Tag Archives: Super Tuscan

Meet the Maker: An Interview with "Mr Sassicaia"

Italy, Bolgheri: Marchese Nicolo' Incisa della Rocchetta in the Tenuta San Guido wine aging cellarOn my previous post we talked about my visit to Tenuta San Guido (the estate where fabled Sassicaia is made) and my tasting of the latest available vintages of the estate’s wine lineup: Le Difese 2011, Guidalberto 2011 and Sassicaia 2010.

Also, on a previous post we went through the history of Super Tuscans and particularly of their archetype, Sassicaia, and how this great wine came to be. If you missed those posts, I suggest you take the time to check them out as they provide a lot context for this post.

Now, without further ado, let’s move on to my interview of Marchese Nicolo’ Incisa della Rocchetta, the owner of Tenuta San Guido, a true gentleman and big time dog lover (he has some 40 dogs, most of whom he got from the shelter) beside of course being the son of Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, the man who created the myth Sassicaia.

Here are the questions I asked the Marchese, along with a summary of his answers:

Q1. Which vintage of Sassicaia are you most fond of and why?

A1. If I had to pick one, it would be 1988: of course everyone goes crazy about 1985 because it received a perfect score from Parker, but to me 1988 was also a stellar year that really shows the Sassicaia style loud and clear and that vintage also did extremely well in the Tasting of the Bordeaux Premier Growths.

Italy, Bolgheri: vineyards at Tenuta San Guido ready for harvesting with olive tree orchard in the background

Q2. Certain consumers worry about investing a considerable amount of money into a bottle of wine like Sassicaia, which they normally plan to hold on for several years before opening, because they fear that when they do open it, it might be corked. Do you or your distributors have a policy in place as to how to handle situations like that?

A2. In Europe, our distributors replace corked bottles, I am not sure whether our US distributor has a similar policy in place. The good news is that, while of course it is impossible to avoid the risk of the occasional corked bottle altogether, the incidence of cork taint on Sassicaia is much lower than the average: we estimate that there are about 10 corked bottles of Sassicaia for each vintage.

Italy, Bolgheri: Tenuta San Guido

Q3. Speaking of corks, certain of the top quality producers around the world have started experimenting with closure systems alternative to cork, such as synthetic or screw caps, one very visible example being Chateau Margaux. Are you also looking into it? Current regulations require that Sassicaia be sealed with a cork: looking ahead, do you think that using a closure other than cork for a wine like Sassicaia would still be perceived by consumers with a negative connotation?

A3. No, we are just not interested. A bottle of a wine like Sassicaia deserves being sealed by a cork, period. On top of that, the minimal contact with oxygen that the cork ensures makes a wine like Sassicaia that is generally meant for several years of in bottle aging beautifully evolve.

Italy, Bolgheri: Bolgheri sunsetQ4. Italian enologist Graziana Grassini has recently taken over the honor and the responsibilities of making Sassicaia from guru enologist Giacomo Tachis, who can be seen as the father of Sassicaia, along with your father of course. How did she approach the myth Sassicaia? Is she following the path of tradition or is she trying to leave her own mark on Sassicaia?

A4. It seems to me that she is walking in Tachis’s footsteps: they both have this approach that they are there just to underscore the unique terroir of the Sassicaia vineyards and make it shine in the wine they make. Tachis hated being called a winemaker, because he felt he was not there “making” (in the sense of artificially “building”) Sassicaia – he considered himself the guardian of the brilliant characteristics of those Cabernet clones that my father planted in the heart of the Maremma almost three quarters of a century ago and the terroir they grow in.

Q5. All your three wines are blends and all three have Cabernet Sauvignon as their prevailing variety in the blend, but each of them pairs it with a different blending partner: Cabernet Franc for Sassicaia, Merlot for Guidalberto and Sangiovese for Le Difese. Taken as a given that the Sassicaia is at the peak of the pyramid of the wines you produce, how would you briefly describe the concepts behind the Guidalberto and Le Difese?

