“Wine & Spirits”


“So it was with Gambelli’s reference-point producer, Gianfranco Soldera, an infamous character in Montalcino whose peers regard him with a mixture of awe (for hi elegant, long-lived wines) and unease (for his candor). I’d been apprised of his force-of-nature personality beforehand, but his compact dimensions and round, moustachioed face – framed by a jaunty orange scarf and black cap on the day of my visit – made him seem downright huggable. As he got started on the subject of sangiovese ha was reliably blunt, although he delivered most of his pronouncements with a sweet, almost apologetic smile.

Soldera’s main assertion is that sangiovese cannot naturally achieve the levels of color and extract exhibited in many modern wines. “Brunello is a wine driven by acidity and aroma,” he said, adding that the grape’s flavour profile is more savory than sweet. Like his confidant, Gambelli, he is focused on coaxing aromatics from the variety, saying that good sangiovese is “95 percent nose”.

Farming about eight hectares of vineyards on the slopes southwest of Montalcino, Soldera ferments his wines in open-topped, 150-hectoliter wood vats, using indigenous yeasts and no temperature control. The spontaneous fermentation lasts more than 30 days, and pump-overs are done manually. The wines age in large casks and stay there much longer than the two years mandated by  DOCG law – he has yet to bottle his 2002, in fact, whereas most of Montalcino just released its 2003s – and he regards any other means of making Brunello with disdain. His wines are a see-through cherry red (the only color “real” sangiovese can possibly be, he noted), and there is an electricity to their acidity that shocks the palate. In Soldera’s view, aging a wine in new, small barriques is the last refuge of producers damned with “weak, unidentifiable” wines.

“What makes a great wine is its diversity from other wines of the world,” he said. “Most modern Brunello has no elegance, no perfume and no recognisability as sangiovese”.

A harsh appraisal, but a great word: recognisability. When he said it in Italian, he jabbed a finger into the table with each syllable: ri-co-no-sci-bi-li-TA’! Nebbiolo in Piedmont is readily recognizable, even in its oakier, more extracted incarnations. The same could be said for aglianico in Campania. Along with sangiovese, these are the other two of the “the big three” noble Italian reds, of three, sangiovese is the most delicate.

One explanation for sangiovese’s less assertive personality, Soldera suggested, is cultural: “This is most perfectly situated terrain in the world”, he said. “But Tuscan viticulture has traditionally been geared to mass production rather than to the specificity of a particular vineyard.”

He cited as evidence the mezzadria (share-cropping) system, which characterized Tuscan farming from medieval times to as recently as the 1950s. Traditionally, large landowners maintained a central production facility, called a fattoria, to which the various sharecroppers (poderi) contributed. “It was a mercantile style of  production, not a grower-producer style. The poderi didn’t make their own wine, and wine didn’t have any sense of place.”

Barolo, he contended, is better understood as a terroir, with site-expressive, vineyard-designated wines, at least in part because mezzadria-style agriculture was less prevalent in Piedmont. “There were fewer poderi, and those that were there made their own wine. The culture of the small vigneron was much more developed in Piedmont.”