Antinori Solaia From Magnum: 1978-2016
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | SEPTEMBER 22, 2020
It’s always great to be in London. There is something magical about the city. Its energy and pulse are so inspiring. This vertical of Antinori’s iconic Solaia going back to the inaugural 1978, with all but the very early vintages from magnum, was truly unforgettable.
The room is set for a special night at The Ledbury.
From the very beginning, I have believed in hosting our retrospectives of Italian wines outside the world of Italian restaurants. The Italian kitchen has so much to offer, but, in my view, it can also lead to a feeling of repetition of the tried and true that ultimately shortchanges the wines. So, I prefer to present Italian wines in settings that might not be the most obvious. For this retrospective we chose The Ledbury, one of London’s most prestigious venues until Chef Brett Graham announced earlier this year he would not re-open as restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic began to ease.
Tight quarters in the kitchen at The Ledbury.
Writing this article is somewhat bittersweet, as I have a number of fond memories from The Ledbury. One of my first visits was for a small Haut-Brion dinner organized by a long-time Vinous reader. This dinner was planned something like six months in advance and featured a number of very famous vintages, basically the years ending in “5” or “9”, so the 1929, 1945, 1949, 1989 and others. The last wine served was the 1875. From magnum. Estate Manager Jean-Philippe Delmas was seated to my left. He gasped in horror when I told the group the 1875 was corked. I guess you aren’t supposed to say things like that. Well, decorum was never my strong suit. Thankfully I was not banned from The Ledbury or Haut-Brion.
We booked the entire restaurant for our group so that we would have plenty of space, always essential given the number of glasses involved. I arrived a few hours early to taste all the bottles. Anything I was not crazy about was not served. The wines were then double decanted as needed to remove sediment. We like to do things that are a bit unique, so all the vintages were served from magnum, except for the first five, of which there are no remaining stocks. It had been many years since our last Solaia vertical, six to be exact. On that night we served all 28 vintages, which was certainly comprehensive, but also probably a bit much. For this tasting I chose 16 of the very best vintages, which I think made for a better overall experience. I tend to prefer organizing verticals by theme, so that vintages with similar attributes can be tasted side-by-side. On this night, though, I opted for a chronological order so that we could follow the arc of Solaia as it has evolved over the decades.
Antinori’s Tignanello estate features striking hillside vineyards.
I find it interesting that so many iconic Tuscan wines were really born out of experimentation or luck. Mario Incisa della Rocchetta planted Cabernet Sauvignon at his estate in Bolgheri to make a house wine modeled after the Bordeaux he loved so much. That wine, of course, became Sassicaia. Much later, his cousin Lodovico Antinori planted Merlot at his Ornellaia property as an experiment. The 1986 Merlot dell’Ornellaia was re-christened Masseto the following year and went on to become one of the most coveted wines in the world. In Gaiole, the Martini di Cigala family planted Merlot to add richness to their Chianti Classico before realizing that the Merlot didn’t blend well at all with Sangiovese. Shortly thereafter, they started bottling the Merlot separately. The wine? La Ricolma.
One of the small cellars at Tignanello.
Solaia emerges from a handful of hillside blocks within Antinori’s vast Tignanello property in San Casciano Val di Pesa in the northern part of Chianti Classico. During the 1978 harvest Piero Antinori found he had a bit more Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc than he needed for his groundbreaking Tignanello. Antinori bottled his Cabernet separately. The rest, as they say, is history. The first two vintages were 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Cabernet Franc. With the 1982 vintage, Solaia took the shape it pretty much has today, which is about 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Sangiovese and 5% Cabernet Franc. In a few vintages, such as 1985 and 1989-1994, the Cabernet Sauvignon percentage has been closer to 70%, while the Franc has gone up to 10%. The other exception is 2002, a very difficult vintage, in which Solaia is 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc.
Over the years, Solaia has been a good stylistic barometer for Tuscany. In the 1980s, Solaia was quite classic and Bordeaux-inspired. In the 1990s, ripeness and concentration were both given an extra push, as was the norm all over the world at the time. The 2000s saw a return to earlier harvests and a search for greater finesse that continues into the present day, with a number of recent vintages that have taken Solaia into the stratosphere of quality.
