In 2011, I had the rare chance to live in Italy for about six months, to visit some of Italy’s greatest producers, and to drink some incredible wine. Among all the visits I made, my very first–to Gianfranco Soldera–is perhaps the most indelible. Soldera is not an easy-going man, but he is an unquestionably great winemaker. He holds his estate, his wines, and himself up to nearly impossible standards, and he achieves impossible feats.
If Montalcino is a magical place (and I believe that it is), then Soldera’s Case Basse estate is at the center of its mystical convergence. Much has been made in print about how the ecosystem of the vineyard works to create an insanely perfect spot to grow grapes. The vineyard has been studied by agriculturalists, microbiologists, botanists and oenologists. The estate itself seems to function as a perfectly balanced organism of water, insects, birds, flowers, trees and, of course, grape vines. It all revolves around one man, Soldera.
It’s almost less important what Soldera said in the few hours that I and my friend Eleanor Shannon spent with him. He spoke in streams of Italian uttered in comforting tones and repetitive phrasing. He spoke of opera and how, as in opera, everything in nature must work in concert, and how if there is one discordant note, the entire piece falls flat. He spoke of Italy, the importance of its peninsular shape, the ranges of mountains and how they direct the air currents, and the way that the seas on all sides affect the climate. He spoke of bees and of water and of knowing how many yeast parts per million his wines contain at various stages of development. He spoke about his wine, all wine, wine throughout time, and yet what he said the loudest he didn’t say in words.
It happened twice, actually. Soldera bent down, grabbed a handful of soil, and crumbled it through his fingers. He said something in Italian too, something about how the minerals in the soil is what makes the wine taste the way it does, something about how the vines need to suffer to produce good grapes (when he said this about suffering, I got an image of Degas’ ballerinas, their fatigue and their beauty). But I didn’t find the meaning in the words he was saying—though they had import—rather, I found meaning in his old man’s hands, the almost caressing way he held the soil, and the way that he reluctantly let it dribble through his fingers.
And then it came to me: This is a man who doesn’t just know his estate; this is a man who is his estate.
I had the chance Soldera’s cellars, and I got to smell them in all their grape-cardboard-wet-rock-and-wood glory. I got to drink wine out of his botti, wine a few years old, and wine just a few months, and it was bright and beautiful. I got to do things that most Brunello lovers never get to do, but imagine when they look at books of Montalcino or dreamily sip a bottle of Brunello. I got to ask Soldera questions, and as I did, I got to feel inadequate. How often do we have the opportunity to take up the time of a genius? And how can we do it without feeling the pains of our own ordinariness?
Yet what I’ll remember is the magic of Montalcino filling the air, the presence of its greatest magician, and the hush of it all held in this unforgotten moment.
In today’s eLetter, IWM proudly offered the latest release from Gianfranco Soldera, the Casse Basse Soldera 2008 Rosso IGT, called thus because Soldera left the Brunello Consortium in 2012.
There are a handful of Barolo producers that IWM supports whole-heartedly. These estates have a combination of history and a strong impact on Italian wine; moreover, they consistently create terrific expressions of Nebbiolo. One of these heralded producers is Paolo Scavino. Today, Paolo Scavino is run by Enrico Scavino, who inherited the estate in the ’70s. Enrico’s Barolos lean towards the modern style, a result of wanting to break from tradition when he assumed control. He uses temperature-controlled and rotary fermentation, as well as aging in barriques. Those who enjoy the modern style will consider Scavino Barolos to be perfect, but there’s a lot to like even if you tend to gravitate towards the traditional.
There are seven Barolos in the Scavino line-up, and in 2010 all of them are tremendous. The entry Barolo and Carobric bottlings consist of Nebbiolo grapes sourced from multiple vineyard sites, while the estate’s Bricco Ambrogio, Monvigliero, Cannubi, Bric del Fiasc, and Rocche dell’Annunziata are single-vineyard “crus.” 2010 for the Barolo region may turn out to be one of the great vintages in history, so one of my Scavino selections today features the 2010 entry Barolo and the other is the 2004 Scavino Carobric. The 2004 will give you a glimpse of what the 2010’s will achieve. I suggest you lay the 2010s down and enjoy the ’04 now!
Paolo Scavino 2010 Barolo $49.99
Don’t think that just because this is the “entry” Barolo that this wine is anything short of spectacular. In 2010 many of the entry-level Barolos present an incredible quality-to-price ratio that you only find in great vintages, and Scavino’s is no exception. The wine possesses a high degree of finesse and elegance in its classic notes of cherries, flowers, and eucalyptus. It’s a shame that production volume in 2010 is down, so grab as much ’10 Barolo as you can while they’re available!
There’s something to be said about a perfectly mature Barolo, and this ’04 Carobric is drinking like a beauty. The wine is gracefully balanced with great integration between its tannins and its juicy acidity, leaving you with the ability to savor and revel in the flavors of black cherry, violets, and minerality that glide across the palate. This wine is super delicious, and, truthfully, regardless of which Barolo style you like, one taste of this ’04 Carobric will leave you wanting a second, third, and fourth glass!