A5. The Guidalberto was introduced to the market with vintage 2000 and we do not consider it the second vin of the Sassicaia. It was developed as a more affordable wine with its own identity, different from Sassicaia’s. A wine that can be enjoyed earlier than Sassicaia but is all the same meant for aging up to 10 years. Only about 10% of the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes used in the making of Guidalberto come from the Sassicaia vieyards, the rest comes from dedicated, younger vineyards. Le Difese was launched with vintage 2002 and we view it as the second vin of the Guidalberto: it was developed with the idea of an affordable wine that is ready to be enjoyed upon release and is not meant for aging.

Italy, Bolgheri: vineyards and olive trees

Q6. How much of the wine you produce gets exported, and which are the top three countries you export to?

A5. We export about 60% of the production. By far the number one country we export to is the United States, followed by Germany and, maybe surprisingly considering its relatively small size, Switzerland. We are slowly starting to export to China too, but we want to be cautious: it is a huge market with an incredible demand for luxury products, including top wines like Sassicaia, and it is easy to let that cloud your vision. Considering that the number of bottles of Sassicaia that we make is not going to increase, what we do not want to do is penalize our historical and loyal customer base and distributors in the countries we are already in just to jump onto the Chinese bandwagon. It will be a gradual process.

Italy, Bolgheri: One of the buidings in the Tenuta San Guido estate

Q7. Organic viticulture: are you considering to embrace it or staying away from it?

A7. We view it as an emerging marketing trend which certainly appeals to consumers, but whose risks overweigh the benefits. In other words, we do spray our vines but we have always done so in the least pervasive way, as has been done for decades in traditional viticulture. We are a relatively small operation and we just cannot afford the risk of a blighted crop.

Q8. Let’s talk about your winemaking process: do you use pre-fermentation cold maceration? And how about micro-oxygenation?

A8. No to both questions: we feel our wine does not need the additional extraction of color or aromas that pre-fermentation maceration allows, and we certainly stay away from micro-oxygenation: we much rather let time do its work by leaving our wine in the barriques for as long as we think appropriate for it to be exposed to the oxygen that naturally breathes into the casks. No need to fast-track anything.

Italy, Bolgheri: vineyards ready for harvesting

Q9. What kind of fermentation do you go for: selected yeasts or spontaneous (indigenous yeasts)? Same question for malolactic fermentation: do you inoculate lactic bacteria or does it start spontaneously?

A9. In both cases we opt for spontaneous fermentation: we do not add anything to our wine, we just let the temperature start both fermentations spontaneously. We think this practice helps give our wines their own, individual character, which makes them different from other wines.

Italy, Bolgheri: Sassicaia French oak barrique cask

Q10. Last question: which barrique casks do you use to age Sassicaia and are they new, previously used or a mix of the two?

A10. In the beginning we used Slavonian oak, but then we realized that those barrels were assembled with sawn planks, which occasionally were not perfectly airtight. So we switched to French oak, where planks are axe-split instead of sawn. For the aging of Sassicaia we use barriques made of French oak coming from the Massif Central region of France, because oak from that area is known to release the least tannins/tertiary aromas to the wine and therefore we prefer it over more intrusive oak. Sassicaia ages in 1/3 new barriques and 2/3 previously used ones, which may be up to a maximum of 8-time used before, after which we retire the barrique.

Thant’s all: I hope you enjoyed the read as much as I enjoyed having this informational and pleasant conversation with Marchese Nicolo’ Incisa della Rocchetta.

As a final note, I would like to take the opportunity to sincerely thank the Marchese for his graciousness and for the time he took to sit down with me and answer my questions. I also wish to extend my dy deepest gratitude to Carlo Paoli for his kindness in making all of this happen.

Italy, Bolgheri: vineyards and cypress trees

Meet the Maker: A New Column plus a Tasting of Sassicaia 2010 and Its Little Brothers

Italy, Bolgheri: Carlo Paoli, Tenuta San Guido's General Manager

A New Column: Meet the Maker

This post is going to be the first in a new column that I thought I would call Meet the Maker – this column will provide interviews with wine producers or other key players in the wine industry.

When I decided to give this new feature a go, I thought I might as well just start big 😉 so with some luck and lots of gratitude to Carlo Paoli, the gracious General Manager of Tenuta San Guido, I had the pleasure of sitting down for an hour or so in the wine tasting room of Tenuta San Guido with Carlo and Mr Sassicaia himself, Marchese Nicolo’ Incisa della Rocchetta, who was kind enough to answer my questions while we were tasting the whole lineup of the estate, which was something pretty cool.