Brett Graham and his team prepared a magnificent dinner. It is not easy to build a menu around 16 vintages of a single wine. Everything at The Ledbury was just perfect. I knew that the minute I tasted the first canapé. It was utterly divine. Things just got better from there. The first plated course, the Autumn Vegetables, was divine with a flight of early vintages. I also loved the Breast of Quail with Chestnut Cream and White Truffle, which was so ideal for both the wines and the fall weather. Graham’s Hen of the Woods dish worked so well with a flight of vintages with some bottle age. But the highlight, foodwise, was the Herdwick Lamb, which was off the charts.
Throughout the evening, we heard from Piero Antinori and CEO/Head Winemaker Renzo Cotarella, who shared numerous anecdotes about the wines. It was a phenomenal evening all around that I appreciate all the more now that The Ledbury has closed and we are living in a time in which uncertainty has become part of our daily lives.
Chef’s Selection of Canapés
A selection of canapés and a glass of Laherte's Ultradition Extra Brut kick things off in style.
Autumn Vegetables; Dried and Fresh Grapes, Walnuts and Chicken Liver Parfait
Solaia 1978, 1982, 1985 & 1988
Antinori’s 1978 Solaia has stood the test of time beautifully, but it is now fully mature. Cabernet Sauvignon signatures are especially pronounced. Sweet dried cherry, worn-in leather, tobacco, cedar, sage and menthol all grace this very pretty and expressive red. I wouldn’t push my luck with the 1978 further; any remaining bottles need to be finished. The 1982 is an intriguing Solaia. It is ripe to the point of being slightly candied and a touch volatile, and yet it has so much character. Time in the glass works wonders in helping the wine find its balance. Although it is fully mature, the 1982 retains terrific richness and textural intensity. Things get much more interesting as the 1985 Solaia is poured. What a wine. Bold, luscious and full-bodied, the 1985 is magnificent. More importantly, the 1985 is in a perfect spot to deliver maximum drinking pleasure. Readers lucky enough to taste well-stored bottles will find a hedonistic, dramatic Solaia. The 1988 Solaia takes things to another level. It has the depth and richness of the best wines of this era, but with a bit more freshness and overall energy. Grilled herb, licorice and leather accents linger on the fresh, savory finish. What a great way to end this first flight.
Piero Antinori and CEO/Head Winemaker Renzo Cotarella share their perspectives on the wines.
Breast of Quail; Chestnut Cream and White Truffle
Solaia 1990, 1994, 1995 & 1997
The 1990 Solaia is in great shape. Super-ripe black cherry, chocolate, spice and leather are kicked up a few notches. Even at nearly thirty years of age, the 1990 is opulent, ripe and undeniably luscious. It is perhaps not as complex as some wines in this tasting, but who cares? The 1990 is an incredibly delicious Solaia that is in the zone. I have had a soft spot for the 1994 Solaia for a very long time, as it is the first vintage I tasted upon release. Today, many years later, the 1994 is still a very special wine. The magnum format surely helps. Sweet red cherry, red plum, mocha and rose petal grace this beautifully focused, translucent wine. The 1994 is another wine tonight that is at such a fabulous peak of expression. The 1995 Solaia (magnum) is fascinating to taste next to the 1994. It is a far richer, lush wine with a real sense of flamboyant intensity that is impossible to miss. Super-ripe red cherry and red plum flavors infuse the 1995 with so much character. The 1997 is a famous Solaia, and it is superb tonight. Opulent and rich in the glass, the 1997 (magnum) is also surprisingly tannic for a wine of its age. I admire its inner perfume and overall richness, but in this flight I have a slight preference for the 1994 and 1995.
Breast of Quail; Chestnut Cream and White Truffle.
