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.

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Addio Giuseppe Rinaldi (in italiano)

Giuseppe “Beppe” Rinaldi, uno dei produttori più rispettati delle Langhe, è scomparso domenica 2 settembre all’età di 70 anni. E Barolo non sarà più la stessa senza di lui.

© Paolo Tenti | Giuseppe Rinaldi in 2013

Un appassionato difensore del Barolo artigianale e tradizionale, Beppe, soprannominato anche Citrico per la sua schietta, acida franchezza e senso dell’umorismo, ha creato Baroli sensuali e profumati che vantano sensazioni floreali, terrose, di bacche rosse insieme a sentori minerali che solo il Nebbiolo piantato nelle migliori vigne e non forzato in cantina può produrre (qui trovate le mie recensioni dei suoi Barolo 2009-2013).

Un appassionato difensore del Barolo artigianale e tradizionale, Beppe, soprannominato anche Citrico per la sua schietta, acida franchezza e senso dell’umorismo, ha creato Baroli sensuali e profumati che vantano sensazioni floreali, terrose, di bacche rosse insieme a sentori minerali che solo il Nebbiolo piantato nelle migliori vigne e non forzato in cantina può produrre.

Beppe rimaneva l’unico superstite del trio del Barolo soprannominati gli ultimo Mohicani. Il gruppo, che comprendeva i compianti Bartolo Mascarello e Teobaldo Cappellano, era un fedele difensore dei Baroli classici di territorio. Si unirono quando la “guerra del Barolo” imperversava tra i tradizionalisti e i cosiddetti modernisti: questi ultimi usavano i fermentatori rotanti e invecchiavano i vini in barriques nuove, mentre i tradizionalisti prediligevano lunghe macerazioni post-fermentative e l’affinamento in grandi botti di rovere di Slavonia.

Beppe, Bartolo e Teobaldo alla fine hanno vinto quella guerra: in questi giorni la maggior parte dei produttori si è allontanata dalle pratiche aggressive di vinificazione e ha adottato tecniche di cantina meno invasive che esaltano le caratteristiche floreali, di piccoli frutti rossi e balsamiche del Nebbiolo. Ma Beppe passò alla successiva battaglia, quella di difendere i luoghi vitali del Barolo. Lui, insieme a Maria Teresa Mascarello ed Enzo Brezza, ha coraggiosamente sfidato l’establishment per difendere i vigneti storici del Barolo, in particolare il vigneto Cannubi. Come mi ha detto nel 2013, durante un’intervista per il mio libro su Barolo e Barbaresco: “Oggi i produttori di Barolo hanno piantato vigneti in aree in cui i nostri nonni non avrebbero mai immaginato di piantare il Nebbiolo.”

Con il medesimo nome di suo nonno paterno Giuseppe, che fondò l’azienda nel 1890, Beppe, dopo gli studi da veterinario, imparò l’arte della vinificazione e della viticoltura dal padre Battista, che si diplomò con lode alla Scuola Enologica di Alba. Nella loro villa alla periferia di Barolo, in cantine cavernose dominate da botti di rovere di Slavonia, troverai tutte le passioni di Beppe: una sedia primitiva fatta di barrique usate, con un cartello scritto a mano: “Il miglior uso della Barrique “, e in un’altra area a latere delle cantine di vinificazione e invecchiamento, due interi locali pieni di vecchie Lambretta in vari stadi di restauro e casse piene di pezzi.

Ma più di tutto la passione di Beppe consisteva nel fare in modo che i suoi vini esprimessero al meglio i rispettivi vigneti e le caratteristiche proprie di ciascuna vendemmia. A tal fine ha evitato le tecnologie di cantina più moderne, compresi i lieviti selezionati. “Non ho bisogno di lieviti selezionati. Prima che i lieviti selezionati fossero inventati, il vino fermentava spontaneamente. Ho semplicemente lasciato che la natura facesse il suo corso”, mi ha detto nel 2008. Non ha mai usato prodotti chimici nei suoi vigneti, che sono tra i siti più ambiti della denominazione: Cannubi San Lorenzo, Brunate, Ravera e Le Coste.

Ma al di sopra e al di là del suo terroso e sentimentale Barolo, Beppe aveva un carisma che poteva muovere gli eserciti, e ha marciato al ritmo di un diverso tamburino in tutti i sensi. In diverse occasioni, venivo a casa sua e, camminando attraverso l’elegante salotto, trovavo una delle sue motociclette parcheggiate di fronte agli eleganti divani, perché, come disse una volta a sua moglie Annalisa, “Stava piovendo ieri sera”.

Beppe era una di quelle rare anime che dicevano quello che pensava e combatteva duramente per ciò in cui credeva e non gli interessava di ottenere l’approvazione delle sue idee. E quando l’hai incontrato, anche se inizialmente non eri d’accordo con lui, poi non hai mai guardato il Barolo nella stessa luce di prima.

