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Decanter Man of the Year 2011: Giacomo Tachis

The 'father' of modern winemaking reflects on a career that has seen him credited with kickstarting Italy's wine renaissance

Giacomo Tachis’ first wine was a humble Barbera, made as a student in the cellars of Alba’s oenology school in the early 1950s. The last vinification he supervised before retiring in 2010, aged 77, was that of Sassicaia.

His contribution to Italian wine, in a career spanning 50 years, is hard to overstate. Other oenologists have put their names to great wines in Italy over the past 25 years, but the ones Tachis created throughout the country set the standards.

He says modestly that he rode the wave of the Tuscan wine renaissance. Without him, it is doubtful there would have even been one – and we may still be waiting to discover the huge potential of Sardinia and Sicily.

Tachis belongs to that small, select group who changed the course of Italian wine.

Tachis was born in a small town south of Turin. He confesses to have been a rebellious teenager and a reluctant student, but he discovered what became a lifelong passion for scientific disciplines when his family enrolled him at Alba’s oenology school.

After graduating in 1954, he passed a tough apprenticeship that included spells with a spumante house and a distillery, before being taken on as junior oenologist at Antinori’s San Casciano cellars in Tuscany in 1961.

He quickly rose to the role of technical director, in charge of the daunting task of launching Antinori’s production – which Tachis described as ‘at that time modest in terms of quantity and quality; not suitable for export’ – into the international arena.

In 1968, his services were lent to Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta to assist with the creation of a new wine at the Bolgheri estate of San Guido – the Sassicaia with which his name will always be associated.

Tachis officially retired from Antinori in 1993, although he continued to remain in close contact with the Tuscan house.

In the years that followed, he worked as consultant to Sicily’s Istituto Regionale della Vite e del Vino, in what would today be called a research and development role, laying the bases for the rejuvenation of the island’s wine industry.

His winemaking consultancies, begun in the Antinori period, were limited in number but highly significant: in Sardinia, with Argiolas and Cantina Santadi to make trailblazing new red wines; in Tuscany, with Castello dei Rampolla in Chianti and Argiano at Montalcino; in Trentino he made one of northern Italy’s great Cabernets at Tenuta San Leonardo.

He has gradually reduced commitments over the past five years, the last ties to be severed being those with Sassicaia. He retired definitively in 2010 to dedicate himself to his family and the other great passion of his life besides wine, his library.

It was once said that there are two eras in the history of winemaking in Tuscany: before and after Tachis. It is impossible to overestimate his importance to the region, which led to the modern revolution in winemaking in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s.

Many winemaking practices taken for granted in Italy today were among the innovations that Tachis worked on at Antinori, from clonal selection and high-density, low-yielding vineyards to the control of malolactic fermentation and the refinement of oak ageing.

With Sassicaia, Tignanello and Solaia – the original ‘SuperTuscans’ – Tachis created completely new genres of Italian red wine. He pioneered the use of Cabernet Sauvignon in blends with Sangiovese, and opened the way for the barrique, which became one of the symbols of the Italian wine renaissance.

It was a period that marked a new epoch. When Sassicaia came top in a Decanter tasting of leading international Cabernets in 1978, the outside world – which had previously associated Italy with watery plonk in folksy raffia-clad bottles – was forced to sit up and take notice.

Tachis demonstrated what was possible when Italian flair and technical ability were applied to the serious exploitation of its unique terroirs.

In his approach to winemaking Tachis has always acknowledged a debt to France. Of his student days, he says: ‘All young people need heroes, and mine was Emile Peynaud’, the Bordeaux oenology professor.

He later invited Peynaud to consult on the Tignanello project at Antinori and, through their close contact, absorbed the aesthetics of elegance and suppleness that are among the hallmarks of his wines.

Whatever the French influences, however, Tachis’ sense of identity is firmly and fundamentally Italian. ‘Mi sento latino e mediterraneo,’ he once said (‘I feel Latin and Mediterranean’), which expresses the visceral relationship with his historical and geographical roots.

He has a special empathy with the wines of central and southern Italy: ‘The spirit of place is still very much alive in Sardinia, Tuscany and Sicily, and it was there that I found my ideal environment – the one closest to my own spirit.

This is why the wines I made in those regions turned out well, because there was a deep bond between me and those places, an authentic friendship. I understood them and they understood me.’

Although widely associated with the barrique, Tachis has always used oak sparingly, in very specific contexts and with an objective summed up in his adage that ‘the best barrique-aged wine is the one that does not taste of barrique’.

