Cult Brunello Producer Gianfranco Soldera Dies at 82

Gianfranco Soldera, Montalcino’s most controversial and outspoken producer – known for making stunning wines boasting remarkable finesse and balance – died yesterday, February 16, in Montalcino when his car careened off the road. First responders found him in cardiac arrest. He was 82.

© Paolo Tenti | Gianfranco Soldera

Soldera established his Case Basse estate in 1972, leaving behind a successful career in Milan as an insurance broker. After looking for years for just the right estate to make exceptional wines, he came across an abandoned property in Tavernelle, southwest of Montalcino. Even though there were no vineyards, Soldera was convinced the hilly terrain near the small church of Santa Restituta would be the ideal place for his winemaking aspirations. His intuition proved right, thanks to the dry microclimate, long hours of sunlight and mineral rich soil. Soldera and his wife Graziella went on to create a unique ecosystem to generate a natural balance and healthy microclimate. To this end, Graziella planted a magnificent 2ha botanical park, complete with more than 1,500 rose varieties and numerous other flowers and trees. An artificial lake and man-made birds’ nests provide the perfect home for a multitude of bees, predator birds, insects, frogs and snakes, that in turn have developed a natural system of checks and balances for both the plants and the wildlife.

At Case Basse Soldera produced exquisite, delicately colored and impeccably balanced wines that boasted mesmerizing complexity. They were the exact opposite of their rather blunt, and at times imperious winemaker. His ruthless criticism of the finest Barolos, Brunellos and Burgundies along with their winemakers became almost as legendary as his wines, and as anyone who ever visited the estate will surely remember, spitting during tastings, even from cask samples, was strictly forbidden.

And yet, as abrasive as he could be, Soldera’s undeniable passion – some may say fanaticism – fueled his perennial search for perfection that led to these magnificent, memorable and incredibly expensive Brunellos and other bottlings.

Following the advice of Sangiovese Maestro Giulio Gambelli, Soldera kept yields remarkably low, roughly half of what the Brunello regulations allow, and he was a pioneer when it came grape selection. He also worked closely with several universities, including the University of Florence to study the best vineyard management and vinification for Sangiovese, while always maintaining a strictly natural approach to all aspects of winemaking. His radically non-interventionist approach in the cellar included only spontaneous fermentation with native yeasts carried out in large Slavonian oak vats and without temperature control but frequent pumping over, followed by lengthy aging in Slavonian casks.

Soldera was one of the leading advocates for 100% Sangiovese only, and was fundamental in helping guide the Consorzio in the critical 2008 vote that threw out any proposed changes to Brunello’s production code that would have allowed other grapes.

Controversy had always surrounded Soldera but he became increasingly isolated in the aftermath of the December 2012 break-in, when a former employee broke into his cellars, opened the taps on barrels of aging Brunello and drained out more than 62,000 liters of wines from the 2007 to 2012 vintages.

In what was meant as an act of solidarity, members of the consorzio publicly offered to donate some of their wine to Soldera, who refused. Soldera resigned from the Consorzio in March 2013 after publicly voicing his thoughts on the offer that he considered nothing short of fraud. In retaliation for his remarks, the Consorzio expelled him, even though he had already resigned. That same year, Soldera pulled his wines out of the denomination, preferring to label his wines as IGT Toscana instead.

© Paolo Tenti | Gianfranco Soldera and Kerin O’Keefe

I will always remember my first visit to Case Basse during the 2003 harvest. Soldera agreed to the interview but only if I would conduct the questions on the top of a high, wooden fermenting vat so he could continue pumping over the wine while he answered my questions. Thirty minutes into the interview, in between answering my questions, barking orders to the staff below and tending to the wine, he noticed well before I did that the fumes were getting to me. While I was glad to get down, it will always be a treasured memory. Later, just seconds after arrogantly declaring that his wine ‘was one of the only truly great wines in the world’ – I watched as he smiled tenderly and patiently sit still while one of his young granddaughters placed a bouquet of just-picked wildflowers across the top of the coveralls he wore that day while working in the cellars.

I’ve heard some say it’s hard to reconcile Gianfranco’s contentious personality with the almost ethereal elegance of his Brunello, but I say the man was as complex and as deep as his fascinating wines.