Saturday, April 10, 2010

Antinori's Solaia: A Vertical

It is impossible, says Piero Antinori, to think about Solaia without first thinking of Tignanello and the situation at the time he was developing Tignanello, which was grim. The late 50s and early 60s were a period of intense economic change in the Italian countryside, and the effects of the end of the Mezzadria, the tenant farming system by which farmers cultivated the land, splitting the crops with the landlords, were every bit as dramatic as those of the phylloxera outbreak that destroyed the vineyards at the end of the 18th century.

When faced with the phylloxera outbreak, the farmers took stock, replanted, rebuilt, and went back to living as they had, farming a mixture of crops under a system called coltura promiscua that was quite generalized, with rows of vines interspersed with other crops, to the point that visitors to Tuscany who were familiar with the specialized vineyards of, say, Bordeaux, wondered where the region's Chianti wine came from.

With the end of the Mezzadria the farmers packed up and left, choosing new homes with modern amenities and factory jobs in the cities and towns over the much more primitive and uncertain life in the country. And in doing so left the landlords, most of whom had no experience at all with farming, on their own. The landowners realized they had to rationalize their lands if they were to survive economically, and take a much more businesslike approach to farming. So they tore out the old coltura promiscua, and replanted specialized vineyards.

And in most cases got it wrong because they didn't know what they were doing, planting the wrong grapes, in particular much too much high-yielding Trebbiano, and being entirely too approximate in the cellars as well. Demand for Chianti plummeted, as did its reputation and the price it would fetch. By the late 60s it was obvious something had to be done, and a few pioneering winemakers began to think about making alternatives to Chianti Classico.

Piero Antinori, who was just starting out, was among the innovators, and with the help of an inspired group of advisors (including Robert Mondavi) and employees, especially Giacomo Tachis, hit upon the idea of blending Sangiovese and Cabernet, and aging the resulting wine in barriques, the small oak barrels favored by the French. Thus was born Tignanello.

The initial reaction of the Italian wine establishment was mixed, but the wine was tremendously successful on the international markets, and, it was soon hailed as one of the first and most influential Supertuscans.

And here Piero paused: But what is a Supertuscan? It's not a vaietal wine, because while there are some made from only one varietal, many are blends. It's not a reserve or a selection from an Appellation, because in many cases they don't follow the rules set forth for appellation wines. What it is, is a vineyard wine, one that is consistently excellent and stands the test of time. Anyone can call his wine a Supertuscan, but those that meet the test of time and truly are Supertuscans can be counted on the fingers of one hand (at the most two), he thinks, counting among them both Tignanello and Solaia.

And what exactly is Solaia? It's a Cabernet-based blend made from the Solaia vineyard (about 20 hectares) on the Marchesi Antinori Tignanello estate in San Casciano Val di Pesa, which also yields Tignanello. And it is, like many wines, a fortuitous coincidence: 1978 was the first year the Solaia vineyard produced enough grapes to make a wine. However, they thought the vines were too young to produce quality, and therefore vinified the wine separately and kept it separate thereafter. And must have realized fairly soon thereafter that the wine had something going for it, because they vinified the vineyard separately in both 1979 and 1980.

Both vintages caused a stir, and since it was by now obvious that the 1978 vintage wasn't weak they released it too, on the heels of the newer vintages, and since there wasn't much of it demand spiked and so did prices, one of the first -- Piero says -- episodes of wine speculation in Italy.

By this point Solaia's future as a vineyard wine was assured, and since then it has been consistently ranked among the top Italian wines; the 1997 vintage went so far as to be declared Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year in 2000.

I was therefore very pleased to be invited to attend the Solaia vertical organized this year at Vinitaly.

It featured Six Vintages: 1978, 1988, 1994, 1997, 2004 and 2007.

Antinori Solaia Vino da Tavola di Toscana 1978
80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc

This was the first vintage made, but released three years late because the vineyard was new and they didn't think that it would do well. It was released and the price shot up immediately, one of the first cases of wine speculation in Italy. They decided upon the label because Piero set his new business card against a bottle and said, "this looks better than what the designers are thinking about."

Elegant almandine with dusky blackish reflections and almandine rim. The bouquet is fully mature, with elegant spicy green leather and leaf tobacco supported by smoky balsamic accents and savory spice, with hints of underlying sweetness as well. Pleasing complexity and though it is obviously mature it's not at all tired. On the palate it's full and quite smooth, with rich sour berry fruit supported by brown sugar sweetness and some acidity, and by smooth sweet silky tannins that flow into a clean savory sweet finish with tannic underpinning. Quite silky, and delightful elegance too. An impressive wine of the sort one remembers at length.

Antinori Solaia Vino da Tavola di Toscana 1988
75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Sangiovese, 5% Cabernet Franc

Deep black almandine ruby with black reflections and almandine rim. One wouldn't guess it is more than 20 years old. The bouquet is elegant, with rich vinous accents mingled with spice and dried flowers, with some vegetal notes, though much less than the 78's. Much richer than the 78, and this is because the vineyard was much more mature. Beautiful to sniff. On the palate it's quite fresh, and rich, with deft sour cherry fruit supported by bright rather savory berry fruit acidity and smooth sweet tannins that flow into a long warm slightly tannic berry fruit finish with some balsamic accents, and a savory underpinning that brings Tuscany to mind. A most impressive wine with effortless structure and power, and great finesse. It was a very long hot but not searing summer, and the grapes developed great concentration and depth. A beautiful wine.

