Massachusetts Beverage Business


Article By: Sandy Block, MW


The Sassicaia story is well known. Italy’s original, and in many ways still most emblematic, “Super Tuscan,” the wine’s very existence has probably had more indirect impact in elevating the country’s image internationally than any other. It was the first sustained attempt to create a world-class wine using imported Bordeaux varietals, and it helped establish the coastal Bolgheri zone as a mark of distinction to rival Tuscany’s other more famous sub-zones situated further inland. In fact, Sassicaia’s iconic status, as an innovative wine apart, was fully recognized by Italian wine law in 1994, with the creation of the first, and to this day still the only, single vineyard DOC.

As such, an opportunity to assess Sassicaia over a number of vintages is always fascinating and instructive. With its origins in the 194Os, as the dream of Marchese Mario Incisa dellaRochetta, to craft a wine at his Tenuta San Guido property that would be to the standard of the great classified Bordeaux that he so admired, to its struggles for acceptance in the first several decades, to its near universal recognition by the 198Os, the wine is clearly built to last. A product of low yields and composed of 85 to 9O percent Cabernet Sauvignon, blended with between 1O to 15% Cabernet Franc, depending on the vintage, this should come as no surprise. The term itself, literally, in local Tuscan dialect, means “stony ground”. The vines are growing on soils that resemble the yield-restrictive gravels of Graves in Bordeaux.

One thing that becomes clear when lining up a series of Sassicaia’s from diverse years, however, is that each wine reflects a a specific vineyard and seacoast terroir that are completely unique. Sometimes critics have negatively assessed Super Tuscans for being more international in style (with ultra-ripeness, huge extraction levels, high alcohol, excessive new wood influence, and the use of French varietals) than specifically Italian in character. But the six vintage vertical tasting of Sassicaia, beginning with 198O and ending with the 2OO6, confirmed for me that there is a consistent “sense of place” that marks the wines as distinctive, in a way that tasting only one bottle would have made impossible. The wine evolves, but there is a definite family relationship even between the youngest and the oldest.

What other questions are we seeking to answer in a vertical tasting? How, specifically, do these wines relate to one another? What qualities do they share, and what makes them differ, other than age and maturation. And finally, how well do they age? My evaluations on the next page begin with the oldest, most highly evolved wine.

After 26 years the color shows a bit of amber at the rim, but is still relatively garnet through most of the glass.  The nose is quite expressive: tobacco, delicate red berry fruit, earthy mushroom notes.  Medium high in acid and soft in tannin, the 198O has an attractive smoky herbal flavor essence, balanced with a touch of soy umami notes, but the sensation fruit has begun to subside and even dry a bit.  Fully mature, 198O Sassicaia exhibits the complex understated notes and tertiary floral essences one would expect from a wine of this age.  Made for hard, sheep’s milk cheese.

Skip ahead nine years to a relatively difficult harvest, noted on the coast for lower degrees of ripeness and tannic development.  While a few shades darker than 198O, this is also showing the same peripheral browning.  A fuller, slightly more rustic style, it has similar leafy, herbal, tobacco aromatics as the 198O, but the fruit is more lush and mouth-coating, not quite as a delicate.  During the course of this tasting it became quite clear that Sassicaia generally features ample acids to balance its powerful fruit flavors.  Richly extracted, yet finishing with a long, earthy “terroir” touch, this vintage strikes me as a wine for a juicy veal chop simply prepared with mushroom.  Whereas the 198O might be a wine to drink up now, this has several years of development ahead of it.

This wine is among the most delicate of all the vintages on display, a much younger cousin of the 198O.  With a similar color development to the 1989, it expresses much darker red berry fruit essence, accented with the signature toasted herbs.  Relatively low in alcohol, and also softer in acids, it is a fruit driven wine balanced by notes of green leaf and Asian spice.  If this wine is any indication, somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty years is when I would most like to drink Sassicaia.  Not that this doesn’t have some development ahead, but it tastes to me on a great border between youthful expression and more moderate age-influenced flavors.  You will note a long echoing finish.  For your best cut of lamb, simply prepared.

Still quite vigorous, the 1996 shows some youthful violet fragrances, along with cooked, root vegetable and sous-bois characters.  The aromas are all about the herb and earth notes, but on the palate there is a profusion of dark red fruits.  In fact, the wine holds some opposites in tension: relatively acrid, but also silky, strong fruit extraction balanced with the more ominipresent earthy and herb expressions.  Quite different in style, I evaluated this at about the same level of quality as the 2OO3.  This is also the first wine that I consider not quite ready to drink.  In comparison to a group of 1996 Bordeaux First and Super Seconds I tasted blind recently, this struck me as still about coiled up.  Decant it for a while and serve with Filet Mignon, if you’re lucky enough to have any.

Despite stiff competition, this, to me, is by far the class of the tasting.  With the richest extraction and the ripest expression of fruit (no surprise given the scorching heat that all Europe experienced in the summer), it will age nicely but is hard to resist now.  Opaque almost to the rim, the 2OO3 has a huge expansive nose of blackberry liqueur, again balanced by herbal, leafy tones and a hint of baking spice.  On the palate, the same super ripe “young wine” fruit flavors that you smell are prominent, with a display of glowingly rich coffee and mocha tones.  Seriously delicious with a rare, juicy tuna steak. 

This youngest wine is monumental, yet I still feel it is slightly edged out by the 2OO3.  With a similar density and opacity, the 2OO6 seems a touch chunkier and bolder on the palate, with slightly harder tannins.  Ripe but not yet fully expressive, with cassis and black fruit aromas offset by new wood vanilla scents, the wine is beautifully balanced on the palate.  It’s a powerhouse, with masses of extract, acid and tannin, although the alcohol seems a touch less prominent than the 2OO3.  Ultimately, as more flavors emerge, this might challenge the 2OO3.  Perhaps its backwardness now is emphasized by the fact that it was poured out of double magnums (as were all the wines for this vertical tasting).

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