Meet the Maker: An Interview with “Mr Sassicaia”

Italy, Bolgheri: Marchese Nicolo' Incisa della Rocchetta in the Tenuta San Guido wine aging cellarOn my previous post we talked about my visit to Tenuta San Guido (the estate where fabled Sassicaia is made) and my tasting of the latest available vintages of the estate’s wine lineup: Le Difese 2011, Guidalberto 2011 and Sassicaia 2010.

Also, on a previous post we went through the history of Super Tuscans and particularly of their archetype, Sassicaia, and how this great wine came to be. If you missed those posts, I suggest you take the time to check them out as they provide a lot context for this post.

Now, without further ado, let’s move on to my interview of Marchese Nicolo’ Incisa della Rocchetta, the owner of Tenuta San Guido, a true gentleman and big time dog lover (he has some 40 dogs, most of whom he got from the shelter) beside of course being the son of Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, the man who created the myth Sassicaia.

Here are the questions I asked the Marchese, along with a summary of his answers:

Q1. Which vintage of Sassicaia are you most fond of and why?

A1. If I had to pick one, it would be 1988: of course everyone goes crazy about 1985 because it received a perfect score from Parker, but to me 1988 was also a stellar year that really shows the Sassicaia style loud and clear and that vintage also did extremely well in the Tasting of the Bordeaux Premier Growths.

Italy, Bolgheri: vineyards at Tenuta San Guido ready for harvesting with olive tree orchard in the background

Q2. Certain consumers worry about investing a considerable amount of money into a bottle of wine like Sassicaia, which they normally plan to hold on for several years before opening, because they fear that when they do open it, it might be corked. Do you or your distributors have a policy in place as to how to handle situations like that?

A2. In Europe, our distributors replace corked bottles, I am not sure whether our US distributor has a similar policy in place. The good news is that, while of course it is impossible to avoid the risk of the occasional corked bottle altogether, the incidence of cork taint on Sassicaia is much lower than the average: we estimate that there are about 10 corked bottles of Sassicaia for each vintage.

Italy, Bolgheri: Tenuta San Guido

Q3. Speaking of corks, certain of the top quality producers around the world have started experimenting with closure systems alternative to cork, such as synthetic or screw caps, one very visible example being Chateau Margaux. Are you also looking into it? Current regulations require that Sassicaia be sealed with a cork: looking ahead, do you think that using a closure other than cork for a wine like Sassicaia would still be perceived by consumers with a negative connotation?

A3. No, we are just not interested. A bottle of a wine like Sassicaia deserves being sealed by a cork, period. On top of that, the minimal contact with oxygen that the cork ensures makes a wine like Sassicaia that is generally meant for several years of in bottle aging beautifully evolve.

Italy, Bolgheri: Bolgheri sunsetQ4. Italian enologist Graziana Grassini has recently taken over the honor and the responsibilities of making Sassicaia from guru enologist Giacomo Tachis, who can be seen as the father of Sassicaia, along with your father of course. How did she approach the myth Sassicaia? Is she following the path of tradition or is she trying to leave her own mark on Sassicaia?

A4. It seems to me that she is walking in Tachis’s footsteps: they both have this approach that they are there just to underscore the unique terroir of the Sassicaia vineyards and make it shine in the wine they make. Tachis hated being called a winemaker, because he felt he was not there “making” (in the sense of artificially “building”) Sassicaia – he considered himself the guardian of the brilliant characteristics of those Cabernet clones that my father planted in the heart of the Maremma almost three quarters of a century ago and the terroir they grow in.

Q5. All your three wines are blends and all three have Cabernet Sauvignon as their prevailing variety in the blend, but each of them pairs it with a different blending partner: Cabernet Franc for Sassicaia, Merlot for Guidalberto and Sangiovese for Le Difese. Taken as a given that the Sassicaia is at the peak of the pyramid of the wines you produce, how would you briefly describe the concepts behind the Guidalberto and Le Difese?

A5. The Guidalberto was introduced to the market with vintage 2000 and we do not consider it the second vin of the Sassicaia. It was developed as a more affordable wine with its own identity, different from Sassicaia’s. A wine that can be enjoyed earlier than Sassicaia but is all the same meant for aging up to 10 years. Only about 10% of the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes used in the making of Guidalberto come from the Sassicaia vieyards, the rest comes from dedicated, younger vineyards. Le Difese was launched with vintage 2002 and we view it as the second vin of the Guidalberto: it was developed with the idea of an affordable wine that is ready to be enjoyed upon release and is not meant for aging.

