Solaria is one Tuscan winery that isn’t afraid to buck tradition, and it’s one you don’t want to miss.
Solaria: The Best All-Female Tuscan Winery
Wine and women – a pairing as obviously meant to be as Lucy and Ethel, buttermilk biscuits and sausage gravy, Sherlock Holmes and his Watson. A recent study from Rutgers University even suggests that women are capable of tasting the subtle complexities of varying vintages far better than their male counterparts.
Yet, the winemaking industry has long been and continues to be dominated by men. Though recent years have seen a steady increase in female winemakers, some of whom are at the helm of several the world’s most renowned wineries, they remain the minority.
“In Italy, men make wine. But here, there are no men.” It’s a fact about one little-known Tuscan winery that Arianna Matteuci is proud of, and rightly so. For although it’s more common in 2018 to see women in the wine industry, the women at Solaria Winery in Montalcino have been making wine for decades, long before the tide began to shift in their favor.
Since 1989, Arianna’s family has been widening the path for women in the wine industry in a region steeped in tradition. And although it may not be on most tourists’ radars, a visit here offers a window into a truly unique Tuscan winery.
The Search for a Tuscan Winery
Finding a Tuscan winery to visit isn’t anything like searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack – it’s more like looking for the hay itself. Wineries are everywhere in Tuscany. There are the several-hundred-year-old estates that literally litter the landscape; there’s a smaller amount of large, more industrial complexes that ship thousands of bottles all over the world. And on the land not already taken up by those two, the seemingly every owner of each little bed and breakfast, or “agritourismo,” has planted a few grapevines because, well, why not? This is Italy, after all.
What is a far more difficult task is finding a winery that’s unique. Tradition runs deep in Italy, and most Tuscan wineries share the same traditions. You’ll find 90% of the same varietals at all of them (Chianti, Brunello, Rosso, etc.), depending on what wine region of Tuscany you’re in. Many of them offer homemade meats and breads and freshly pressed olive oil in addition to the wine. And they’re all beautiful. And while there’s nothing wrong with the generic Tuscan winery (absolutely NOTHING wrong, to be clear!), it’s notable when you stumble across a winery doing something different and non-traditional.
And in the male-dominated Italian wine industry, the ladies at Solaria Winery in Montalcino are turning tradition on its head.
My mom and I had added Solaria to our itinerary on the recommendation of an Italian chef friend of ours. All we knew about it was that it was a Tuscan winery run by a mother-daughter team. As a trailblazing, independent mother-daughter duo ourselves, that one fact alone made it a non-negotiable part of our Tuscany agenda.
Unfortunately, early March in Tuscany can be a soggy affair. For the entire week that my mom and I spent wandering around the green hills of Italy’s famed wine region, water continuously poured from the sky. The wintering stubs of grapevines that blanket the slopes were soaked black from the rainwater. Even the always-proud Cypress trees lining driveways and circling villas seemed weary of the downpour. But we remained determined to enjoy our trip, despite the unlucky weather. Our reward was the unquenchable ray of sunshine we found at Solaria.
The unassuming cluster of sandy stone buildings is located just off of the main road that goes up to the fortress at Montalcino. When we arrived, waterlogged from wandering around the medieval village, a girl about my age cheerfully greeted us with two umbrellas already open. This was Arianna, who would be our cheerful tour guide and resident wine expert.
From the outside, the property looks just like any other Tuscan farm built a couple of centuries ago – sandy stone exteriors, terracotta shingles, signs of age and use. But inside the first stop on our tour, the barrel room, was a testament to what a little (i.e. a lot) of renovation can do. Beneath vaulted arches, rows of French oak barrels fill the room. Arianna explained that because “women prefer French tastes, we only use French oak.”
I like to consider myself decently knowledgable about wine, at least for my age. I do work at a winery, after all. But it didn’t take long for Arianna to put my wine expertise to shame. At only 20 years old, Arianna’s knowledge of winemaking far surpasses that of many of her male peers. She’s currently studying to be a sommelier, which was obvious as she intricately explained the chemistry behind winemaking in terms that I struggle with even as a native English-speaker. But Arianna is only the latest in a line of winemakers. After all, Solaria was founded by her mom, Patrizia Cencioni.
A Female Wine-Trailblazer
Patrizia Cencioni is a true trailblazer in the wine world. Solaria is located in Montalcino, one of Tuscany’s most well-known wine regions. It’s the birthplace of the renowned Brunello di Montalcino, a variation of the Sangiovese grape that has, since it’s official recognition in 1980, become one of Tuscany’s most famous and expensive wines. And it just so happens that Patrizia’s Grandpa Giuseppe Cencioni was one of the winemakers responsible for creating the Brunello.
But instead of inheriting the family estate, Patrizia made the choice to strike out on her own and start from scratch. In 1989, in tradition-bound Italy, this was an incredibly brazen move. She bought the 123-acre Solaria estate, along with it’s crumbling buildings, and planted fresh vines that year. In the past 29 years, she has transformed it into a Montalcino gem.
“My mom makes the wine, and my sisters and I help to run the rest of the business.” Inside of one of the humble backyard warehouses, Patrizia was testing the latest vintage fermenting in one of the large stainless steel tanks housed there. Arianna explained that on any given day, you could find Patrizia riding the tractor or testing the grapes or doing the paperwork, always ensuring that every aspect of the winery is operating how she wants it to. She’s the head winemaker, vineyard manager, office administrator, and business owner. Nothing happens at Solaria without Patrizia’s input. And each of her three daughters play their own roles too.
According to Arianna, “my dad is the only one who doesn’t work with the winery. The key to a good relationship is to keep work and pleasure separate, so every morning he leaves and goes to work, and my mom stays here. It seems to have worked well for them so far!”
Solaria has grown considerably in its relatively short history, and ships thousands of cases of wine all over the world every year. But a visit to the winery is an intimate affair oozing with hospitality from the Matteuci family. There’s no fancy tasting room here; Arianna gave us our wine tasting right in the family’s dining room.
What I really appreciated about Solaria, and Patrizia Cencioni, is that she doesn’t market the winery as being female-run. That’s not the “hook,” so to speak, to get new customers in a highly saturated field. Patrizia wants people to buy her wine because it’s a quality product, not because of her gender. I think it has become a little too common to wave the gender flag, and but you won’t find that being done at Solaria.
Their wine alone is truly worth the visit. The usually heavy and not-so-approachable Brunello was silky smooth and immediately drinkable under Patrizia Cencioni’s expertise. That’s a feat many winemakers, regardless of gender, have not mastered.
Her Grandpa Giuseppe, I’m sure, would be proud.
To visit Solaria, reservations must be made ahead of time through their website as all tastings and tours are private. This is one Tuscan winery you don’t want to miss.
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