He is convinced, for example, that Nebbiolo, and especially Sangiovese, aren’t suited to oak ageing. At the height of oak mania in Tuscany in the early 1990s he said ‘barriques do not resolve the problems of Chianti, if anything they complicate them’. Time has proved him right.

On another controversial issue, Tachis has always rejected the simplistic opposition between ‘native’ and ‘international’ grapes and defended the concept of blends which express the characteristics of a terroir.

‘With rare exceptions,’ he says, ‘Sangiovese should be grateful to Cabernet because it softens, balances and exalts’ the Tuscan variety. (Though on this topic, a statement he made in the 1990s, that the Chianti Classico of the future would be pure Sangiovese, has also proved prophetic).

On the other hand, in Sicily he says, ‘Cabernet does not express the Sicilian-ness of its origins without a drop of Nero d’Avola.’

Tachis sees the danger of Italian wine becoming over-technological. ‘Too often,’ he says, ‘we forget that the greatness of a wine lies in its simplicity and authenticity.’

He is critical of the globalisation of styles which leads to the loss of terroir identity and the fashion for superconcentrated, overoaked wines. (In his latest book, Sapere di Vino, he writes that if a producer must have oak flavours in his wine, chips are preferable to a badly used barrique.)

Among the positives, he cites the huge progress made in vineyard management (though he is sceptical of the recent growing interest in organic and biodynamic viticulture, which he insists is driven by ideology rather than sound agronomical principals) and the rediscovery of interesting traditional varieties, especially in the southern regions and the islands.

He ranks Carignano (Sardinia) and Nero d’Avola (Sicily) among his top five native grapes but also, interestingly, Nebbiolo and Barbera – the latter he describes as the one variety he would have loved to vinify but never did, apart from that first wine as a student.

As for the future, he believes that Italy has an enormous wealth of resources still to be exploited but needs better promotion and a serious rethinking of prices.

Producers, he says, have done well for themselves in the past 20 years, often trading on media exposure of high-profile wines to inflate prices.

Now they have to go back to where they started: ‘The wine producer has to take off his Hermès tie and drive a car suited to vineyards rather than motorways. Consumers are becoming more and more aware that high prices don’t necessarily mean high quality.’

Tachis has always distanced himself from the modern cult of the winemaker. Unassuming to a fault, he would rather discuss the place of wine in the history of civilisation than wines he has made himself.

He says that if he had not become an oenologist he would have liked to be a musician or an archeologist. Anyone with Italian wine at their heart can only be grateful that he did neither.

Tributes to Giacomo Tachis

‘I am more than delighted to see Giacomo honoured by Decanter. His place in wine history is first and foremost for realising the Tuscan dream of superlative wines. There would be no Sassicaia without him.

His devotion to history itself, though, gives him a unique viewpoint. He put ancient Italy in touch with modern Bordeaux. Salve Giacomo!’

Hugh Johnson OBE

‘Giacomo Tachis has shown quite extraordinary vision. He was decades ahead of his time and has, admirably, gone his own way rather than following the whims of fashion’

Jancis Robinson MW OBE

‘Giacomo Tachis changed the style of Italian wine, dragging it – kicking and screaming – into the 20th century. And by changing the style of the wines, he changed the way in which they are perceived. Without him, Italian wine would not be as successful as it is today’

David Gleave MW, Liberty Wines

‘Giacomo Tachis is the father of modern winemaking in our country, and certainly one of the protagonists of the renaissance of Italian wine. I was lucky to share with him the most extraordinary and challenging experiences of my life, in a time of great change.

Thanks to his scientific and human contributions, most of my passions, expectations and dreams have been realised’

Marchese Piero Antinori, Antinori

‘There are two men who have been fundamental for my career. My father, who paved the way for Sassicaia, and Giacomo Tachis, who has been in charge of the winemaking of Sassicaia for more than 40 years.

Giacomo will always be, for me, a great reference and a constant contact, even though he is not physically involved with us anymore’

Marchese Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta, Tenuta San Guido

‘Tachis returned Italian wine to the centre of the international wine stage, rescuing it from its undeserved “Cinderella” role. And while liberating it from folkloric constraints, he has unequivocally demonstrated that Cabernet’s centuries-long history in Italy is anything but accidental’

Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni, Querciabella

‘His focus has always been quality wine and wine that gives pleasure, and so many in the wine world have been – and still are – directly or indirectly influenced by his work. We continue to share the close friendship that he enjoyed with our father, Alceo’

Maurizia & Luca di Napoli Rampolla, Castello dei Rampolla

Written by Richard Baudains

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