Italy, Bolgheri: vineyards and olive trees

Q6. How much of the wine you produce gets exported, and which are the top three countries you export to?

A5. We export about 60% of the production. By far the number one country we export to is the United States, followed by Germany and, maybe surprisingly considering its relatively small size, Switzerland. We are slowly starting to export to China too, but we want to be cautious: it is a huge market with an incredible demand for luxury products, including top wines like Sassicaia, and it is easy to let that cloud your vision. Considering that the number of bottles of Sassicaia that we make is not going to increase, what we do not want to do is penalize our historical and loyal customer base and distributors in the countries we are already in just to jump onto the Chinese bandwagon. It will be a gradual process.

Italy, Bolgheri: One of the buidings in the Tenuta San Guido estate

Q7. Organic viticulture: are you considering to embrace it or staying away from it?

A7. We view it as an emerging marketing trend which certainly appeals to consumers, but whose risks overweigh the benefits. In other words, we do spray our vines but we have always done so in the least pervasive way, as has been done for decades in traditional viticulture. We are a relatively small operation and we just cannot afford the risk of a blighted crop.

Q8. Let’s talk about your winemaking process: do you use pre-fermentation cold maceration? And how about micro-oxygenation?

A8. No to both questions: we feel our wine does not need the additional extraction of color or aromas that pre-fermentation maceration allows, and we certainly stay away from micro-oxygenation: we much rather let time do its work by leaving our wine in the barriques for as long as we think appropriate for it to be exposed to the oxygen that naturally breathes into the casks. No need to fast-track anything.

Italy, Bolgheri: vineyards ready for harvesting

Q9. What kind of fermentation do you go for: selected yeasts or spontaneous (indigenous yeasts)? Same question for malolactic fermentation: do you inoculate lactic bacteria or does it start spontaneously?

A9. In both cases we opt for spontaneous fermentation: we do not add anything to our wine, we just let the temperature start both fermentations spontaneously. We think this practice helps give our wines their own, individual character, which makes them different from other wines.

Italy, Bolgheri: Sassicaia French oak barrique cask

Q10. Last question: which barrique casks do you use to age Sassicaia and are they new, previously used or a mix of the two?

A10. In the beginning we used Slavonian oak, but then we realized that those barrels were assembled with sawn planks, which occasionally were not perfectly airtight. So we switched to French oak, where planks are axe-split instead of sawn. For the aging of Sassicaia we use barriques made of French oak coming from the Massif Central region of France, because oak from that area is known to release the least tannins/tertiary aromas to the wine and therefore we prefer it over more intrusive oak. Sassicaia ages in 1/3 new barriques and 2/3 previously used ones, which may be up to a maximum of 8-time used before, after which we retire the barrique.

Thant’s all: I hope you enjoyed the read as much as I enjoyed having this informational and pleasant conversation with Marchese Nicolo’ Incisa della Rocchetta.

As a final note, I would like to take the opportunity to sincerely thank the Marchese for his graciousness and for the time he took to sit down with me and answer my questions. I also wish to extend my dy deepest gratitude to Carlo Paoli for his kindness in making all of this happen.

Italy, Bolgheri: vineyards and cypress trees

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21 thoughts on “Meet the Maker: An Interview with “Mr Sassicaia”

  1. the drunken cyclist

    Great interview Stefano–surprised about the claim of only ten bottles per vintage are corked! I will also wait and see how they handle the increasing demand from China–he gave a great answer. Last, “we just cannot afford the risk of a blighted crop.” Ummm, Sassicaia goes for how much a bottle again? I think they might have enough cash reserves for an occasional bad crop….

    Reply
    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you very much, Jeff! I know, right? Ten bottles sounds very few, but he said that’s what they had to deal with on average: they must be using some pretty good quality cork! Regarding the bad crop, I think Mary’s comment may be on to something: it would be just bad if there were no Sassicaia on a certain year. I mean, beside the loss of profit they would also run the risk of losing market share, I guess… Anyway, I totally see your point, but I can also understand why they are kind of extra cautious to go down that road…

      Reply
  2. Mary

    This is a great interview with Marchese with good questions. I think what he meant by “we just cannot afford the risk of a blighted crop,” had more to do with their image – if that’s damaged, there goes their business.

