Friday, May 2, 2008

Tasting Notes: Le Cirque de Solaia

I caught the train to New York this week for a tasting at the restaurant Le Cirque of 10 vintages of one of Antinori's groundbreaking Super Tuscans, the Cabernet and Sangiovese blend called Solaia, which is now celebrating its 30th year. Our small group of writers began by tasting eight of the vintages side by side in a tutorial led by the current marchese, Piero Antinori. I say "current" because the Antinori family has been making wine for more than 600 years, and he is not the first Piero to bear the title.

The second two vintages were served during an elegant lunch, at which time owner Sirio Maccioni casually strolled into the dining room like a guest on the David Letterman show and was greeted by Antinori, who hailed him as a "fellow Tuscan" who first agreed to take a chance at selling New Yorkers Antinori's expensive red wines at a time when Italian winemaking was known for the "Q" word that does not spell quality.

Antinori is on the cusp of 70, but he could pass for much less, a good advertisement, perhaps, for drinking his wines. During his introduction to our first Solaia, the initial 1978 vintage, Antinori gave credit to his older and better-known Super Tuscan, Tignanello. "Without Tignanello," he said, "we would not have had Solaia," explaining that there was a need to deal with the excess of French grapes beyond what was committed to the blend of that Sangiovese-dominated wine. The 1978 Solaia was actually 80% Cab Sauvignon and 20% Cab Franc. Interesting, Antinori had originally not planned to release the first vintage, not impressed with its initial showing and perhaps prejudiced by the fact that the vines were only four years old, a sign of the strega that was more worrisome to winemakers at the time than it is to today's generation. But it developed so well in the barrel that they eventually reversed that decision.

And with good reason. The 1978 is tasting excedingly well, a testament to the northern Italian tradition of knowing how to balance fruit, tannins, and acid with the casual skill of a juggler at a street fair in Siena. I kept coming back to it throughout the tasting, and it continued to hold firm. The next wine, the 1985, was not as fortunate, having a sooty aroma and not holding together well. A tasting from a second bottle confirmed that difficulty.

The native Sangiovese was added in the 1980s to play second fiddle to the Cab Sauvignon, Antinori says, and to better marry the Solaia to its terroir, giving the wine's finish what he called "the Sangiovese grip." It also became the flip side of the composition of Tignanello. The late 80s also saw Solaia gain more weight and stuffing, and the very good 1988 reflects that style with a meaty, earthier component. The 1990, which was also showing well, did not become the wine that Antinori had hoped -- "not as great and elegant as we thought it would be" -- but in 1994 he was rewarded with what he regards as a "great vintage, what we had in mind when we decided to produce the wine." It is full and robust with delicious fruit, yet with a luscious silkiness.

After 1995, the winery decided to use all new oak on Solaia, and, to my palate, it has resulted in more fragrance and oak "sweetness" in the wines. The 1999 is a big wine, full and fine, with a lingering tightness in the finish. The 2001 is still quite young but promises elegance as it ages. The 2005, bottled in December after an uncharacteristically long two years on oak, is still not ready for release, but it looks to be very big, very promising.

At the table, over a lobster risotto and a simply prepared loin of veal, the 1997 proved to be a wonderful wine, with great balance of fruit and acid, and the 2004 Solaia, served with the cheese course, was very well-structured with interesting flavors of dark chocolate. Both were served directly from the bottle, and decanting might have made them show, if possible, even better.

Earlier, Antinori made an interesting comment about attending many celebrations and anniversaries related to his wines in recent months. But, he said, he preferred the creative moments, launching something that might, further down the road, be cause for even more celebration. "Was there something specific you had in mind," I asked him later. He would not confirm or deny, but only noted he always loved to think creatively and that something could come up to lead to future celebration, even if he weren't around to be a celebrant.

Given Piero Antinori's track record, watch this space.

Until the next time....

Roger Morris

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