Farewell to the magician of Montalcino


An appreciation of Gianfranco Soldera of Case Basse. 

Gianfranco Soldera, 82, left this world last Saturday in Montalcino. He had had a bad fall last autumn and had spent quite a time in hospital in Milan, where his son Mauro is based and where he himself had worked long and hard in the insurance business before moving to Montalcino to make wine that was to become the envy of so many. 

At a glorious charity dinner at Harry's Bar in London on 28 November last year organised by Soldera's UK importer Zubair Mohamed of Raeburn, his daughter Monica was not worried about his health. He has always been such a strong force, with some of the strongest opinions I have ever encountered, that it must have seemed impossible that his strength would be extinguished. 

The centrepiece of the dinner was a double magnum of the quite glorious and extremely rare 2010 vintage of his wine, what was left after a disgruntled employee opened the taps in Soldera's carefully designed cellar and all but destroyed the vintage. Gianfranco decreed that the remnants would be bottled exclusively in large formats to be auctioned off for charities that would benefit children. Two magnums had raised £40,000 apiece for the excellent Room to Read global literacy initiative at last year's London wine gala and I had been looking forward to seeing Monica and one of her daughters again at this year's Hong Kong Room to Read wine gala a week on Friday. 

Soldera was notorious for refusing to make compromises. He left the Consorzio and from the 2006 vintage sold all his wines as IGT Toscana, believing so passionately in the unique superiority of his 100% Sangiovese wines. He maintained that Sangiovese was the best vine variety in the world, but because of its tendency to over-produce, 'to make a very good one you need very special soil, and dedication. Then the wines will last 50 or 60 years.'

He maintained that his estate in the south of the zone is perfectly sited and he was a tireless researcher and fine tuner of every detail, never following any orthodoxy. Before choosing his site he carefully studied weather patterns and soil there. In his office full of research papers, I saw him actually licking his lips at the prospect of rising to the challenges of climate change.

What is mildly spooky to me is quite how many cosmopolitan wine lovers and winemakers happen to have volunteered to me recently that Soldera was the man they most admired in the world of wine. And many of them were quite unexpected. Globe-trotting consultant winemaker Alberto Antonini for a start, but he was by no means alone.

After visiting Case Basse last April (when Nick took this picture of Gianfranco in his cellar) and marvelling at the completeness of the estate and its garden tended by Gianfranco's talented wife Graziella, I wrote Soldera – whom doubt doth not assail. In it I quoted some of his convictions such as that the French should pull up all their vines and plant potatoes. I felt rather nervous when Zubair told me that he had read the article to Gianfranco because such outspoken views had rarely been quoted. But Zubair reported that he was thrilled. I'm glad.

Gianfranco's daughter Monica and her husband know every in and out of the estate and how it functions. They have four daughters aged between 17 and 24. A good 95% of Soldera's wines are exported – about 20% to the US and 8% to the UK at the time I discussed this with Soldera last year – but he said he was waiting to see whether Brexit would cause a mass exodus of financiers. 'That will determine how much I sell in the UK.' The Swiss apparently buy as much as the Brits. The British merchant Corney & Barrow represent Soldera in all of Asia except Japan.

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