The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Gianfranco Soldera in Photos

Because a picture is worth a thousand words

Last Friday, I wrote a post describing a recent visit to the estate of Brunello great Gianfranco Soldera. However, I had taken a bunch of photos that didn’t make the cut into the original post, and I wanted to give you all a fuller sense of what the estate looked like. Please allow us to become a photo blog, if only for one day.

Gianfranco Soldera.

A Visit with Gianfranco Soldera

A man of magic, earth and time

There are many moments in a life that come and go, moments that slip away like smoke on the wind, moments ephemeral and mindless. Standing with Brunello great Gianfranco Soldera in the center of a thousand-year-old olive tree that has been split into quarters by lightning, that has holes in its trunk like antique lace, and that yet still shines silvery green with leaves is not one of those whisping moments. It’s solid. And it’s one that I will take with me wherever I go, as long as I live.

If Montalcino is a magical place (and I believe that it is), then Soldera’s estate is at the center of a 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 Eleanor Shannon (interpreter, sommelier, woman-of-all-trades, and the core of the IWM Italy operation) 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 that ancient tree, standing inside it, the four trunks of it surrounding us, the ground slightly raised, the magic of Montalcino filling the air, the presence of its greatest magician, and the hush of it all held in this unforgotten moment.

An IWM Experience in Orlando

IWM on the road and in your house

Just a very quick link to a blog post written by one of our clients. We recently led a tasting in the home of one of our clients, a serious wine-lover, and he took the time to pen a thoughtful and passionate response in his blog, Wine–A View from Orlando.

Here’s an excerpt:

From the Piemonte, we moved south into Tuscany for the next two wines, both Brunelli di Montalcino. The first of two was the 2000 Case Basse di Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. Soldera, a former insurance broker from Milan, planted the 2 hectare Case Basse vineyard in 1972, and produced his first Brunello from the vineyard in 1990, when Soldera deemed it to finally to be worthy. From a hot vintage, this wine was garnet in the glass with a hint of bricking. The wine is dominated by red fruit aromas and flavors, with a note of mint or basil, as well as extreme acidity and high levels of tannins. The second Brunello was the 2004 Talenti Brunello di Montalcino. The estate was founded in 1980 by Pierluigi Talenti, long-time winemaker at Tenuta il Poggione, and consists of 20 hectares of vines. The nose on this wine showed brighter, sweeter red fruit, leather, and an earthy, mushroom note. On the palate, the wine is softer and broader than the first, with flavors of cherries, berries, and baking spices like cinnamon and cardamom. There are granular tannins reminscent of “Rutherford Dust,” and the wine seems to float across the tongue and take forever to dissipate.

You can read the rest of the post here. It’s a delight to get a glimpse from the client’s side–and to discover that the view is a good one indeed.

Less is More in Wine Speak

In praise of minimalism

The cliché in the wine world is to use almost acrobatic language to describe the profile of a wine. This process often fails to keep within practical general descriptions that could help novice consumers find their way, and pushes into the overly specific where sensory experiences seem too individual. Every person is so individual, and so is their own experience of wine, that lavish wine descriptions can seem egotistic and inefficient. On the New York Times blog The Pour, wine writer Eric Asimov points out the failure of this  approach to wine writing and advocates for the use of simplicity. In fact, he argues using two basic descriptors: savory or sweet. Asimov suggests that even an easy duality of sweet vs savory could be more effective as a starting ground for communicating, as he says, “the essence of any bottle [better] than the most florid, detailed analogies ever could.”

I find this approach refreshing. Although there is so much more to a glass of fine wine than any two descriptors could ever classify, the reality is that wine drinking is a learned process that no one can ever fully master. No one person will ever be able to detect every aromatic element within a glass of wine because of personal sensitivities, aromatic blindness, and emotional bias. The baseline remains: every wine drinker from Robert Parker to the entry millennial is bound to the fact that when they put their nose to a glass they are affixed to their individual perceptive limits and can only end up with a perception of the wine rather than a direct imprint. In my discussions with people about life and wine I always say, “Perception is the body’s inability to understand what is actually in front of them.” For example, when announcing my detection of the minerality in a Chablis, I am also stating that I am foregoing the perception of the more subtle notes of citrus or cedar that are present. It’s a choice, or it’s a failing. Either way, it’s incomplete, subjective, and inaccurate.

The lesson here is we should take time to reconsider the flamboyant nature of present wine communication and bring ourselves back to the bare bones of wine appreciation. Instead of trying to observe a collage of potential descriptors we should be asking ourselves very simple questions about our wine. Is this wine sweet or savory? Is this wine tannic? Does this wine make me smile? Does this wine make me think? Do I like this wine? And not does this wine shows strong notes of young pomegranate, supple wet cherries, pine tree sap on a spring morning, and salted sea stones. Using a more boiled-down method for evaluating wine gives your fellow drinkers more material to relate to their own experiences. Using a spare approach allows you to let your own emotional response be your guide, rather than a personal judgment or ranking of similar styles and merits. In such an approach I see not just efficient methodology but also the beauty of vino.

We’d love to know your thoughts. Agree? Disagree? Or just want to take another angle to this fascinating–if polemic–topic? Feel free to comment below.

Go-To-Wine Tuesday

Collemattoni Rosso di Montalcino 2007

Being a financial guy and quite thrifty at times (usually because my wife makes me), I enjoy finding the best deals.  That being said, I would never sacrifice quality for cost.  This truism especially goes for wines.

It’s easy to get caught in the trap of finding a “go-to” wine you like and becoming a creature of habit; price, in short, is a factor that can make you blind to risking change.  One of the amazing things about working for IWM, a wine shop that prides itself on quality, is that you know that even the less expensive wines are going to be great.  That’s why when I was perusing our inventory, the Collemattoni Rosso di Montalcino 2007, at around $24, seemed like an opportunity to expand my palate.

When I first opened the bottle, I had no expectations, just a longing for a new experience in tasting. This classic Italian DOC wine from Southwestern Toscana crafted from the ever-popular Sangiovese may have a traditional style, but it certainly packed a wallop to my senses.

After letting it sit for about an hour, I discovered there were distinct scents of black cherry on the nose. The wine had an earthy rustic hue; the color was dark as night and almost completely opaque to light.  To be absolutely blunt, it looked like a thick wine, not thick like a dessert wine, but there’s a weightiness that you can see in the glass.    I knew that if the taste was as strong as the aromas, I was in for a flavorful treat.

At first sip, I found it was powerful.  There was a peppery kick, which I did not expect.  As a New Orleans native, I’m used to the spices and cuisines that the Cajun and Creole cultures offer, but this wine’s spiciness was something different, like a twist ending in a captivating novel.  Tannin levels were surprisingly soft in this wine, which I much appreciated.  The heaviness on the palate helped to allow the complex flavor of the jammy fruits and spicy finish to linger just enough for a slight metamorphosis to unfold.  Though I did not pair this with a particular food, as I really wanted to draw a feeling out of this drink, it would probably do well with leaner meats.

Having the chance to select from such a wide array of wines from around the world makes it difficult to fall back into the same habits. Still, I have to raise my glass to Mr. Aldo Bucci, the creator of this fine wine, and admit that I will have to make this one a true “go-to.”

For another take on this wine, visit the very fine wine review blog Maker’s Table.

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