Behind the Bottle: Sassicaia

Sassicaia is without doubt Italy’s most iconic wine and its story is at the centre of the revolution that spurred on the modern-era of Italian fine wine. The influence of Sassicaia in Italy cannot be overstated. As Sassicaia celebrates its 50th anniversary, and we excitedly anticipate the latest Sassicaia 2016 release this week, we look back at the history of the winery, the people behind the bottle and its extraordinary rise to fame.

 

The Origins of Sassicaia

The story of Sassicaia begins in the 1940s when Marchese Mario Incisa della Rochette inherited a 7,500 acre estate in Bolgheri on the Tuscan coastline, following his marriage to Clarice della Gherardesa. At this time Bolgheri had no history of commercial winemaking and was primarily a region for orchard fruit production. A fan of Bordeaux wines, Mario sourced some Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon vines from a grower in Pisa and planted a small vineyard on the property.

He first started producing wine from the vines in 1948 and over the next 15 years these were largely consumed by the family. They were not positively received by critics and professionals who tasted them and Mario began to lose enthusiasm for the project. It was only years later in the early ’60s, upon re-tasting older bottles, that Mario’s wine industry friends became excited by the potential of the wines grown on the property. This reignited his interest and he planted a second vineyard, this time lower down the slope of the estate where there were more stones. This site became the Sassicaia vineyard – translating as “the place of many stones”. The first Sassicaia vintage was in 1968.

 

The Influence of Giacomo Tachis

The next major development in Sassicaia’s history was in 1970 when Marco’s son Nicolo connected his father with his cousin, Piero Antinori, and his enologist friend, Giacomo Tachis. Giacomo’s influence set Sassicaia on the course to greatness. Although Giacomo never liked to be called a winemaker, preferring the moniker “guardian of the grapes”, he made several important improvements in the winery. Giacomo introduced temperature controlled fermentation, he lowered the yields by increasing the density of planting in the vineyard, and perhaps most famously introduced French barriques to the winery, replacing the old Slovenian barrels, and ageing the wines for a shorter period of time. His introduction of French barriques went on to influence the whole region. As Jancis Robinson wrote in 2011, “Giacomo Tachis changed the style of Italian wine, dragging it — kicking and screaming — into the 20th century” .

 

Critical Recognition

In 1978 three of the world’s leading wine critics of the time – Hugh Johnson, Serena Sutcliffe and Clive Coates – rated the Sassicaia 1972 the best wine out of a line-up of “classic clarets” in a Decanter Magazine tasting, beating 33 other wines from 11 different countries. From this point onwards, Sassicaia’s international and domestic reputation began it’s unstoppable upwards trajectory.

Perhaps the most monumental moment in Sassicaia’s history was when Robert Parker awarded the 1985 the perfect 100 point score, describing the wine as “otherworldly”. Robert Parker later went on to describe the 1985 Sassicaia as the highlight of his 40 year tasting career describing it as “unquestionably one of the most compelling and dramatic Cabernet Sauvignons I have ever tasted”. Sassicaia had officially entered the fine wine world’s Hall of Fame becoming a fine wine icon overnight. It is a reputation it has held ever since.

In 1994 Sassicaia was awarded its own Bolgheri DOC status, an incredible achievement considering the region had no previous commercial wine growing history.

 

The Modern Era

Giacomo Tachis consulted for Sassicaia up until 2010, following which Graziana Grassini took over head winemaking duties, having worked alongside Giacomo for many years. Monica Larner of the Wine Advocate believes Graziana’s influence since her arrival has brought a whole new level of purity and precision to the wine. For Monica Larner the 2016 is the greatest Sassicaia to be made since the legendary 1985 vintage. She states “the 100-point 2016 Sassicaia… offers an exquisitely rare and indisputably compelling encore performance of one of the greatest Italian wines ever made”. We wait for its release with baited breath.