© Paolo Tenti | Barolo Giuseppe Rinaldi Brunate Le Coste 2009

Per fortuna le sue figlie, Marta, laureata in enologia all’Università di Torino e Carlotta, laureata in agronomia, hanno lavorato per anni con il padre. Il futuro dell’azienda è in ottime mani.

Ho scoperto per la prima volta che Beppe era malato ai primi di giugno e, mentre ero in Piemonte lo scorso fine settimana, avevo sentito che purtroppo le cose non stavano andando troppo bene. Sabato abbiamo condiviso una bottiglia di Barolo Brunate – Le Coste 2009 con amici e, anche in questa difficile annata, Beppe ha tirato fuori un capolavoro.

Addio Beppe, ci mancherai.


Addio Giuseppe Rinaldi

One of Barolo’s most outspoken and respected producers, Giuseppe “Beppe” Rinaldi passed away on Sunday, September 2nd, at the age of 70. And Barolo will never be the same.

A passionate defender of traditionally crafted Barolo, Beppe, nicknamed ‘Citrico’ for his scathing, acidic frankness and sense of humor, made soulful, fragrant Barolos boasting floral, earthy, red berry and mineral sensations that only Nebbiolo planted in the best sites and not forced in the cellar can produce (here you find my reviews of his Barolos 2009-2013) .

© Paolo Tenti | Beppe Rinaldi on one of his beloved Lambrettas
© Paolo Tenti | Beppe Rinaldi on one of his beloved Lambrettas

Beppe was the lone survivor of the Barolo threesome nicknamed the Last of the Mohicans. The group, which included the late Bartolo Mascarello and Teobaldo Cappellano, were stalwart defenders of terroir-driven, classic Barolos that united back when the Barolo Wars raged between the Traditionalists and the so-called Modernists: the latter used rotary fermenters and aged the wines in all new barriques, while the Traditionalists favored long, post-fermentation macerations and aging in large Slavonian oak.

Beppe, Bartolo and Teobaldo eventually won that war: these days most producers have stepped away from aggressive winemaking practices and have adopted less intrusive cellar techniques that exalt Nebbiolo’s floral, red berry and balsamic characteristics. But Beppe found himself moving on to the next battle, that of defending Barolo’s hallowed vineyard sites. He, along with Maria Teresa Mascarello and Enzo Brezza, bravely took on the establishment to defend Barolo’s historic vineyards, namely the much-contested Cannubi vineyard. As he told me in 2013, during an interview for my Barolo and Barbaresco book, “Today, Barolo makers have planted vineyards in areas our grandfathers would never have imagined planting Nebbiolo.”

Named after his grandfather Giuseppe, who founded the firm in 1890, Beppe, a trained veterinarian learned the art of winemaking from his father Battista, who graduated with honors from Alba’s Enological School. In their country villa on the outskirts of Barolo, in cramped, cavernous cellars dominated by Slavonian oak casks, you’ll find all of Beppe’s passions: a primitive chair made of a used barrique, with a hand written sign: “The Best Use of Barrique”, and in another area removed from the vinification and aging cellars, two entire rooms filled with old Lambretta scooters in various stages of restoration and crates full of parts.

Above all, Beppe was committed to turning out Nebbiolos that best expressed their vineyard sites and the vintage. To this end he shunned most modern cellar technologies, including selected yeasts. “I don’t need selected yeasts. Before selected yeasts were invented, wine fermented spontaneously. I simply let nature take its course,” he told me in 2008. He also never used any chemicals in his vineyards, which are among the most coveted sites in the denomination: Cannubi San Lorenzo, Brunate, Ravera and Le Coste.

But above and beyond his earthy, soulful Barolos, Beppe had a charisma that could move armies, and he marched to the beat of a different drummer in every sense. On several occasions, I would come to his house, and walking through the elegant living room, find one of his motorcycles parked in front of the elegant settees, because, as he told his wife Annalisa , “It was raining last night”.

Beppe was one of those rare souls that said what he thought and fought hard for what he believed in and didn’t give a damn if you agreed or not. And when you met him, you never looked at Barolo in the same light.

© Paolo Tenti | Barolo Giuseppe Rinaldi Brunate Le Coste 2009

Thankfully, his daughters, Marta, who graduated from the University of Turin in enology and Carlotta, who graduated from the same university in agronomy, have been working alongside their father for years.

I first found out that Beppe was ill back in early June, and while in Piedmont this past weekend, heard things weren’t looking too well. On Saturday we shared a bottle of Rinaldi’s 2009 Brunate – Le Coste with friends, and even in this difficult vintage for Barolo, Beppe pulled off what the Italians call ‘un capolavoro’.

Addio Beppe.

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