I WAS once told that the finest luxury a man can have is an opera house in his garden – oddly enough by a man who had exactly that. If that is true then having your own vineyard must come a close second. That’s what Guy Hands has done – and no ordinary vineyard either.
Hands, of course, is one of the country’s most recognisable financial figures – founder of Terra Firma, swashbuckling investor and the brains behind some of the most audacious deals of the past two decades (as well as the occasional miss such as EMI). But a little-known fact about him is that he also owns an estate in Tuscany, complete with a 50-acre winery that’s starting to produce some really rather stunning wines.
“I wouldn’t describe it as a luxury, more as an expense,” says Hands, who has patiently invested in Villa Saletta for almost a decade. He originally bought the estate with his wife Julia to develop a small number of luxury villas in its historic buildings, but the property came with its own land – and its own vines.
“They had been making wines on the land since before the Romans, in Etruscan times,” he says. “So we thought we would give it a go.”
But Hands is not someone to do anything by halves. Rather than brew up a few demijohns of Vino Ordinario in the cupboard under his stairs, he set himself the target of making one of the finest wines in Italy, opting to produce a “Super Tuscan” wine, rather than a local Chianti or the like.
Super Tuscans are both highly expensive and highly difficult to make. Rather than use local grape types, he uses the same trio found in Claret – Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc – but grow them in the brutally dry heat of the Tuscan hills. The result, if you can get it right, is a wonderfully intense wine, full of fruit and structure. The most famous of the super Tuscans are cult wines like Sassicaia and Solaia, which can sell of upwards of £150 a bottle.
“We chose to make a Super Tuscan because it is a style I personally like and it offered an attractive business case”. Typical to form, Hands had set himself a towering challenge but one with a substantial financial rewards at the other end if he gets it right.
He hired Jonathan Rodwell, an Englishman and one of the world’s top wine-makers, with a pedigree that stretches from California to France and even Chile. He in turn planted the vines in nine fields across 50 acres and created a micro winery that today makes 50,000 bottles.
Interestingly, this a business that, apart from Rodwell, is almost entirely staffed and run by women. “When we started, we found the local men would always want to do things their way, the way they had grown wine for centuries, but we needed to prune and harvest very differently. The women were better at adapting,” says Rodwell.
The key question is: what are the wines like? Hands and Jonathan laid on a tasting for City A.M. in the shadow of the Shard a couple of weeks ago and the results were really rather impressive. First, as a nod to local customs, there is a Chianti Riserva, which would more than hold its own against established competition. Then the Chiave, a predominantly Merlot wine that is designed for easy drinking – again nicely made but not worth writing home about.
Things get more serious with the two top wines: the Borgo Saletta and the Saletta itself, the estate’s top wine. Both are impressive but the Saletta (I drank the 2005) takes the honours. This is a powerful wine with a lot of fruit and great depth and complexity; one of the most delicious wines I have drunk all year. Everyone tasting it was bowled over.
Villa Saletta has been keeping its wines quiet while Hands and Rodwell perfected them – it’s not even easy to buy them in the UK since you have to apply by email on their website for a price list.
Now, though, it appears the world is going to hear more about them. Rodwell is beginning to enter them for a number of competitions and the medal haul is growing. Soon he may ask the all-powerful Wine Spectator to rate Saletta.
This means there may be a short window to pick up these wines at extremely reasonable prices. The Chianti currently sells for just £11, the Borgo Saletta for £14 and the Saletta for an astonishingly reasonable £28 a bottle, with discounts when you buy by the case (the only snag here is the minimum order is three cases).
Hands accepts the current prices can’t last. "At the moment we could sell every bottle we make and still make a loss", he says. But as the wine world learns what he has been doing on a distant Tuscan hillside, I suspect that picture will change rapidly and this will become another of his profitable ventures.
• To buy wines from Borgo Saletta, visit the villasaletta.com and email your enquiry using the “contact us” section.