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10 Things Every Wine Lover Should Know About
Gianfranco SOLDERA

Paolo Tenti catches up with the Brunello di Montalcino producer who lost most of six vintages when his cellar was vandalized.

No. 1. Gold at the end of the rainbow:

Gianfranco Soldera established his Case Basse estate in 1972, leaving behind a successful career as an insurance broker. He'd looked for years for a Barolo estate, but as owners of good vineyards were not willing to sell, he searched elsewhere and found the perfect estate in Montalcino. Although the land was abandoned, with no vineyards, he had a strong feeling it would be perfect and his intuition proved right.

Soldera's Brunello di Montalcino, almost always designated as riserva after five or six years' aging, is among the most sought-after and expensive wines in the denomination. According to Sergio Esposito, CEO of Italian Wine Merchants: “Soldera is about the world's most talented winemaker. He just doesn't miss a vintage or a wine.”

No. 2. Vandalism:

On December 2, 2012, the cellars at Case Basse estate were broken into and the taps opened on the Brunello barrels, draining more than 62,000 liters of aging vintages from 2007 to 2012. The damage destroyed about three-quarters of the production of the six vintages, leaving only about 22,000 liters that will be bottled over the next few years. Police later arrested a former employee, Andrea Di Gisi, who had a grudge against Soldera; he was eventually sentenced to four years in prison.

The dramatic loss made a rare wine a lot rarer, pushing up prices. According to Jason Boland, president of Spectrum Wine Auctions: “Soldera’s wines sold in 2013 have seen substantial price increases from the sales in 2012."

However, their rarity was not the only factor. According to Boland, the rise was "primarily attributable to the recent general market strength of great, collectible Italian wines, and a growing appreciation for his wines and for the classic style in which they are masterfully fashioned.”

Indeed, Soldera sits at no. 8 in Wine-Searcher's list of Italy's Most Expensive Wines.

No. 3. No Spitting Allowed

Before a tour of the cellars, Soldera makes sure that visitors understand his “no-spitting policy”: when tasting a wine, no spitting whatsoever is allowed, anywhere, so leave your car at home.

He’s also obsessed with the right glasses. Tasting his wines with him at a restaurant can only be done if the establishment is a pre-approved eatery that keeps a number of his specially designed glasses on hand.

Soldera’s luminous, garnet Brunellos offer a restrained voluptuousness, more floral than fruity, and are some of Italy's most sought-after wines.

No. 4. Natural wonder:

The Case Basse estate is located in Tavernelle, southwest of Montalcino, where summertime temperatures have become increasingly warm. The soil is predominantly clay and rock from the Eocene period, ideal for encouraging roots to dig down deep for water where they also find an abundance of minerals.

Soldera works closely with several researchers from the Universities of Florence and Milan.
The winery established the “Soldera Award for Young Researchers,” to provide an incentive for field research in the vineyards and cellar.

With the encouragement of his wife, Graziella, a passionate botanist, Soldera created an ecosystem on the estate, including a two-hectare botanical park where they have more than 1,500 unique rose varieties and numerous other flowers and trees. The couple also built hundreds of nests and beehives that provide shelter for predator species allied in the battle against dangerous vine parasites. This allows Soldera to forgo pesticides and other chemicals in his vineyards.

No. 5. Controlled output:

Case Basse normally makes about 15,000 bottles of Brunello a year, although it has the vineyard potential to produce 60,000 bottles. Soldera believes strongly in reducing yields in the vineyard and in selecting only the best grapes. “In 2002, we literally selected the grapes, berry by berry, and in the end made 6,000 bottles. This type of selection is something only a small winery dedicated to the utmost quality can do.”

Soldera is one of the leading advocates of using 100 percent sangiovese for Brunello. “It's not a coincidence that the three best wines in the world – Brunello, Barolo and Burgundy – are all made from a single grape,” says this opinionated winemaker.

No. 6. An acquired taste:

Soldera declares emphatically: “My wine, like all the finest wines in the world, is not for everybody.” Esposito agrees with him: “His wines are extremely hard to understand, as they are so alive and grow so quickly and persistently in the glass."

In Soldera's view, most people are "accustomed to drinking dead wines" [as in wines that stop living and growing, and not just aging, sometime between their fermentation and when they are bottled]. As a result, they don't know what to make of Soldera's wines. But Esposito adds: "Those that know what to look for have a hard time finding such beautiful experiences anywhere else.”

No. 7. Contentious and colorful:

Soldera’s frequent declaration that “my Brunello is one of the only true great wines of the world,” doesn’t always win him friends on the local wine scene. However, Montalcino producers readily admit that Soldera was a driving force during the crucial 2008 vote that threw out any proposed changes to Brunello's production code, keeping the 100 percent sangiovese rule in place.

It has been widely rumored that Soldera was the whistle-blower whose information led to the grape-blending scandal known as Brunellogate, but he adamantly denies the accusation.

No. 8. Barrels are banned:

Soldera ferments in wooden vats with no temperature control and no selected yeasts, and ages his Brunello in large Slavonian casks for up to six years. He despises small barrels, known as barriques: “Barriques are only for deficient wines that didn’t get enough tannins and aromas from the grapes and need to make up for this lack with oak sensations,” he says.

No. 9. Clashing with the consorzio:

In the aftermath of the vandalism that destroyed most of Soldera's production, members of the Brunello di Montalcino consorzio, in an act of solidarity, publicly offered to donate some of their wine to Soldera, who refused. Soldera later told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that the gesture, which would have meant putting his label on wines made by others, was “inadmissible and offensive, a fraud to consumers." He resigned from the consorzio on March 22 this year.

After the newspaper published Soldera’s remarks on March 26, the Consorzio del Brunello di Montalcino brought legal action for libel against Soldera. They also expelled him from the consorzio – even though he had already resigned.

Soldera recently released a 2006 Toscana IGT, obviously made with 100 percent sangiovese, that had already been bottled when his cellars were vandalized.

No. 10. What to drink now:

In good years, Soldera's entire production is designated as Brunello Riserva. Most of his Brunello Riserva from the '80s (1983, the only Riserva for the decade) and the '90s (1990, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999) are drinking beautifully right now. Retail prices average between $245 and $450, depending on the vintage.