Italy, Bolgheri: Tenuta San Guido

About the Estate: Tenuta San Guido

But let’s start from the beginning: as you may know, Tenuta San Guido is a huge 2,500 HA estate that is located in that beautiful stretch of forested coastal Tuscany known as Maremma and it belongs to the Italian noble family of the Marchesi Incisa della Rocchetta. The estate encompasses a 513 HA wildlife preserve managed by the WWF (Oasi Padule di Bolgheri), the training facility for the Dormello-Olgiata thoroughbred race horses, the most famous of whom was legendary “superhorse” Ribot, and of course 90 HA of vineyards from which glorious Sassicaia plus two more wines (called Guidalberto and Le Difese) are made.

More specifically, 70 of those 90 HA of vineyards are dedicated to the production of Sassicaia and therefore are for the most part Cabernet Sauvignon with some Cabernet Franc. In the remaining 20 HA, Merlot and Sangiovese (the blending partners of, respectively, Guidalberto and Le Difese) are grown, beside Cabernet Sauvignon (the common variety in all three blends). Among the three labels, Tenuta San Guido produces about 700,000 bottles per year.

Italy, Bolgheri: vineyards approaching harvest time with the Bolgheri church in the background

On a previous post, I have provided a pretty detailed story of the vision of an enlightened man, Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta (Nicolo’s father, the creator of Sassicaia), how Sassicaia came to be and how it became the archetype of all Super Tuscans, so if you missed it, I would suggest you go back and take a look before you continue reading this post.

As is described in detail on that previous post, the turning point for Sassicaia was Marchese Mario’s intuition to hire Antinori’s enologist, Giacomo Tachis, in the late 1960’s. Tachis optimized Sassicaia’s production process turning Sassicaia from a good wine to the wine that was awarded a perfect 100 score by Robert Parker for the 1985 vintage. Mr Tachis, arguably the most famous and revered among Italian enologists, eventually retired and Graziana Grassini took the helm of making Sassicaia (along with the responsibility to ensure that the legend lives on) as of the 2009 vintage.

Italy, Bolgheri: Tenuta San Guido's wine aging cellar and wine tasting room

About the Appellation

Interestingly enough, in an effort to recognize Marchese Mario’s vision and tenacity in creating a wine that gave Italian winemaking international lustre and fame, in 1983 Italy created a DOC appellation called “Bolgheri DOC” that would encompass a small territory surrounding the Tuscan town of Castagneto Carducci (in the Maremma, near Livorno) and within that territory a specific subzone was identified by the name of “Sassicaia” which precisely matches those about 70 HA owned by Tenuta San Guido where the Sassicaia is made. This has been the first case in Italy in which an official subzone of an appellation has been created to precisely overlap with the area where a single producer’s wine is made. As a result, Sassicaia is the only wine that can be made in the “Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC” appellation.

In terms of permitted grape varieties, the “Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC” appellation requires the use of at least 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, which can be blended with up to 20% of other black-berried varieties permitted in Tuscany, and a minimum aging of 24 months, at least 18 of which must be in oak barrique casks.

Italy, Bolgheri: vineyards in the Bolgheri DOC appellation

Our Tasting Notes

Before moving on to the actual interview of Marchese Nicolo’ Incisa della Rocchetta (which will be the subject matter of the next post), these are my succint tasting notes of the three wines in the Tenuta San Guido lineup that I got to taste with the Marchese:

1. Le Difese 2011 ($35):

Italy, Bolgheri: An old well at Tenuta San GuidoTenuta San Guido’s entry-level wine, whose first vintage was 2002. It is a 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Sangiovese blend that is aged for 12 months in French and American oak barrique casks and is released ready to be enjoyed (it is not meant for aging).

Pleasant and linear, with no frills: nice (although not particularly intense) nose of wild berries with hints of licorice and ground coffee. Well integrated tannins and good structure in the mouth for an enjoyable red with a good QPR.

