Category Archives: Meet the Maker

Meet the Maker: Valtellina’s Nebbiolo – An Interview with Ar.Pe.Pe.’s Enologist

On previous posts, we have presented the Italian wine district of Valtellina and introduced one of the finest Valtellina wine producersAr.Pe.Pe. along with a tasting of their wines.

On this post, which concludes our mini-series about Valtellina, you can find an interview that Ar.Pe.Pe.’s enologist and co-owner Isabella Pellizzatti Perego was kind enough to do with me.

Ar.Pe.Pe.'s enologist and co-owner in their stunning tasting room

Here are the questions I asked Isabella, along with a summary of her answers – let me give you heads up about the fact that some of the discussion is fairly technical in nature, but at the same time I think it is very interesting and educational:

Q1. First of all, would you care to explain the logic behind the various labels in your lineup and their release to the market? I understand they are not all available every year, so maybe you can elaborate a little bit on that?

A1. Certainly: essentially, we are pretty black and white with our production – let me try to explain.

At the top of our range there are the following four Crus or Riservas: Grumello Buon Consiglio; Sassella Rocce Rosse; Sassella Vigna Regina; and Sassella Ultimi Raggi.

These current Crus will soon be complemented by two new Crus that we have started making since the 2009 vintage and that are currently at the beginning of their aging phase. These new wines will be released to the market in 2018: one is our first Riserva from our vineyard in the Inferno subzone and the other one is a new Riserva from our Grumello vineyards that is going to complement our Buon Consiglio Cru.


Ar.Pe.Pe.'s 5.5 HL wood tonneau aging casks

Beside those, we have the Inferno Fiamme Antiche which, so far, is the only label that we make from our vineyard in the Inferno subzone. When our new Inferno Cru becomes available, the Inferno Fiamme Antiche will be its second vin.

Finally, there is our entry-level, easy and ready to drink wine known as Rosso di Valtellina.

Now, the Rosso di Valtellina is the only one of our wines that is available every year.

Instead, our concept for our premium wines is that, depending on our assessment as to the quality of the grapes we harvest, we decide whether they are worthy of a Cru or they should be “downgraded” to second vin. We do not compromise: the entire crop for each subzone either becomes a Cru or a second vin.

So, for instance, if one year you see that we release the Grumello Buon Consiglio Riserva, that means that for that year the Grumello Rocca De Piro will not be released, and vice versa, which of course entails a significant sacrifice in terms of revenues. But we are happy this way: we want to stand behind the quality and reputation of our wines and we do not take any shortcut to do so.

Mountain Nebbiolo grapes in Ar.Pe.Pe.'s destemmer

Q2. The mountain Nebbiolo of Valtellina has been recognized as a biotype that is geographically distinct from Piemonte’s Nebbiolo and several clones have been identified. Can you tell us something about the clonal choices that you made in your vineyards?

A2. Valtellina’s Nebbiolo presents greater biodiversity in its clones compared to Piemonte’s Langhe Nebbiolo (where the three main clones are Michet, Lampia and Rosé). In Valtellina at least 10 different clones have been identified. For our vineyards, we have selected a mix of the various clones and we are observing how each of them has adapted to our terroir and how it performs. This way, we can identify the vines that perform best and then use those same clones to add new vines or replace existing ones.

Q3. Let’s talk a little bit about viticulture: what’s the average density and age of your vineyards? Are your vines all grafted? Which month of the year do you harvest and is it all done by hand?

Helicopter carrying Nino Negri's harvested mountain Nebbiolo grapes

A3. Our average density is 5,500/6,000 vines/HA and on average our vines are 50 years old – most are grafted, but there still are a few plants that are ungrafted.

We harvest exclusively by hand due to the characteristics of our territory, which prevent the use of anything mechanical. It is pretty much the same for all of the Valtellina producers, although some (such as Nino Negri) go as far as using helicopters to carry the crates with the harvested grapes as fast as possible to the winery. In general, we harvest the grapes for all our wines in the second half of October, except only those for our Ultimi Raggi Cru (which is our late-harvest wine) which get picked in the second half of November, just before the first snow of the season.

Q4. Speaking of the Ultimi Raggi: this is a wine that falls within the Valtellina Superiore Riserva DOCG appellation (subzone Sassella). Since it is a dry raisin wine, can it be considered your own take of a Sforzato della Valtellina? Why does it not fall within that separate DOCG?

