In Memoriam: Gianfranco Soldera

Italian wine lost one of its most important but polarizing figures over the weekend. Gianfranco Soldera died at 82 in Montalcino, Italy, on the same day the world wine press gathered in this tiny Tuscan hamlet with much fanfare to taste the newest releases of Brunello di Montalcino. 

The sad news of his sudden passing left the Montalcino wine community in shock. 

“I am still crying,” Gigliola Giannetti of Le Potazzine tells me. “He was a man who could seem shy, sometimes inappropriate, but he loved Montalcino and Brunello more than many others. At his 80th birthday celebration two years ago, he was happy. He loved young people and he had respect for women. He was a great man, just like his wines.”  

“Gianfranco wrote an important chapter in the history of Brunello di Montalcino,” says Enrico Viglierchio, general manager of Castello Banfi. “This is a big loss for our denomination. Every producer has a right to his or her opinion. Montalcino is at its greatest when we are united by our different ideas.” Enrico tells me about his first encounters with Soldera’s 1979 and 1982 vintages of Brunello. “I remember those wines to this very day,” he says. 

According to news reports, Soldera suffered from a heart attack while driving on the road to Santa Restituta near his celebrated Case Basse wine estate. His car was found off the road, among the vines. Emergency medical technicians found him in cardiac arrest when they arrived at the scene, according to the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera. Soldera was pronounced dead at 10:30 a.m. on February 16, 2019. 

Gianfranco Soldera was born in 1937 in the northern town of Treviso. He grew up in Italy’s banking capital of Milan and eventually became an insurance broker. In 1970, he moved to Tuscany and purchased the 23-hectare Case Basse wine estate located in the southwest quadrant of the Montalcino appellation. He planted Sangiovese vines in 1972 and 1973 and immediately set out to make a non-interventionist’s style of Brunello, thus becoming one of the pioneers for what would become the natural wine movement. His first bottled wine was produced in the 1975 vintage, and the first vintage of Case Basse Brunello di Montalcino was 1977 (released in 1982). Soldera continued to make Brunello di Montalcino until 2006. After that date, he declassified his latest vintages to IGT Toscana status. 

Robert Parker reviewed the Soldera (Case Basse) 1990 Brunello di Montalcino in the April 25, 1996 issue of The Wine Advocate and awarded it 98 points. “The 1990 Brunello di Montalcino from Case Basse is a modern day classic, as well as one of the greatest Brunellos I have ever tasted,” Parker wrote. 

Known for his strong will and intransigent views on the fundamentals of winemaking, Gianfranco Soldera would soon win a loyal following among the great wine collectors and cult wine enthusiasts of the world. His brazen style and sharp tongue rarely went down well with his critics, but ultimately Soldera will be remembered for his invaluable contributions to the appellation. The success and raging popularity of Brunello di Montalcino today is due in large measure to the efforts of this stubborn genius. 

I remember my first visit to the Case Basse winery on a chilly winter morning in 2006. We tasted wines from barrel using the small bowl-shaped glasses that had become his signature. Rumor says he always carried his own stemware even when he went to eat at his favorite restaurant Il Leccio in Sant’Angelo in Colle. I remember joining him for dinner at that very same restaurant a few years later. I happily told him that I was from California and that my family had a vineyard there. Gianfranco responded with a thundering: “You put poison in your irrigation tubes. California is only good for growing potatoes.” I was mortified by his comments but I have since learned that his New World wine bashing was a common routine. It was Soldera being Soldera. 

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Gianfranco Soldera was a leading voice against the local growers’ association, or the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, when the Brunellopoli scandal rocked the appellation in 2008. A number of producers had been accused of blending Sangiovese with outside grapes not permitted by appellation law. Soldera publicly attacked the Consorzio for failing to protect the authenticity of Brunello di Montalcino. 

That broken relationship between Soldera and the Consorzio would never be repaired. It is one of the reasons Case Basse stopped making Brunello di Montalcino in 2006, transitioning to IGT Toscana wines instead. 

In 2012, Soldera was the victim of one of the ugliest crimes in the modern history of Italian wine. A disgruntled former employee opened the spigots on most of the casks in the cellar, flushing six vintages (2007 to 2012) of Case Basse Brunello di Montalicino worth millions of euros down the drain. Luckily, some of the wine was saved because not all the casks drained empty. 

However, production numbers from the estate remain grossly inconsistent following this terrible act of vandalism. According to appellation authorities, Case Basse produced 36 hectoliters of IGT wine in 2009, only four hectoliters in 2010, 17 hectoliters in 2011, 124 hectoliters in 2012, 127 hectoliters in 2013 and 68 hectoliters in 2014. Given those radically shifting production numbers, I suspect it will be nearly impossible to find new releases on the market until the 2012 vintage is released. The 2009 vintage of Soldera’s 100% Sangiovese (IGT Toscana) is the current release, and you can read my review here. I gave that wine 94 points and was struck by its glossy radiance and delineated fruit. 

Gianfranco Soldera is survived by his children, Monica and Mauro, his grandchildren and his wife, Graziella. 

Hero image courtesy of  winenews.it.

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