‘Iconic’. It’s a word that’s bandied around to such an extent that it has been devalued, transformed into just another bite of marketing speak. Iconic status is conferred on people and things that often don’t deserve it, and certainly ‘icon wine’ is a phrase applied much more liberally than it should be.
So what would make a wine truly iconic? Absolute excellence for sure, rarity perhaps, but for me a true wine ‘icon’ is one that stands apart from all others: a singular wine, cut from its own very special cloth, and different from its peers. It should also have a track record for that absolute excellence that is widely acknowledged and cannot be denied.
If the perfect example was needed, the wines of Gianfranco Soldera would surely be one of the world’s prime contenders. Both iconic and iconoclast (bucking the status quo and challenging the establishment), Soldera, from his small patch of Tuscan vineyard, has carved a reputation for producing some of the world’s most beguiling, long-lived, and very singular wines.
To the south of the Montalcino region of central Tuscany, home to Brunello di Montalcino, Soldera grows only one variety: the Sangiovese Grosso of the region. Ten hectares of vines produce only around 10,000 bottles in a good year – sometimes it’s as little as 7,000 – farmed organically with yields restricted by painstaking vineyard management to ensure maximum quality. The wine is aged only in huge Slavonian oak casks, with no new or small barrels, and only ever with natural ambient yeasts.
That has been the recipe since day one in 1972 when Soldera planted his first vineyard, Intistieti, to be followed by a second vineyard named Casse Basse, planted in 1973. As he passed his 80th birthday, Gianfranco Soldera who died earlier this year, was still entirely full-time at his family estate, assisted by his wife Graziella, and daughter Monica and son Mauro, but every bit is committed and emphatic about his wines.
I was invited to dinner with Mauro and his importer Zubair Mohamed, proprietor of Raeburn Fine Wines, importer of Soldera’s wines, and a long-time friend of the family. It was pretty clear that all of the stories about Gianfranco were true: he was utterly uncompromising in his approach to wine, business and, one suspects, life. “There is no spitting allowed,” Zubair announced, sweeping his had around a table devoid of spittoons. “It’s the same in the cellar – spit out any of his wine and you will be immediately ejected!”
That uncompromising approach is probably a necessary ingredient in all truly great winemakers. One senses that Gianfanco was not the easiest man to deal with, his ideas to an extent fixed – but always on deeply held convictions, experience and evidence. The family is intent on carrying on this ethos.
By now every wine lover will know the story of the disgruntled former employee who, in 2012, opened the taps on the ageing vats of Soldera’s Brunello, losing the vast majority of wine from every vintage from 2007 until 2012 – 62,600 litres in total. Just 450 litres from the famed 2010 vintage were saved, later bottled into large formats and auctioned raising over €750,000 for childrens’ charities. “It was a way of drawing a line under the event,” says Mauro.
Soldera’s wines are rare, expensive and hard to find. The loss of those vintages adds to the scarcity of course, so they are available from only a few UK retailers. Currently almost all in full cases, with prices starting at around £600 per bottle equivalent.
I have given stockists where I can find them against the six wines tasted below, but Raeburn Fine Wines tell me that the first vintage to be released since Gianfranco’s death, the 2014, should be arriving with the UK wine trade in the next month or so.