A4. Well, yes and no: our Ultimi Raggi is a late-harvest dry raisin wine like a Sforzato, but it cannot be classified as such as the regulations for the Sforzato della Valtellina DOCG appellation require that the grapes be picked during the regular harvest season and then be dried on straw mats (in other words, it is not a late-harvest wine).

Instead, with the Ultimi Raggi we have made the choice of drying the grapes while they are still on the vine, by picking them generally a month later than the regular harvest. It is a riskier choice, because a few years ago we had just finished harvesting the last vines for the Ultimi Raggi when it started snowing: had it happened one day earlier, a large part of our harvest would have been lost. So, it is a riskier choice, but we feel that it really pays off in terms of the quality of the wine that we make.

Q5. How do you feel about organic viticulture? Is it something you are considering embracing?

A5. We practice an integrated approach to viticulture, which imposes very restrictive practices already. We would love to go all the way to organic, but considering our geography, that is made of steep mountain slopes and makes it impossible for us to mechanize anything, currently we are not in a position to incur even greater labor costs. Just think that the integrated viticulture approach that we practice results in 1,300 working hours per year for each hectare of vineyards: more than twice the number of man hours that are required in Piemonte’s Langhe and about three times as many as those required to harvest hill vineyards in general.


Delastage "rack and return" process of Ar.Pe.Pe.'s fermenting must

Q6. Let’s move on to your ultra-conservative winemaking choices: what kind of vats do you use to ferment your wines? Also, do your wines do malolactic fermentation? And for both fermentations, do you use selected yeasts and acid bacteria or are both fermentations spontaneous?

A6. We still use 50 HL wood barrels to ferment our wines: we have them made using the same traditional, proprietary mix of oak, chestnut and acacia that we use for our aging barrels. Then, after each fermentation, we gently scrape the inside of the barrels to remove any possible residue. It is a lot of work compared to just using stainless steel vats, but we think it is worthwhile because of the additional flavor and smoothness it contributes to our wines.

All of our wines go through a couple of day of pre-fermentative cold maceration to maximize the extraction of color and primary aromas, then they go through spontaneous alcoholic fermentation using only indigenous yeasts and finally they do a full, spontaneous malolactic fermentation that is kick started by careful temperature control.

Q7. What kind of barrels do you use for aging your wines and what is the main driver for your choice?

Ar.Pe.Pe.'s aging barrels

A7. As is the case for our fermenting vats, we use large 55 HL wood barrels for aging our wines too: these are made of a proprietary mix of oak, chestnut and acacia woods that we have traditionally been using from the very beginning. We also have a few smaller 5.5 HL tonneau casks made of the same wood mix that we sometimes use, but it is an exception.

In addition, none of our aging barrels is toasted: we only use un-toasted wood to minimize the release of tertiary aromas/flavors to our wines. We made this conservative choice because we want our wines to underscore primary and secondary aromas and to be a reflection of their unique terroir. Anyone can add spicy notes to a wine that, in itself, could be not very exciting: we want our consumers to appreciate our wines for the story they tell about our grapes, our territory and the environment our vines grow in.

Q8. Speaking of terroir, how would you briefly describe that of your vineyards? Also, how would you say that the wines made from grapes grown in the three different subzones you have vineyards in (Sassella, Inferno and Grumello) differ from one another?


Valtellina mountain vineyardsA8. The Valtellina district of Lombardia counts a little over 800 HA of vineyards altogether, and our grapevines grow on mountain slopes at an average altitude ranging from 400 to 600 mt (1,300 to 2,000 ft) above sea level. The soil here is scarce, as rocks abound.

This is also one of the main differences between the Grumello subzone versus the Sassella and Inferno subzones: the former has somewhat more soil, it is less rocky and this makes for easier, readier to drink wines, whilst the latter subzones have very little soil and rocks prevail – this makes the wines coming from these areas more austere and dependent on longer aging periods to properly assemble and integrate their components and smooth their edges.

Q9. Now, regarding the commercial aspects of your business: your annual production is about 60,000 bottles – what is roughly the split between export and domestic consumption? Which are the top three countries to which you export?

A9. This year marks the first time that we export more than we sell domestically: 60% of our production has in fact been exported.

Geographically, the USA is the top country we export to, Japan is the second and Russia (which we just started exporting to this year) came in third. This year we also started selling to a few new countries beside Russia, among which Hong Kong, Taiwan and a market that we are excited to finally be in Canada – our Rosso di Valtellina will be soon available in Quebec and we are very excited about this new challenge.

