The world according to Soldera

Above: Gianfranco Soldera, legendary, enigmatic, and paradigmatic winemaker, a Trevisan farmer turned Milanese industrialist turned Montalcinese winemaker.

Anyone who’s ever had the good fortune to be invited to visit Gianfranco Soldera’s estate, Case Basse, in the southwestern subzone of the Brunello appellation will surely share my impression that his winery, vineyards, and contiguous botanical garden come together to form what is undeniably one of the most impressive estates in the world.

When he began looking for an estate to purchase in the early 1970s, the Piedmontese wouldn’t sell him a decent plot of land, he told me the other day when we visited. So he decided to to buy a parcel in Montalcino on the advice of a friend who had told him you could pick up a piece of land there for a boccon di pan, a mouthful of bread, in those days.

Above: The botanical gardens at Soldera’s Case Basse include a swamp (to create a maritime influence) and a white flower garden (to encourage nighttime pollination). “Ah, the white flower garden,” remembered wistfully my friend Dr. Lawrence O, the other day when he spied my visit on Facebook. Lawrence has visited there, of course.

When you talk to winemakers in Langa (Piedmont), many of the current generation still look to Soldera as a doktorvater (like Beppe Rinaldi, who told me that he often seeks advice and guidance from Soldera when the elder visits Barolo).

In many ways, it’s as if Soldera, when faced with the fact that he couldn’t make wine in Piedmont where he so obstinately desired to do so, decided to construct his own microclimate within the Brunello macroclimate. As he explains very openly, the remarkable botanical garden on his property (manicured by his wife) creates a unique ecological balance of plant and swamp life, including the “white flower garden,” so famous among wine insiders, intended to encourage pollination at night because the bright peddles attract the insects in darkness.

Above: “You find no vineyards with larger berries nor smaller clusters,” said Soldera proudly of his fruit. The attention to detail in his vineyard management is truly stunning.

Soldera has famously stated that he makes “natural wine.” Whether or not that’s the case is something I’ll leave that to the experts in the thorny field. He does seem to meet all the card-carrying members’s requirements: manual vineyard management, no chemicals in the vineyards, ambient yeasts in the cellar, no temperature control, lowest possible sulfuring. While I was in his presence a few weeks ago, he scolded one very famous winemaker in absentia for using cement vats for vinification, noting that wood is the natural vessel for winemaking. He also scolded another very famous winemaker for suggesting that it was okay to use a starter yeast when he had trouble initiating fermentation in his cellar.

But is it natural, I wonder, to build a botanical garden using mountains of manure (however organically prepared) in a place abandoned by sharecroppers because nothing would grow there anymore? I’ve leave that one to the exegetic forces of the rebbes and erstwhile Talmudic scholars in our field.

One thing we can all seem to agree on is that his wines are among the best in the world (and accordingly priced). I had the good fortune to taste the 2008 (extremely good) and 2006 (exceptional vintage, one of the best I’ve ever tasted) out of cask with him in the cellar. And at dinner we drank the 2003: an infamously and remarkably difficult vintage for any winemaker in Italy yet a harvest for which Soldera delivered lip-smacking acidity and gorgeously nuanced fruit aromas and flavors in his Sangiovese. These wines are simply life-changing, mind-blowing, awe-inspiring… It’s true…

Above: Soldera with Roberto Rossi, chef/owner of Il Silene, arguably the best restaurant in southern Tuscany. The drive up to Seggiano is worth it if only to taste Roberto’s olive oil. The food and service were amazing.

Anyone who’s ever had the good fortune to be invited to visit Gianfranco Soldera’s estate, Case Basse, will tell you that Soldera keeps no secrets and he liberally shares his often salty opinions with those whom have been invited for an audience. (You’ll be surprised to find out that he has a website.)

Our conversation spanned many generations of Italian winemaking the other day when I visited him and you can imagine the controversial topics we covered. But the thing that stuck with me was what he said when I asked him what he saw for the future of winemaking in Italy.

“Commercial winemaking has come to an end in Italy,” he said referring to the recent Brunello controversy and rumors that the historic Barbi estate has plans to sell its property to Italian wine behemoth Zonin. “The nature of Italy cannot support industrial farming and commercial winemaking has run its course historically,” he told me. However many grains of salt there may be in the world according to Soldera, there’s certainly a grain of truth in this morsel of wisdom.

Above: Sunset at the Case Basse estate.