Rating: Good Good – $$

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

2. Guidalberto 2011 ($40):

Tenuta San Guido’s mid-range wine (not Sassicaia’s second wine, as the Marchese pointed out in the course of the interview). It was released with vintage 2000 and it is a 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot blend, aged for 15 months in mostly French and in small part American oak barrique casks, plus 3 additional months of in-bottle aging. The Guidalberto is a wine that can be enjoyed right away, but is meant for aging up to 10 years.

A very good wine, despite its young age, with an enticing nose of black berries, ground coffee, tobacco, cocoa and black pepper. In the mouth it was already round and smooth, with tame tannins and significant structure as well as a long finish. In my view, with a few more years under its belt, the Guidalberto will give plenty of joy to those who can wait.

Rating: Very Good Very Good – $$

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

Italy, Bolgheri: Tenuta San Guido's Sassicaia aging cellar

3. Sassicaia 2010 ($155):

The King of the Hill, of which we already said much in relation to its 1995 vintage on a previous post. It is an 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc blend that is fermented in steel vats and undergoes 15 days of maceration. It ages for 24 months in all French oak barrique casks plus 6 additional months in bottle. Sassicaia is a wine that is meant for aging and in my view it should not be enjoyed before at least 5/7 years after its vintage year.

The 2010 vintage that I tasted was already mind-blowing: the nose was very intense with a symphony of black cherries, blackberries, cocoa, licorice, coffee, sandalwood and leather. In the mouth it is still a bit “separate” in its core elements, which need time to fully assemble and integrate, but it already showed glimpses of how spectacular a wine it will be for those who can wait: full-bodied, with plenty of structure and tannins that are already supple, intense mouth flavors and good acidity, topped off by a long finish. Perfect to be cellared and forgotten for a few years and then enjoyed the way it deserves.

Rating: Outstanding Outstanding – $$$$$

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

Italy, Bolgheri: Tenuta San Guido's wine bar/store

That’s all for today: until the next post, which will feature my interview to Marchese Nicolo’ Incisa della Rocchetta.

Italy, Bolgheri: One of the buidings in the Tenuta San Guido estate

Wine Review: Tenuta San Guido, Bolgheri Sassicaia 1995 DOC… and the History of "Super Tuscans"

Last month, a friend of mine invited me and a common friend to dinner at his place. At the time of the main course, he showed us what he had decided to share with us: not only was it a bottle of Sassicaia, but it was a 1995 vintage!

The Bottom Line

Tenuta San GuidoBolgheri Sassicaia “Sassicaia” 1995 DOC ($150): let me say it right from the outset – WOW! Although I had had Sassicaia before, having the opportunity to taste a bottle having 18 years of in-bottle aging under the belt was beyond fantastic.

Rating for this excellent wine: Spectacular Spectacular – $$$$$

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

Before we get into the details of that almost mystic 🙂 experience, let’s take a closer look at the notion of “Super Tuscans” and let’s delve into some history about the archetype of all Super Tuscans, that is in fact Sassicaia.

History of the “Super Tuscans”

If you pardon my quoting my own Wine Glossary, the term “Super Tuscans” indicates certain Bordeaux-style red wines that have been made in Tuscany, since the early Seventies by winemakers who wanted to experiment and veer off traditional Tuscan winemaking styles, often utilizing international grape varieties (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah) as opposed to traditional local ones (such as Sangiovese). In order to enjoy such freedom to experiment, those winemakers produced their Super Tuscans outside the strict rules of the most prestigious Italian appellations (DOC and, more recently, DOCG), which resulted in those premium wines to be initially labeled as “table wines” and more recently as IGT wines (a more loosely regulated Italian appellation) in spite of their quality and substantial price tags. The “grandfather” of the Super Tuscans is Sassicaia, whose notoriety and quality led to the creation in 1994 of the DOC Bolgheri which includes a Sassicaia sub-zone, thus making Sassicaia the first Super Tuscan to enjoy DOC appellation status.

Although it appears that nobody knows for sure who coined the incredibly successful moniker “Super Tuscans“, some believe that it was created by Burton Anderson, a wine reviewer who covered Italy for Wine Spectator in the 1980s. What is certain though is that it very quickly became the name by which that kind of wines were internationally identified.