Q10. Finally, are there any new projects that you are working on that are worth pointing out to our readers?


Ar.Pe.Pe.'s fermenting barrelsA10. Yes, definitely. We already talked about the two new Crus which will become available in 2018, for which we are very excited and feel very strongly about their quality and potential.

Beside such product news, from a viticultural perspective we have decided to convert our vineyards to the Simonit-Sirch pruning method for controlled grapevine growth. In the context of a Guyot-type training system like the one we use in our vineyards, this method has the objective to optimize the performance of each vine through selective pruning of only young (one or two year old) stems growing out of the head of the trunk.

The purpose of this is to cause the vine to develop two main stems that originate from opposite sides of the head of the trunk and run parallel to the bending wire, giving the vine a characteristic T-shape. This optimizes the canalization of the plant’s lymph into such two main vessels and makes a vine grown with a Guyot-type training system more similar to a free-standing bush vine, which nowadays is considered the most efficient vine training system and one that considerably increases the life expectancy of the vine.


Ar.Pe.Pe.'s stunning tasting room

That’s all: hope you enjoyed the read, and let me thank Isabella once again for her exquisite hospitality and for being so patient as to answer all of my questions! 🙂

Meet the Maker: History and Wine Tasting of One of Valtellina’s Finest: Ar.Pe.Pe.

On our previous post, we have presented the Italian wine district of Valtellina, its territory, history, dominant grape variety and just briefly, its wines. Now is the time to focus on one of the finest producers of Valtellina wines, Ar.Pe.Pe. (pronounced “Ahr-Pay-Pay”).

Ar.Pe.Pe.’s History

The somewhat curious name of this premium Valtellina winery is an acronym that stands for ARturo PEllizzatti PErego, that is the full name of the winery’s founder.


Ar.Pe.Pe.'s stunning tasting room

Arturo was the descendant of a Valtellina family who had been in the wine industry since 1860 and who, by the 1960’s, had grown to own or manage 50 HA of vineyards. Arturo’s father, Guido, had built the family business’s winery by carving it into the rock of those very mountains on the slopes of which their vineyards lay: the new winery became operational in 1961.

Guido’s death in 1973 resulted in a paralizing feud among his heirs over the allocation of his estate: because of this, the heirs decided to sell the family’s business and the “Pellizzatti” brand to a then large wine and food conglomerate to which the family also leased the vineyards for a 10 year term.


Ar.Pe.Pe.'s fermenting barrelsIn 1983, however, upon the expiration of the vineyard lease term, Arturo claimed back his own portion of the family’s vineyards (12 HA), bought back the winery that his father had built and started afresh his own wine business, under the current Ar.Pe.Pe. brand.

Arturo devoted all his knowledge, experience and energy into creating a range of top quality wines that would underscore and maximize the potential of the mountain Nebbiolo grapes and Valtellina’s unique terroir. In so doing, he took his chances and from the very beginning he decided not to compromise on anything, aiming for top of the line wines that would be optimally aged by the time they were released to the market.

This meant that for the first six years following Ar.Pe.Pe.’s creation, their vineyards were harvested for six times, wine was made for each vintage, but not a single bottle was released to the market because of the very long aging times that Arturo had prescribed for his wines. This is what his heirs affectionately refer to as his “nostalgic hardheadedness“.

But when the first bottles of one of his top Crus, the Valtellina Superiore “Rocce Rosse”, were finally made available to retailers in 1990, all those sacrifices paid off and the immediate success and rave reviews proved that Arturo’s philosophy of unwavering commitment to excellence had been right and long sighted.

Ar.Pe.Pe. then quickly became one of the most respected and prestigious brands in the landscape of Valtellina’s Nebbiolo’s. In 2004, Arturo passed away and his legacy passed on to his three children: Isabella (who became Ar.Pe.Pe.’s enologist), Guido and Emanuele, who have since shared the leadership of the family business.

