Friday, 9 December 2016

A Solaia Vertical

Producer: Antinori

The decline of Chianti, once Italy’s most revered wine, started after World War 2 and reached a critical level in the 1970s. The causes are many – an enlargement of the original viticultural zone which encouraged planting on subpar sites, too many producers capitalising on the Chianti name, and the mandatory inclusion of grapes such as Trebbiano (a profligate but undistinguished variety) to name a few. This situation laid the groundwork for the rise of Italy’s –aia wines; super-premium bottlings that stepped outside Italy’s fossilised wine laws and whose prices were way above those wines classified at the DOCG level, supposedly Italy’s top tier with the strictest regulations. Collectively known as Super Tuscans, the names of these wines (e.g. Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Tassinaia) would be familiar to any serious Italian wine collector.

The first Super Tuscan I tasted was the 2006 Sassicaia, a seductive mix of chewy tannins, impressive mouthfeel and polished fruit. That bottle finished all too quickly. So when invited for a vertical tasting of Solaia, organised by wine distributor Monopole, I fairly jumped at the chance. Solaia is the mirror image of Tignanello, another Super Tuscan produced by the same winery, Marchesi Antinori. Their first, Tignanello, was first produced in 1971 and is a blend of 80% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc. Solaia, which came later in 1978, is the reverse with a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Sangiovese, and 5% Cabernet Franc. As described by Brand Ambassador Francesco Visani, in 1978 the winery had an incredibly good season for Cabernet Sauvignon, and so the excess which was not needed for Tignanello was made into a separate wine.

The Solaia vineyard, now expanded to 20 hectares, benefits from a high altitude (400m above sea level), and a southwest exposure to the sun. The elevation helps preserve freshness in the wine while the sunlight imbues the grapes with ripeness and flavour. A wine of this quality is handled with kid gloves – the grapes are picked by hand in the vineyard and further undergo manual sorting in the winery, then fermented in small tronconic vats of 60 hectolitres in size (which allows for more precise control of the grapes based on variety and ripeness), and aged in 100% French oak for 18 months before being blended and aged for a further 12 months.

There have been only minor changes to the Solaia recipe. The initial 1978 vintage (comprising 3,600 bottles) was commercially released after the 1979, the latter a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc that sold well and proved the acceptance of Bordeaux varieties hailing from Tuscany. In 1982 Sangiovese was added to Solaia to give local flavour to the wine and emphasise its Tuscan roots. The only other pure Cabernet Solaia made was the 2002 when the weather resulted in a less than favourable crop of Sangiovese. We were fortunate to taste vintages from 2001, 2004, 2009, 2012 and 2013, billed by Francesco as “the best five vintages in the past twenty-five years”.

The wine made from French grapes and nurtured by Tuscan soil has achieved massive acclaim since its launch, with the 1997 vintage selected as Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year in 2000. That was the first time an Italian wine had achieved such acknowledgement. In Asia, Hong Kong remains the largest market for Solaia, although the same cannot be said for Greater China. “The Chinese market is almost entirely Bordeaux and Burgundy,” griped Francesco. “It is very hard to break into that market because they have a strong brand in their mind and it is not easy to change their perception.” We can be thankful for that, as the already-high price of Solaia would surely soar if China were to acquire a thirst for it.

Tasting notes:

Antinori Solaia 2013 – Intense and rich nose with sweet blackcurrant and licorice overlaying a warm, earthy scent. Gorgeously ripe, balanced and with resolved tannins, this is a wine that is already drinking beautifully but shows the capacity to age for at least a decade.

Antinori Solaia 2012 – Described by Francesco as “the most elegant wine we will taste tonight”. I found it very similar to the 2013, with lovely ripe dark fruit and an intense, vibrant character.

Antinori Solaia 2009 – Open, fresh and inviting, the wine is starting to throw some sediment while still showing primary fruit aromas of incense, licorice and balsam. On the palate, it is structured and powerful, with a bounty of blackcurrant and blackberry fruit enhanced by a touch of melted chocolate.

Antinori Solaia 2004 – A reward in patience. As the wine starts to lose its primary fruit and evolves, it takes on a different dimension reminiscent of great Bordeaux. There’s a touch of decay to a fine masterpiece, with notes of prune, balsam and violets. A little tight at first, this wine continued to improve throughout the evening.

Antinori Solaia 2001 – You’d imagine that at this age the wine would have softened somewhat but that was not the case. This was the most powerful wine of the evening, a strident, complex beast showing leather and game, interspersed with fragrant balsam, earth, licorice and blackcurrant. As with all the earlier vintages, there’s a generous warmth and energy to the wine, as though the essence of the sun had been captured along with the grapes.

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