As we said, the wine that started the Super Tuscans phenomenon was Sassicaia. This fabled wine was created by the Marquis Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, who first completed his agrarian studies in Pisa in the Twenties and then, thanks to his being a family friend of the Baron de Rothschild (the owner of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, one of Bordeaux’s Premier Crus), he had an opportunity to visit the famous estate and study the terroir where the grape vines that produced one of the world’s finest reds grew. Incisa then went on to acquire a few rootings of 50-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc vines from an estate near Pisa owned by the Dukes Salviati to transplant them in 1942 at the family’s San Guido estate in Bolgheri, Tuscany.

His decision to transplant those vines in an area of Tuscany that up until then had never known any serious viticulture was due to the resemblance of the soil of that area (“Sassicaia” alludes to the Italian word “sasso” meaning stone, and seems to refer to a pebbled terrain) with that of the Graves (which in French means gravel) on the Left Bank of the Garonne river near Bordeaux, where another Premier Cru, Chateau Haut-Brion, is located.

At first, Sassicaia had not enthused the Marquis (nor his employees working the vineyards, who supposedly called the wine, with typical Tuscan coarseness, “good only for the pigs“): this convinced Incisa to keep the first “experimental” vintages of the wine for personal consumption only. However, Incisa soon realized that, after a few years of aging, that same wine that had not convinced him initially would turn into a much better wine.

This realization gave him the incentive to keep at it, making several improvements, including being the first one to import small barrique oak barrels into Italy for aging Sassicaia and cutting a deal with wine producer Antinori (Piero Antinori was Incisa’s nephew) for the future distribution of Sassicaia, as a result of which arrangements Antinori sent their well-known enologist Giacomo Tachis to the San Guido estate to work on Sassicaia. Tachis refined the blend, the wine making process and the cellaring of the wine until, in 1968, the first “official” vintage of Sassicaia hit the market with just 3,000 bottles and initially it did not really rock the wine world…

The turning point was 1974, when Luigi Veronelli, a famous Italian food and wine writer, published a rave review of the 1968 Sassicaia. International acclaim for Sassicaia came not long after that, in 1978, when during a worldwide blind tasting of 33 Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines organized in London by Decanter Magazine, the 1975 Sassicaia took the top spot, ahead of all the prestigious Bordeaux reds, thus marking the beginning of the Sassicaia success story. Later, Robert Parker awarded Sassicaia’s 1985 vintage (universally considered the best yet) a perfect 100 point score and James Suckling of Wine Spectator even compared it to the 1985 Mouton-Rothschild, admitting Sassicaia into the Olympus of the world’s best wines.

(Credits for most of the information that I researched as a basis for this Sassicaia history: DecanterL’Acqua BuonaSassicaia.it; and Sassicaia.com)

About the Estate, the Appellation and the Producer

For detailed information about Tenuta San Guido and the “Bolgheri Sassicaia” appellation, please refer to this post.

I would definitely recommend that you also check out this other post featuring an interesting interview with the owner of Tenuta San Guido, Marchese Nicolo’ Incisa della Rocchetta.

Our Detailed Review

Now, on to my tasting notes for the Sassicaia 1995 that I had the pleasure of drinking! Considering the high profile of this wine, I am going to follow all of the steps of the ISA wine tasting protocol in my review (for more information, see my previous post about such protocol and its various steps).

Tenuta San GuidoBolgheri Sassicaia “Sassicaia” 1995 DOC is a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc, with just 12% ABV. It underwent between 14 and 18 days of maceration and malolactic fermentation. It aged 24 months in barrique casks, part new and part previously utilized. The Sassicaia 1995 vintage retails in the US at about $150.

For more information about the grape varieties Sassicaia is made from, please refer to our Grape Variety Archive.

In the glass it was clearruby red with garnet hintsthick.

The bouquet was intensecomplex and fine, with aromas of black cherry, blackberry, sweet tobacco, cocoa, vanilla, soil and a graphite hint.

In the mouth it was drywarm, silky smoothquite fresh, gently tannicquite mineralmedium-bodied, perfectly balancedintense in its mouth flavors (with very good correlation to the bouquet), with a long finish, of excellent quality; mature and definitely harmonious.