Isabella, 
Ar.Pe.Pe.'s enologist and co-owner, with her brother Emanuele in their tasting room

Ar.Pe.Pe.’s Wine Tasting

On the next post, we will publish our interview of Isabella Pellizzatti Perego, Ar.Pe.Pe.’s enologist and co-owner, but before that here are my quick tasting notes (i.e., these are not full-blown wine reviews) for those wines in Ar.Pe.Pe.’s lineup that had just been released to the market at the time of my visit and that my gracious hostess Isabella was kind enough to let me taste:

  • ArPePe, Rosso di ValtellinaRosso di Valtellina DOC 2011 (13% ABV)

This is Ar.Pe.Pe.’s entry-level wine, made from 100% Nebbiolo grapes harvested from their lower altitude vineyards (1,150/1,300 ft – 350/400 mt above sea level) in the Grumello and Sassella subzones (for more information, refer to our introductory post to the Valtellina district). The wine ages 6 to 12 months in large wood barrels before being released to the market. The Rosso di Valtellina retails in the US for about $32.

Tasting Notes: The wine’s color was ruby red, with aromas of violet, cherry and raspberry. In the mouth, the wine was freshly acidic, with smooth tannins – a young, easy to drink, ready to be enjoyed red.

Rating: Good Good

  • Valtellina Superiore Sassella “Stella Retica” Riserva DOCG 2006 (13% ABV)

ArPePe, Valtellina Superiore Sassella "Stella Retica" RiservaThis is the second vin of Ar.Pe.Pe.’s two grand vins in the Sassella subzone (the “Rocce Rosse” and the single-vineyard “Vigna Regina”). As will be better explained in our interview of Ar.Pe.Pe.’s enologist, the Stella Retica is only made in those vintages when the Rocce Rosse is not released (i.e., for any given vintage, either one of the Rocce Rosse or the Stella Retica is made).

The Stella Retica is made from 100% Nebbiolo grapes grown at an altitude between 1,300 and 1,650 feet (400 to 500 meters). It ferments in Ar.Pe.Pe.’s signature mixed wood fermenting barrels (more about this in our interview of Ar.Pe.Pe.’s enologist) for 12 days and ages in large wood barrels for 24 months, plus 24 additional months of in-bottle aging. The Stella Retica retails in the US for about $48.

Tasting Notes: The wine’s color was ruby red with garnet reflections, with a fine and intense bouquet of cherry, wild strawberry and mineral hints of granite. In the mouth, the wine was dry, with high ABV and smooth; it was freshly acidic, gently tannic, and tasty, with medium body. All in all, a very pleasant and enjoyable wine.

Rating: Very Good Very Good

  • Valtellina Superiore Sassella “Rocce Rosse” Riserva DOCG 2002 (13% ABV)

ArPePe, Valtellina Superiore Sassella "Rocce Rosse" RiservaThe Rocce Rosse is one of Ar.Pe.Pe.’s two grand vins for the Sassella subzone (in addition to the single-vineyard Vigna Regina): it is made from 100% Nebbiolo grapes grown in the Sassella subzone only in those years in which the quality of the harvest is extraordinary. It ferments in wood fermenting barrels for 40 days(!) and it ages in large oak, chestnut and acacia wood barrels for 48 months, plus 36 additional months of in-bottle aging.

The Rocce Rosse is a top of the line wine that is suitable for long-term aging. It retails in the US for about $72.

Tasting Notes: The wine’s color was garnet, with a spectacular, complex and intense bouquet of cherry, raspberry, cocoa, nutmeg and hints of tobacco, licorice and minerals (granite). In the mouth, the wine was dry, with high ABV and silky smooth; it was acidic, gently tannic, and tasty, with full body and a long finish. A spectacularly exciting wine, already perfectly balanced and integrated after 11 years: a true sensory pleasure to be enjoyed with red meat or game dishes.

Rating: Spectacular Spectacular

  • Valtellina Superiore Sassella “Ultimi Raggi” Riserva DOCG 2006 (14% ABV)

ArPePe, Valtellina Superiore Sassella "Ultimi Raggi" RiservaThe Ultimi Raggi is Ar.Pe.Pe.’s late-harvest dry wine, made from 100% Nebbiolo grapes grown in the Sassella subzone vineyards at the highest altitude (about 1,950 feet/600 meters above sea level) and left on the vines to naturally dry and therefore concentrate and maximize sugar levels through a late harvest.

The wine is fermented for 20 days in wood fermenting barrels and aged for 24 months in large wood barrels, plus 12 additional months of in-bottle aging. The Ultimi Raggi retails in the US for about $79.