Hen of the Woods Potato, Yeast and Rosemary
Solaia 1999, 2001 & 2004
Our third flight kicks off with the 1999 Solaia. Still a powerhouse, the 1999 (magnum) packs a serious punch. Dark macerated cherry, espresso, chocolate, licorice and blackberry jam infuse the 1999 with so much character. The 1999 is very much a product of its era, a time when heavy extraction and a search for concentration ruled the day. Even so, it has aged impeccably. The 2001 Solaia (magnum) represents the peak of an era in which richness, concentration and extraction were pushed to the limit, typical of so many wines in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Super-ripe dark red fruit, raspberry jam, rose petal, licorice and copious new oak build in an unapologetically rich, heady Solaia. The 2001 is not at all subtle, but it has aged well. One of the highlights in the evening, the 2004 Solaia (magnum) is the first wine that represents a move towards more finesse and elegance. There is plenty of explosive richness, but the 2004 is also incredibly nuanced. Graphite, licorice, leather and layers of dark fruit build in a powerful yet incredibly refined Solaia. The 2004 is such a beautiful wine.
Hen of the Woods Potato, Yeast and Rosemary.
Cheek of Red Deer; Beetroot and Solaia Purée, Smoked Bone Marrow and Rose
Solaia 2006, 2007, 2009 & 2010
This fourth flight brings us into what I consider a real Golden Era for Solaia that started with the 2004. A young, potent wine, the 2006 Solaia out of magnum still needs quite a bit of time. Even so, its towering stature is evident. A rush of blackberry jam, grilled herbs, espresso, licorice and spice builds as the 2006 shows off its explosive energy and drive. The 2007 Solaia (magnum) captures all the exotic richness of the year in its luscious, racy personality. Raspberry jam, spice and white chocolate give the 2007 its decidedly flamboyant feel. There is not much subtlety here, but the 2007 offers tons of immediacy in a flashy style that is hard to resist. It is one of the most enjoyable wines of the night. Another rich, sumptuous wine, the 2009 Solaia (magnum) is stellar. Opulent and expansive on the palate, with tremendous resonance, the 2009 is radiant, yet it benefits quite a bit from the large format, which helps preserve a measure of freshness. Red cherry/raspberry jam, spice, new French oak and floral notes build into the dense, beautifully layered finish. The 2010 Solaia rounds out this flight in style. Swaths of tannin give the 2010 a real sense of explosive energy and vibrancy that only builds with time in the glass. A whole range of dark aromas and flavors give the 2010 its brooding, inward personality. Tasted from magnum, the 2010 is very young, but its pedigree is unmistakable.
Chef/Owner Brett Graham in the kitchen plating his Cheek of Red Deer; Beetroot and Solaia Purée, Smoked Bone Marrow and Rose.
Herdwick Lamb; Salt Baked Turnip, Padron and Garlic Chive
Solaia 2013, 2015 & 2016
Brett Graham has a magic touch when it comes to lamb. This dish, with these wines, is off the charts. The 2013 Solaia from magnum is a special wine. I spent a month in Tuscany that year, so my memories of the growing season are many. In the glass, the 2013 is exquisitely perfumed, vibrant and wonderfully nuanced. I wouldn’t plan on opening bottles anytime soon, but it’s great to see that the 2013 is living up to its potential. Antinori’s team did a fabulous job with the 2015 Solaia. Bold and supremely exotic to its core, the 2015 (magnum) possesses stunning richness from start to finish. Ripe red berry fruit, blood orange, mint and sweet spice all build as the 2015 shows off its considerable allure. The 2015 is a very young wine, but it is stunningly beautiful tonight. The 2016 Solaia (magnum) brings the evening to a rousing finish. It is a rich, explosive Solaia endowed with tremendous depth and energy. A rush of black cherry, espresso, licorice, mocha and French oak builds effortlessly. The 2016 is a grand, sweeping Solaia that will take years to be at its finest. It’s the sort of wine that really makes you think about the future. I can’t think of a better way to wrap things up.
Herdwick Lamb; Salt Baked Turnip, Padron and Garlic Chive.
Well, maybe I can. One of the greatest experiences I had at the Ledbury was a few years ago, when my friends and I joined Brett Graham to eat dessert in the kitchen and polish off some bottles after a very long, leisurely lunch that stretched into the afternoon. The sort of lunch you can only have in Europe. So, I decided to do the same thing for this dinner, and took our guests down to the kitchen in small groups to enjoy some petit fours. Those are my final memories of our Solaia vertical and The Ledbury. I can’t wait to see what Brett Graham comes up with next.
A typical Vinous event.
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