IWM clearly has been struck by wanderlust. It’s most evident by Garrett Kowalsky’s post about his upcoming trip to Italy, where he details the three things you should know in planning your trip. However, it’s just as plain in Robin Kelley O’Connor’s detailed history of Bordeaux’s Château Margaux, and our primer to the indigenous grapes of Friuli (get your red-hot Refosco and Picolit panda here!). Only David Bertot seems pretty happy to be at home with his bottle of Monastero Suore Cistercensi Coenobium Ruscum, but then he also made risotto for his wife.
Our experts enjoyed sharing a little knowledge with their picks this week. Crystal Edgar explained “winemaker’s vintage” with two bottles of 2002 wines. And Will Di Nunzio explored cult wines with picks from Italy’s North, Sandro Fay and Miani.
Cheers to you and your wines, wherever you may be, and wherever you may wander!
Aside from the topography, grandiose estates, great wines, and the power of nature, one of the aspects of Bordeaux that has always intrigued me is how certain properties endure. Château Margaux is one of those rare entities: an estate that has enjoyed four centuries of excellence. I have had the rare privilege recently to partake in two Château Margaux intensive seminars: the first one was hosted held at the Consulate General of France in New York City, and the second was this past weekend at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine event in Monterey Bay, hosted by the estate’s Commercial Director Aurélien Valance.
In the twelfth century, Château Margaux went by the name “La Mothe de Margaux” (the Margaux mound). It wasn’t until 1572, when many Médoc estates abandoned grain for wine, that the noble Lestonnac family began planting vines. By the end of the seventeenth century, Château Margaux comprised 655 acres, a third planted to vine. This time period say innovations at Margaux that may simple to the ear today but were quite novel for the era. First, red grapes were separated from the white grapes and vinified separately. Second, they stop harvesting at dawn when the grapes were covered in dew, whose humidity caused color dilution and paling. In essence, this was the birth time of modern viticulture and vinification, when owners, estate managers, vineyardists, and cellar masters started to understand the importance of the soil, and the influence of the terroir.
The eighteenth century was known as the “Golden Century” for its Bordeaux expansion. In 1705, the London Gazette advertised the auction of 230 barrels of Margaux, calling it a great Bordeaux growth. The 1771 was the first Bordeaux vintage that Christie’s catalogue called “claret,” and in the late eighteenth century, the notion of Bordeaux First Growths or ‘Premier Crus’ came into being. United States Ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson developed a deep love for Bordeaux and, in particular, for Château Margaux. During his ambassadorship, Jefferson bought casks of Margaux, shipping many back to his Monticello wine cellar, writing, “There couldn’t be a better Bordeaux bottle” when he placed an order in 1784.
1855 saw the Second Universal Exhibition in Paris, when Emperor Louis Napoléon III mandated a classification of selectBordeaux wines from the Médoc, Sauternes and Barsac. A blind tasting was organized in Paris to divide sixty-one properties—sixty from the Médoc and one from Graves—into five quality levels, which led to the creation of the official classification of 1855. Margaux was classified as a First Growth, or Premier Grand Cru Classé, just one of four châteaux to receive such honor. For 160 years, Margaux earned its elite position as the best of the best through continual innovation, dedicated research, and leadership willing to make the necessary sacrifices to maintain the status of Premier Grand Cru Classé.
A château as great as Margaux needs more than one blog post. Stay tuned for the next installment, which will take a look at 1855 to the present, exploring why Château Margaux is a leader in the making of world-class wine.
In just three days the Kowalsky Clan begins its Italian adventure. My brother, Justin, and I are taking along our parents for their first journey to Italy, and to say that we are all excited is a bit of an understatement. You could even say that I am ecstatic. For nearly five years I have completely immersed myself in Italian wine and culture. The idea of finally being able to walk through the vineyards and feel the soil beneath my feet, or to be able to sit down and enjoy a traditional meal from the place that created them—it’s a little overwhelming.
Much of our planning has taken place in the last few weeks, and I’ve learned a few things that I did not know before. I wanted to share a few pieces of knowledge that might be helpful for you if you’re planning a trip to Italy’s wine regions:
1) Consult an Italian Calendar: Be aware of international holidays. I discovered that one of the Saturdays during my family’s trip falls on Italian Independence Day. Needless to say, most places we aimed to visit will be closed, but we did manage to come up with some cool ideas relating to the holiday with the help of one of our hosts. That said, Italy is not like the US; they take their holidays very seriously. It’s not always easy to find alternate plans, so be aware.
2) Patience in Estate Planning: Booking winery visits in Tuscany is exponentially easier than in Piemonte’s Barolo or Barbaresco. At the forefront of the agriturismo movement, Tuscany is prepped for all kinds of visitors because many of the estates are larger properties (even the elite ones), so they frequently have rooms where you can stay. Even more helpful, they often have someone who speaks English on hand to answer the phone. This has made things a breeze. Barolo and Barbaresco are a much different story. These estates tend to be tiny family-run properties that do not have receptionists or tour guides. They are quite welcoming, but you need to be prepared for a little bit of work in this region.
3) Affordability is Now: Travel to Europe is more affordable now than it has been in years. At this very moment the Euro conversion is $1.07 US Dollars, one of the lowest rates it has been in years and certainly less than the $1.31 I experienced when I went to France in 2013. We are booking gorgeous hotels in Barolo and Florence for $100-125 a night. You can barely stay at a Hampton Inn stateside for that.
That said, I can’t wait to land in Italy, and I look forward to sharing my experiences with you upon my return!
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