Tasting Notes: The wine’s color was garnet, with a complex, intense and explosive bouquet of spirited cherry, strawberry jam, raspberry, red fruit candy, cocoa, tobacco. In the mouth, the wine was dry, with high ABV and smooth; it was acidic, with supple tannins, and tasty, with mineral hints of granite. It was full-bodied and with a long finish. An outstanding, structured and masterfully balanced wine: the perfect companion for structured red meat or game dishes or seasoned cheeses.

Rating: Spectacular Spectacular

Meet the Maker: An Introduction to Valtellina’s Mountain Nebbiolo and Wines

After our post about Tenuta San Guido (the Bolgheri estate where Sassicaia is made) and our interview of Tenuta San Guido’s owner, Marchese Nicolo’ Incisa della Rocchetta, here come three new posts in our “Meet the Maker” series.

This time around we move from Bolgheri, Tuscany, all the way north to the Valtellina district in Lombardia to:

  1. Provide an overview of this very special area and its wines;
  2. Present one of the finest Valtellina producers, Ar.Pe.Pe., and taste certain of their wines; and
  3. Interview Isabella Pellizzatti Perego, Ar.Pe.Pe.’s enologist and co-owner.

Map of Valtellina

Map of Valtellina, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

About the Territory and History

The Valtellina district is an area in the northernest part of Italy’s Lombardia region, close to the border with Switzerland, that comprises two mountain ranges stretching from west to east (known, from north to south, as Alpi Retiche and Alpi Orobiche) and a narrow valley in between, where the town of Sondrio lies.

Due to the geography of this area, viticulture in Valtellina has always been challenging, since most of the vineyards grow at an altitude of about 1,300 to 2,300 feet (400 to 700 meters) above sea level on narrow stone-walled terraces carved from the steep southern slopes of the northern mountain range (Alpi Retiche), so as to maximize the grapevines’ sun exposure. The rocks of the Alpi Retiche mountain range are prevalently granite-based, which means that the soil where the Valtellina grapevines grow is a sand-limestone mix and a very shallow one, as it is often less than 3 feet/1 meter deep.

Valtellina’s harsh geography means that vineyard mechanization is virtually nonexistent, with grapevine treatments, pruning and harvesting being made exclusively by hand, thus significantly increasing the average production cost.


Valtellina mountain vineyards

Historically, the first evidence of viticulture in Valtellina dates back to the IX century (specifically, to year 837 of the Common Era). We have to wait until the XVI century, however, to have the first documented information about the size of the Valtellina vineyards, which back then were about 3,500 HA. As a result of the spread of the grapevine pathogen Uncinula necator (a fungus that causes powdery mildew of grapes) and the Grape phylloxera (an aphid-like pest that attacks the roots of Vitis vinifera grapevines and that almost completely destroyed the vineyards throughout Europe in the late XIX century), the overall size of the Valtellina vineyards dropped to less than 1,200 HA in the XX century.

The relevance of Valtellina as a wine grape landscape of significant cultural value is underscored by the fact that Italy put forward Valtellina’s candidacy (together with that of the Langhe/Roero/Monferrato area in Piemonte) to be nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site: Valtellina’s candidacy is currently still pending and is part of UNESCO’s Tentative List.

About the Appellations

The Valtellina district comprises two DOCG, one DOC and one IGT appellations, as follows:

  • Valtellina Superiore DOCG
  • Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG
  • Valtellina Rosso DOC
  • Terrazze Retiche di Sondrio IGT

The Valtellina Superiore DOCG appellation, which we are going to focus on for the purpose of this post, encompasses a territory of approximately 430 HA in the vicinities of the town of Sondrio. The appellation is further divided into five subzones, as follows:

  1. Grumello (about 78 HA)
  2. Inferno (about 55 HA)
  3. Maroggia (about 25 HA)
  4. Sassella (about 130 HA)
  5. Valgella (about 137 HA)

The appellation regulations require that wines be made from 90% or more Nebbiolo grapes and that they be aged (i) for a minimum of 24 months, at least 12 of which in wood barrels for the base version of Valtellina Superiore or (ii) for a minimum of 36 months, at least 12 of which in wood barrels for the “Riserva” version.

Ar.Pe.Pe.'s fermenting barrels

About the Grape Variety

As mentioned above, in Valtellina Nebbiolo (which is locally known as Chiavennasca – pronounced “key-avennasca”) is king.

The regulations of both of Valtellina’s DOCG appellations and the Valtellina Rosso DOC appellation all require that wines be made from 90% or more Nebbiolo grapes.