    Reply
    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you very much, Mary: glad you enjoyed the interview. And, like I said in response to Jeff’s comment, I think you are onto something with your interpretation of the Marchese’s words. If they lost a crop, they would risk losing market share, beside just losing the revenues for that specific year. I mean, I see Jeff’s point, but I also see the reasons for their concern…

      Reply
    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you very much, B: I am very happy to hear you liked the interview (and the photos!) And you’re right, I got to say it is refreshing to hear that winemakers, even of top wines, are more than just skilled chemists! 🙂

      Reply
  3. Dina

    A great follow-up, dear Stefano! You must thouroghly have enjoyed yourself! Beautiful and very good photography, they’re all very moody this time, very much to my liking!
    A big hug to you from the four us, I’m now on my way to Canbridge.
    Best regards
    Dina

    Reply
    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you, dearest Dina! 🙂
      I did have a wonderful time visiting Bolgheri, touring the estate, tasting the wines but especially meeting the people. It is refreshing to see people who who really put the effort into it and consider winemaking as an art!
      I am also happy that you liked my moody photographs! 😉
      And I love your British excursions! 😉
      A big hug to you all!

      Reply
    2. Stefano Post author

      Thank you, dearest Dina!
      I did have a wonderful time visiting Bolgheri, touring the estate, tasting the wines but especially meeting the people. It is refreshing to see people who who really put the effort into it and consider winemaking as an art!
      I am also happy that you liked my moody photographs!
      And I love your British excursions!
      A big hug to you all! 🙂

      Reply
  4. Heather (Sweet Precision)

    What a wonderful interview Stefano! You asked some great questions, you even tackled some hard ones. I especially found the question on closure systems alternative to cork interesting. I remember a post you did a while ago on the topic and it was very interesting. What a wonderful way to expand your blog, I look forward to more interviews in the future.

    Reply
    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you so much, Heather! I am very happy that you liked the interview. I tried to come up with a mix of questions, which would cover different aspects. The ongoing discussion about closure systems is really an interesting one, glad you agree. Thanks again for your thoughtful comment – until the next interview! 🙂

      Reply
  5. the winegetter

    Wonderful interview. I think you found the right mix of more general public questions and serious wine nerd questions there. Well done.

    I was also surprised by the number 10. I know you gave us the numbers for how many bottles of Sassicaia they produce annually, but I forgot, but 10 seems very low.

    I think his answer regarding China was splendid. Well done. And, why would Switzerland not be the third largest importer? It is one of the richest countries in the world that is not a city state, so they sure can afford it!

    As always, gorgeous photos…

    Reply
    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you, Oliver! Glad you enjoyed the read.
      I was shooting for a fairly varied mix of questions, so I am very happy if you found the interview to be in balance.
      I was surprised as well by the very low number of “duds” that they say they get. However, bear in mind that that number only refers to those that they become aware of because of customer complaints or restaurant returns. And while Sassicaia is a top wine which may persuade more people to take the time to point out the problem and ask for a replacement, there are many people who decide not to do it for a number of reasons.
      Anyway, I do not think I gave the number of Sassicaia’s annual production, and that is on average about 200,000 bottles.
      Thanks again for your comment, my friend! 🙂

      Reply
  6. kbvollmarblog

    Hi, dear Stefano,
    your interview is quite educational, too. Now I know a little bit more about vine. Great!
    This vinyard looks very cozy and 40 dogs, wow. Your first picture the Master and his dog is sooo cute.
    Have an easy week.
    HUGs
    Klausbernd

    Reply
    1. Stefano Post author

      Dear Klausbernd,
      Thank you for your comment: I am glad that you enjoyed reading the interview and looking at the photos. Yes, 40 dogs is quite a handful to handle! 😉
      Hugs right back at you,
      Stefano

      Reply
  7. Pingback: Meet the Maker: An Introduction to Valtellina’s Mountain Nebbiolo and Wines | Clicks & Corks

  8. Pingback: Wine Review: Tenuta San Guido, Bolgheri Sassicaia 1995 DOC… and the History of “Super Tuscans” | Clicks & Corks

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