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Anson: Tasting Sassicaia – half a century of vintages

Jane Anson becomes one of the most envied people in wine after getting to taste 44 vintages of Sassicaia in a 17th Century palace in Rome. Here's her report and her favourite wines.

Approaching sensory overload. That may be the best way to describe a tasting of 44 vintages of Tuscany’s Sassicaia while seated in a fresco-ceilinged room in Pope Innocent X’s 17th century palace overlooking the fountains of Piazza Navona in Rome.

Frankly, Sassicaia is a wine that provokes enough emotions without the accompanying Roman splendour.

It is described by Carlo Paolo, director of Tenuta San Guido, as representing, ‘the best of Italy’s achievements as a winemaking country over the past 50 years’.

Sassicaia’s place in history

To understand what that means, it’s worth heading back to the Italian wine scene in 1968, the inaugural vintage of what was to become the first, and is still arguably the best known, Super Tuscan.

At the time, pretty much all Italian wine was either consumed locally or shipped off in bulk to the rest of Europe where it was blended with weedier examples that needed some beefing up.

The Italian system of DOC made its appearance only in 1963 (compare this with Spain, that had its first DOC with Rioja in 1925). Tuscany’s Chianti region got its DOC in 1967, a reflection of its rich history that dates back many centuries.

‘Sassicaia was born from a hunch’

And yet at the same time, a wine that came from nowhere, planted in one of the few areas of Tuscany that was not even considered as particularly interesting for winemaking, was about to make its appearance.

Bolgheri Sassicaia was born from a hunch by Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta , who took Bordeaux grapes over to the Tuscan coast.

It was made privately at the estate from 1948 until 1967, until the Antinori family and their oenologist Giacomo Tachis became involved. At this point, the 1968 vintage became the first Sassicaia available to the general public.

Its success would eventually lead to the creation of its own category, the IGT (Indicazione Geografic Tipica) that today embraces over 200 different wines. And it led to the creation of DOC Bolgheri – a region that in 1994 had 250 hectares and in 2013 had reached 1,200 hectares with the subregion DOC Bolgheri Sassicaia.

This vertical, organised by Italian wine guide Gambero Rosso, went right back to that first vintage, and missed only the two years that the estate didn’t make (1973 and 1969). Many of the wines were from the family’s private cellar – owner Priscilla Incisa della Rocchetta was with us – and some of the older years were the last bottles.

So what did we learn?

That the younger vintages hint at the exuberance and generosity of the Tuscan sun of course.

These are Bordeaux varieties perhaps, but you could never take this wine for a St-Julien. And yet, you also have to forget the stereotype of Tuscany when you approach Sassicaia. Here on this small piece of land there is an oceanic influence (warmer breezes undoubtedly but still similar to the Médoc) that encourages balance.

The vineyard itself has around 90 hectares, from an estate of, 2,000 hectares, with the vines planted wherever they are best suited across four separate spots rather than in one continuous plot.

And like the great Médoc estates, Sassicaia is exceptional because it is not a tiny cuvée, but keeps up the pace over a large number of bottles and many years.

Average production is 220,000 bottles annually, which means it is fairly widely available to wine lovers with the budget. But where it differs from Lafite, Latour and their siblings is that Sassicaia has kept Italy as its biggest market, something they should rightly be proud of.

What is also clear is that Sassicaia has the signature of a great wine in spades – the balance, the longevity, and the ability to change and evolve in the glass, giving something new each time you return. It’s worth pointing to the exceptional softness of the tannins, that even in the young bottles are gentle and caressing.

Almost impossible to imagine another European Cabernet-based wine, tasted through this many vintages, managing to pull off this gentle physicality. It took a good 20 vintages before any build-up began.

The last decade particularly showed that the faith put into Sassicaia is richly rewarded. These are bottles with complexity, elegance and balance. In contrast, we had a very good but hugely pumped up, oak-driven Tuscan at lunchtime. I had one sip then put the glass down.

Top Sassicaia wines from this tasting

NB: Sassicaia 2014 vintage was tasted separately by John Stimpfig in 2017.


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