You can find several cool facts and much information about Nebbiolo on our Grape Variety Archive page (which has been compiled based on Information taken from the excellent volume Wine Grapes, by Robinson-Harding-Vouillamoz, Allen Lane 2012) – here is just a short abstract:

Nebbiolo is without a doubt Piemonte’s most world-famous black-berried grape variety. Researchers have recently been able to trace back the origins of (or at least the first documented reference to) Nebbiolo to 1266, at which time the grape was called Nibiol. This makes Nebbiolo one of the oldest grape varieties in Piemonte. While Nebbiolo is definitely an Italian indigenous variety, doubts still remain as to whether it originated from Piemonte or Valtellina (a mountainous district in the neighboring region of Lombardia, where Nebbiolo is still grown nowadays and locally known as Chiavennasca).


Ar.Pe.Pe.'s 5.5 HL wood tonneau aging casks

About the Wines

The wines of Valtellina are not very well known to the general public, but they resonate with Italian wine connoisseurs because those wines that are made by serious producers are fabulous Nebbiolo-based reds, that pack tons of quality and structure, are suitable for long-term aging and still can be had for significantly less expensive prices than their better-known counterparts from Piemonte.

Interestingly enough, 2013 marked the first year in which a wine from one of Valtellina’s top producers (Mamete Prevostini, Valtellina Superiore Sassella “Sommarovina” DOCG 2009) made it into Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2013 (in 82nd position – congratulations!): perhaps this will contribute bringing the wines of Valtellina more into the limelight with wine aficionados.

On the next post, we will focus on one among my absolute favorite Valtellina producers: Ar.Pe.Pe. and on a tasting of certain of their wines. On the last post of this mini-series, we will then publish an interview of Ar.Pe.Pe.’s enologist and co-owner, Isabella Pellizzatti Perego. Stay tuned! 🙂


Ar.Pe.Pe.'s enologist and co-owner with her brother Emanuele in their tasting room

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

Meet the Maker: A New Column plus a Tasting of Sassicaia 2010 and Its Little Brothers

Italy, Bolgheri: Carlo Paoli, Tenuta San Guido's General Manager

A New Column: Meet the Maker

This post is going to be the first in a new column that I thought I would call Meet the Maker – this column will provide interviews with wine producers or other key players in the wine industry.

When I decided to give this new feature a go, I thought I might as well just start big 😉 so with some luck and lots of gratitude to Carlo Paoli, the gracious General Manager of Tenuta San Guido, I had the pleasure of sitting down for an hour or so in the wine tasting room of Tenuta San Guido with Carlo and Mr Sassicaia himself, Marchese Nicolo’ Incisa della Rocchetta, who was kind enough to answer my questions while we were tasting the whole lineup of the estate, which was something pretty cool.

Italy, Bolgheri: Tenuta San Guido

About the Estate: Tenuta San Guido

But let’s start from the beginning: as you may know, Tenuta San Guido is a huge 2,500 HA estate that is located in that beautiful stretch of forested coastal Tuscany known as Maremma and it belongs to the Italian noble family of the Marchesi Incisa della Rocchetta. The estate encompasses a 513 HA wildlife preserve managed by the WWF (Oasi Padule di Bolgheri), the training facility for the Dormello-Olgiata thoroughbred race horses, the most famous of whom was legendary “superhorse” Ribot, and of course 90 HA of vineyards from which glorious Sassicaia plus two more wines (called Guidalberto and Le Difese) are made.

More specifically, 70 of those 90 HA of vineyards are dedicated to the production of Sassicaia and therefore are for the most part Cabernet Sauvignon with some Cabernet Franc. In the remaining 20 HA, Merlot and Sangiovese (the blending partners of, respectively, Guidalberto and Le Difese) are grown, beside Cabernet Sauvignon (the common variety in all three blends). Among the three labels, Tenuta San Guido produces about 700,000 bottles per year.

Italy, Bolgheri: vineyards approaching harvest time with the Bolgheri church in the background

On a previous post, I have provided a pretty detailed story of the vision of an enlightened man, Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta (Nicolo’s father, the creator of Sassicaia), how Sassicaia came to be and how it became the archetype of all Super Tuscans, so if you missed it, I would suggest you go back and take a look before you continue reading this post.