Another winemaker told me the same thing later on in my trip. Stay tuned to find out which one…

Giacosa’s 2006 vintage and Decanter’s slopping blogging

As much as I despise the editors of The New York Post, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when, over a straphanger’s shoulder, I read my favorite example of yellow journalism back in 1999: “The first shiksa wants to be a yenta!” (The article referred to Hillary Clinton’s mention of a Jewish relative.)

I wouldn’t go as far as to call it “yellow” journalism but I was so troubled by a recent post by that I felt compelled to post a few reflections of my own.

On Wednesday, one of Decanter’s writers, a certain Suzannah Ramsdale, wrote that “The renowned Piedmontese wine producer Bruno Giacosa has announced that he will not be bottling his 2006 Barolos and Barbarescos… Company oenologist Giorgio Lavagna says that the wine will be sold on as sfuso (unbottled wine) for use by another bottler.”

First of all, this is not exactly breaking news. Back in April, James Suckling reported in his Wine Spectator blog — with much more restrained and judicious tone — that Giacosa was making a “hard but right” decision:

    It’s a courageous thing to do, and I can’t think of many wine producers who would do the same. I was at the 80th birthday of Bruno Giacosa, the legendary winemaker of Piedmont, about a week ago and he told me that he wasn’t going to bottle his 2006 Barolos or Barbarescos.

    “I just don’t like the quality of the wines,” he said, as we ate lunch and drank some of his fabulous Barolo Le Rocche del Falletto including the 100-point 2000. “I just don’t like the way they are. They are not good enough for me. So I am not going to bottle them.”

Secondly, what really happened was that the British importer of Giacosa announced that it was going to be releasing Giacosa’s 2007 bottlings in February of next year (since the 2006 will not be available). Here’s the release, which was sent to me today by the importer Armit:

    2006 was a difficult year for Bruno Giacosa. He suffered a serious stroke which resulted in him being absent from both the vineyards and cellar for most of the year and into the beginning of 2007.

    Although 2006 was overall a fine vintage in Piedmont, now that Bruno is in a position to judge the quality of the wines personally, he is not satisfied that the Barolo’s and Barbaresco’s [sic] produced at Giacosa meet his exacting standards.

    He has taken the brave and we think highly honourable decision not to bottle these wines, which is clearly a considerable financial sacrifice.

    Bruno’s decision underlines the remarkable recovery he has made. He is now back fully involved, alongside new winemaker Giorgio Lavagna, and after a clearly difficult period, the focus on quality remains as strong as ever at Giacosa.

    As a result of the decision with the 2006s, we now plan to release the 2007 Barbaresco wines in February/March 2010.

I hope this helps to clarify Decanter’s sloppy journalism.

– 2006 was actually a “good” although not “excellent” year in Langa; not everyone made exceptional wine, but the wines will be generally good (Franco and James both agree on this: read this exchange between the two of them on this very issue);

– Giacosa is not going to sell his wine off in demijohns as vino sfuso; that’s just preposterous; he regularly bottles using the Nebbiolo d’Alba DOC and I imagine he’ll sell some of the wine to other notable producers who will bottle it.

Above: Back in September 2007, Alice, Lawrence, and I shared a wine bottled by Giacosa in a vintage not considered one of the best.

It’s no secret that since Bruno suffered his stroke, his daughter Bruna has been looking for a buyer for the estate. It’s also no secret that last year, Bruna forced Bruno’s long-time protégé Dante Scaglione out of his position. Could it be that internal issues played a role here?

It was irrepsonsible for Ramsdale to make it sound as if Giacosa was patently dismissing the 2006 Langa vintage. When viewed in context, the not-so-breaking news reveals other forces at play.

Magazine sitings and writings

My friend Lawrence Osborne gave me a shout out in the current issue of Men’s Vogue (June/July 2008), in an article about a wine that means a lot to me: Lini Lambrusco. I can’t say that I mind being called “a wine connoisseur and Italian scholar extraordinaire” by the Accidental Connoisseur himself.

Alicia Lini and I first met in February of 2007 when I traveled to Italy in search of metodo classico or méthode champenoise Lambrusco (i.e., double-fermented in bottle). She and I became good friends and it’s great to see her (with her cover girl looks) and her wines get the attention they deserve.

I also made an appearance in the Spring issue of Gastronomica with a piece on the history of pasta, Risorgimento Italy, and pasta’s role in the Italian national identity.

Ed-in-chief Darra Goldstein had asked me to write a review of a CD devoted to pasta-inspired music and she generously let me turn the piece into short essay.

In case you can’t find a copy of the mag at your local newsstand, I made a PDF (downloadable here).