It’s a classic Italian tale, blending simplicity with superiority and permeated with due lashings of family rivalry and patriotism.
In 1941, when the aristocrat Mario Incisa della Rocchetta (pronounced Incheesa della Rocketta) decided to plant a few Cabernet Sauvignon vines on a neglected farm on the coast of Tuscany to whet his appetite for fine Bordeaux wine, “people thought he was completely crazy” says his granddaughter Priscilla.
Though constant drainage practices had rendered the marshland of the Tenuta San Guido estate agriculturally useful, the area was better known for its mosquitos, malaria and cattle-breeding than fine wine production.
But Mario was “eccentric, eclectic and very strong-minded” – armed with a collection of cuttings passed down to him from his great-grandfather, the grapes grew, and for almost twenty years the family enjoyed their homegrown claret with private delight. In 1965, two more vineyards of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc were planted enabling larger-scale production.
Tuscany makes its debut on the fine wine market
Only in 1968 did Mario, following advice from his cousins, the Antinori, first introduce one of his vintages into the fine wine market. It initiated a storm of success, winning the 1970s Decanter tasting of non-Bordeaux Cabernets and launching the Bolgheri region onto the fine wine map of the world.
For decades it was regarded as a mere vino da tavola (table wine), and its siblings Guidalberto and Le Difese are still available on the UK market for as little as £24. But in 1994, the superior quality of Sassicaia (meaning ‘land of stone’) was duly noted and the region, which now produces one of Italy’s most revered reds, was awarded its very own DOC – the mark of an official wine appelation.
Was this difficult to get? “No,” says Priscilla. “They just contacted us and said ‘Would you like your own DOC?’”
Top Bordeaux wine meets Super Tuscan dream
No story of Sassicaia, however, should omit a tribute to its neighbouring vineyard, Ornellaia. It was the founders of Ornellaia, the Antinori, that helped bring Sassicaia to the commercial market as well as offer healthy competition in the early years of the Super Tuscans. Marchese Ludovico Antinori was determined to make better wine than both his cousin at Sassicaia and his brother at Solaia, by aging the wine in French barriques and drawing inspiration from Château Pétrus for their all-Merlot star, Massetto.
The market rivalry between the two brands is also well-known, with each outstripping the other every few years in terms of price movement. At the moment, Sassicaia is way ahead of Ornellaia and looks to stay that way. Demand is also higher than it has ever been; Sassicaia was the only wine from outside Bordeaux to feature in the 2015 Liv-ex Power 100 list in the top ten traded by volume.
In terms of taste, the two could not be more different. Ornellaia has been described as “softer”, “more approachable”, “a finessed and sumputous wine” (Galloni), while Sassicaia “tends to be structured and even austere”, according to wine writer Lettie Teague. This is reflected in the stark simplicity of the winery itself – a row of stainless steel tanks, a low wall, a few wooden benches and for decoration, an eight-pointed Sassicaia star set in raised wood on the cellar doors.
In terms of actual winemaking, Nicola Incisa della Rocchetta is equally modest in his approach. ‘My father is against doing too much stuff in the winery. You cannot control wine,’ says Priscilla. The result is a wine that is “graceful, comforting and comfortable, built for drinkers rather than tasters, dry and tannic enough for the table, unshowy in articulation, digestible and satisfying” (Jefford) – and in very high demand.
At a recent dinner at the Italian embassy in London, Ambassador Terracciano proudly announced – “We taught the French how to make wine. Without us, there would be no French wine.” A belated expression of gratitude to their Gallic friends for introducing them to the most successful grapes in the world? Perhaps not…
Fine Italian wine at Capital Vintners
As a leading UK fine wine brokerage, we have an extensive wine list which you are invited to browse for up-to-date price comparisons between Ornellaia and Sassicaia, and other much-loved Super Tuscans like Tignanello and Solaia. Feel free to call one of our experienced sales advisors to discuss your specific investment requirements.