As is described in detail on that previous post, the turning point for Sassicaia was Marchese Mario’s intuition to hire Antinori’s enologist, Giacomo Tachis, in the late 1960’s. Tachis optimized Sassicaia’s production process turning Sassicaia from a good wine to the wine that was awarded a perfect 100 score by Robert Parker for the 1985 vintage. Mr Tachis, arguably the most famous and revered among Italian enologists, eventually retired and Graziana Grassini took the helm of making Sassicaia (along with the responsibility to ensure that the legend lives on) as of the 2009 vintage.

Italy, Bolgheri: Tenuta San Guido's wine aging cellar and wine tasting room

About the Appellation

Interestingly enough, in an effort to recognize Marchese Mario’s vision and tenacity in creating a wine that gave Italian winemaking international lustre and fame, in 1983 Italy created a DOC appellation called “Bolgheri DOC” that would encompass a small territory surrounding the Tuscan town of Castagneto Carducci (in the Maremma, near Livorno) and within that territory a specific subzone was identified by the name of “Sassicaia” which precisely matches those about 70 HA owned by Tenuta San Guido where the Sassicaia is made. This has been the first case in Italy in which an official subzone of an appellation has been created to precisely overlap with the area where a single producer’s wine is made. As a result, Sassicaia is the only wine that can be made in the “Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC” appellation.

In terms of permitted grape varieties, the “Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC” appellation requires the use of at least 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, which can be blended with up to 20% of other black-berried varieties permitted in Tuscany, and a minimum aging of 24 months, at least 18 of which must be in oak barrique casks.

Italy, Bolgheri: vineyards in the Bolgheri DOC appellation

Our Tasting Notes

Before moving on to the actual interview of Marchese Nicolo’ Incisa della Rocchetta (which will be the subject matter of the next post), these are my succint tasting notes of the three wines in the Tenuta San Guido lineup that I got to taste with the Marchese:

1. Le Difese 2011 ($35):

Italy, Bolgheri: An old well at Tenuta San GuidoTenuta San Guido’s entry-level wine, whose first vintage was 2002. It is a 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Sangiovese blend that is aged for 12 months in French and American oak barrique casks and is released ready to be enjoyed (it is not meant for aging).

Pleasant and linear, with no frills: nice (although not particularly intense) nose of wild berries with hints of licorice and ground coffee. Well integrated tannins and good structure in the mouth for an enjoyable red with a good QPR.

Rating: Good Good – $$

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

2. Guidalberto 2011 ($40):

Tenuta San Guido’s mid-range wine (not Sassicaia’s second wine, as the Marchese pointed out in the course of the interview). It was released with vintage 2000 and it is a 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot blend, aged for 15 months in mostly French and in small part American oak barrique casks, plus 3 additional months of in-bottle aging. The Guidalberto is a wine that can be enjoyed right away, but is meant for aging up to 10 years.

A very good wine, despite its young age, with an enticing nose of black berries, ground coffee, tobacco, cocoa and black pepper. In the mouth it was already round and smooth, with tame tannins and significant structure as well as a long finish. In my view, with a few more years under its belt, the Guidalberto will give plenty of joy to those who can wait.

Rating: Very Good Very Good – $$

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

Italy, Bolgheri: Tenuta San Guido's Sassicaia aging cellar

3. Sassicaia 2010 ($155):

The King of the Hill, of which we already said much in relation to its 1995 vintage on a previous post. It is an 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc blend that is fermented in steel vats and undergoes 15 days of maceration. It ages for 24 months in all French oak barrique casks plus 6 additional months in bottle. Sassicaia is a wine that is meant for aging and in my view it should not be enjoyed before at least 5/7 years after its vintage year.

The 2010 vintage that I tasted was already mind-blowing: the nose was very intense with a symphony of black cherries, blackberries, cocoa, licorice, coffee, sandalwood and leather. In the mouth it is still a bit “separate” in its core elements, which need time to fully assemble and integrate, but it already showed glimpses of how spectacular a wine it will be for those who can wait: full-bodied, with plenty of structure and tannins that are already supple, intense mouth flavors and good acidity, topped off by a long finish. Perfect to be cellared and forgotten for a few years and then enjoyed the way it deserves.

Rating: Outstanding Outstanding – $$$$$

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

Italy, Bolgheri: Tenuta San Guido's wine bar/store

That’s all for today: until the next post, which will feature my interview to Marchese Nicolo’ Incisa della Rocchetta.

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