Antinori Solaia Vino da Tavola di Toscana 1994
70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Franc

This was Renzo Cottarella's first vintage as winemaker -- Tachis had just retired. Deep black almandine with black reflections and almandine rim; it looks to be the same age as the 88, and this is a testament to the quality of the 88 vintage. The bouquet is deft, with clean fairly rich berry fruit laced with some leaf tobacco and some greenish vegetal accents mingled with spice and herbs, with some vanilla too. Great richness and complexity. On the palate it's ample and soft by comparison with the 88, with fairly rich fruit supported by smooth velvety tannins and moderate acidity -- less than that of the 88 -- and also somewhat less intense savory accents. Quite nice, and has a story to tell, but is not at the level of the 88.

In this vintage the Cabernet did better than the Sangiovese, which didn't have that nervous greatness it displayed in the 88 vintage.

Antinori Solaia Toscana IGT 1997
75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Sangiovese, 5% Cabernet Franc

This was declared wine of the year by Wine Spectator in 2000. The vintage, says Riccardo, seemed so-so until late in August, when the sun began to shine, while the winds guaranteed good day night excursions, and from then things continued perfectly for months. The wine is elegant almandine with black reflections and almandine rim. The bouquet is elegant, with cherry and cassis fruit supported by delicate spice and some herbals accents and vanilla. Great power and finesse, and beautiful balance too. It has an effortless grace to it. On the palate it's full and rich, with powerful berry fruit laced with light balsamic brown sugar sweetness that integrates perfectly with the wine and is supported by minerality and by smooth sweet tannins that derive in part from oak and in part from grapes, and have a steely velvetyness to them. Very nice, with great power and terrific elegance. I have often found 1997 vintage wines to be a bit over the top, but this one displays a touch of restraint, going just to the limit but no further. Beautiful balance and very elegant.

Antinori Solaia Toscana IGT 2004
75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Sangiovese, 5% Cabernet Franc

Deep black almandine ruby with black reflections and almandine rim. The bouquet is decidedly young, displaying great harmony, and quite elegant with forest berry fruit supported by smooth cedar and graphite. Great harmony, and very pleasant to sniff; it's rather like working while listening to a Beethoven concerto, and suddenly realizing you have stopped working and are simply listening. On the palate it's ample, with rich dusky berry fruit supported by leaf tobacco and mineral acidity, and by smooth tannins that have slight greenish hard accents of youth, and flow into a long warm berry fruit finish. Beautiful, but young, and needs another 3-5 years to come together. It's well worth waiting for, and if you have a bottle you will be very happy to give it time. Expect it to age well for 10-15 years or more.

Antinori Solaia Toscana IGT 2007
75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Sangiovese, 5% Cabernet Franc

A prerelease sample. Impenetrable pyrope with cherry rim. The bouquet is very young, with rich cherry and forest berry fruit supported by some sweetish accents and clean spice. Quite harmonious, but very, very young. By comparison with the earlier vintages it is a little more fruit forward, but this could be simply youth. Time will tell. On the palate it's ample and rich with powerful cherry prune fruit supported by dusky cassis and smooth sweet tannins that have a clean graphite shaving underpinning and flow into a clean ripe fruit finish that gives way to greenish tannins of youth. It's a beautiful wine, and a babe in swaddling clothes; one could drink it in the near future but it would be a colossal waste to do so, because it's a wine blessed with tremendous potential that will begin to come into its own in 8-10 years, and age well for at least 10 more.

Having said all this, my impressions:
Solaia is a beautiful wine, by any measure one cares to use. It is also a wine from its time, which is the 1970s, and this bears some explanation: Though Piero says that according to Giacomo Tachis the Cabernet used to make Solaia has undergone Chiantization through having grown up in a Tuscan vineyard, it remains a Cabernet. Very good Cabernet displaying terrific poise and elegance, but it is also extremely international, and if one were to put it into a lineup with top Cabernet wines from other parts of the world, I'm not sure it would stand out from the rest of the pack due to its being Tuscan. It might stand out because it's better than the others (a distinct possibility), but the character is (as was common for top Italian wines of the 70s) much more international than local; Solaia was (and is) a wine produced to take its place on an international stage dominated by the great French wines and excel there, rather than wow the folks at the corner theater where they plays are in vernacular and those from the next town over have a hard time following the dialog.

A choice, dictated by the conditions at the time, and a valid choice, but one that does speak from one era to the next. I'm not saying Antinori should change the wine -- far from it, because it has a glowing history and tradition -- but that conditions have changed (in part thanks to it), and now Italian wines no longer need to take that international path to be numbered among the great wines of the world.

In short, Italian wine lovers of all tastes, from the most serious modernist to the most rabid traditionalist owe wines like Tignanello and Solaia many thanks for opening the door to the variety we have today. And, of course, for being excellent wines in their own right.

In closing Piero said he is occasionally asked how he defines a great wine. It must, he says, satisfy three conditions:

A great wine must have personality and be recognizable.
A great wine, especially a red, must have good aging potential.
A great wine must give pleasure, both hedonistic and intellectual.

By these criteria Solaia certainly is a great wine.

1 comment:

Wayne said...

Wow, extremely informative, Kyle! Many thanks for a fine educational piece :o)