for natural airflow and conditions of 85% humidity and temperatures around 13°-14°C (55°-57°F). Winemaking is equally minimalist. The wines are fermented in wood uprights, using ambient yeasts, and spend several weeks on the skins. Malolactic fermentations occur naturally. In a good year, all four tanks are utilized, but that is not always the case. After natural decantation, the wines (free-run juice only) are moved into cask for aging of around four years, although that was once longer. Rackings are carried out only when necessary. Casks are blended one final time a few months before bottling, a practice that began around 2006. There is no fining or filtration.

Up until the early 2000s, Soldera vinified and aged the wines from his two parcels separately and bottled cask by cask. In most years, Soldera released a Brunello di Montalcino and a Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. Around this time, Soldera began mapping his vines one by one. This led to a more rigorous approach of picking where the fruit is now harvested on ripeness irrespective of site, meaning fruit from both vineyards is vinified together. Fermenting musts are pumped over from vat to vat to ensure that all the wine is blended from the very beginning.

Sampling the young 2017 musts during fermentation. Along with 2022, 2017 was one of the earliest harvests at Case Basse. Soldera often spoke of the need to adapt to the rhythm of nature.

At the same time, Soldera always pursued maximum flexibility in response to the characteristics of each vintage, so this was likely a gradual transition. As recently as the 2004 vintage, Soldera told me the wines were made from single vineyards. Regardless, starting in 2000, Soldera began bottling all his wine as Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. Readers who want to learn more about Soldera, the estate and its wines will find plenty of background information in my previous articles, all of which are linked below.

Menus for two amazing meals dedicated to the wines of Gianfranco Soldera.

Day One – Dinner at The Grill

We gathered in the private room of The Grill, one of New York City’s most vaunted locations. For decades, The Grill, then known as The Four Seasons, was one of the homes of New York’s power lunch. Politicians, entertainers and other stars sat at their customary tables. Partners Alex von Bidder and Julian Niccolini worked the floor with an inimitable Old-World style. They knew every customer by name. The waiters, many of them from southern Italy, had been there for decades. These were scenes right out of the movies of the 1980s and 1990s. Except they were real, and we were in them. Today, the Four Seasons has become The Grill and The Pool under the direction of new owners The Major Food Group. The clientele is younger and more casual, a sign of the times in this post-pandemic world, and yet the vestiges of the past remain.

Tasting the first five vintages of Soldera’s Brunello di Montalcino.

The Grill’s kitchen team, led by Executive Chef Alex Clark, presented a delicious dinner. Wine service was impeccable, no small feat given the number of wines. It was a truly unforgettable evening. That was evident when I tasted the 1987 Brunello di Montalcino before the guests arrived. I knew it was going to be a special night. Not surprisingly, the 1990 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva was the star. But plenty of other wines were not too far off, including the two 1983s, the 1985, the 1991 Riserva and a stunning bottle of the 1980. What surprised me most was how some of the wines from lesser, forgotten vintages showed. These included the 1987 and 1980 mentioned above, plus the 1981, among others. And, of course, tasting the first vintages of the 1970s was such an emotional experience. I doubt anyone in the room had ever tasted the three vintages from the 1970s side by side. I certainly had not. Readers will find plenty of information in the accompanying tasting notes.

Soldera’s 1990 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva remains one of the greatest wines he ever made, as well as one of the most profound wines I have tasted anywhere in the world.

Day Two – Lunch at Gramercy Tavern

All the energy from the first night carried into lunch at Gramercy Tavern. First opened in 1985, Gramercy Tavern was an early pioneer in the farm-to-table movement in the United States. Even after all these years and decades, Gramercy Tavern remains one of New York City’s top restaurants, quite an accomplishment in a city where change is a constant. Initially, I was a bit concerned that perhaps we had tasted too many of Soldera’s very best wines the first night, but that turned out not to be the case. All the wines were superb on day two, as well. Wine service was exceptional, as was the menu designed by Executive Chef Michael Anthony. Beverage Director Erin Healy and her team did a fabulous job with the wines.

The translucence and freshness in all of these wines were notable.

The two 1995 Riservas were outstanding. Only the 2001 and 2004 Riservas were more profound. We also had a chance to explore the wines of 2007-2012, tiny productions bottled after a vandal destroyed most of the wines in the cellar by opening the spigots of the casks overnight and allowing wine to flow freely into the drains, gone forever. It was one of the most painful chapters in the estate’s history. In front of this unspeakable loss and violation, Soldera somehow found the fortitude to turn the page quickly. His determination and commitment to looking ahead was unwavering.

The wines that were salvaged from vintages 2007-2012 did not see the customary time in cask Soldera afforded his Brunellos, so they remain somewhat lighter in overall structure. This period also marks a clear break. In 2012, Soldera sold his 2006 as Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. The following year, Soldera decided to exit the Brunello di Montalcino Consorzio because he wanted to emphasize his estate and Sangiovese more than an appellation that he did not feel aligned with in terms of values. He released his remaining 2006 as Toscana IGT, a practice that continues to this day. Production returned to normal with the 2013 vintage.

Astute readers may wonder about the 2010. Only 440 liters survived that tragic day in 2012. The Solderas bottled their entire production in large formats and have since sold the wine only in charitable auctions. 

The complete lineup at Gramercy Tavern.

I would like to thank Glasvin, our glassware sponsor, for their support in pulling off the daunting task of serving these wines in perfect conditions. My dear friend Il Professore provided invaluable historical context for older vintages made before I started tasting the wines. One of the most rewarding aspects of this job is meeting our readers around the world. This was an intimate tasting held for a small group that shared some incredible memories over a weekend. One of those people is no longer living, a poignant reminder of how fleeting special moments can be.

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