Close Menu

Sassicaia 2021: ‘We stay with our feet on the ground’

The release of a new vintage of Sassicaia is quite an event in the fine wine world, but the approach from the Incisa della Rocchetta family eschews hype and fanfare in favour of self-assured understatement. Richard Woodard reports.

The first chance to taste a new vintage of Sassicaia is a pretty big deal, but there’s a strong argument to say that this isn’t even the hottest ticket of the day for wine lovers in London… at the same moment, in the offices of Corney & Barrow across town, the trade is tasting the frost-hit 2021s from a small Burgundy estate by the name of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

Then again, you sense that the Incisa della Rocchetta family, owners of Sassicaia estate Tenuta San Guido, don’t mind ceding the spotlight to the most famous name in fine wine. Indeed, this down-to-earth sense of understatement is a key part of the estate’s charm.

“People are drawn to San Guido, the history, the type of people we are,” says Priscilla Incisa della Rocchetta, head of external relations and daughter of San Guido president Marquis Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta. She describes her father as “shy, a man of few words, but always to the point”, adding: “Fortunately, myself and my cousins [there are five in total] are all quite similar, so we are a nice group.

“People ask all the time: ‘How did you build your brand like this?’ but there’s no formula, it just happens. We stay with our feet on the ground.”

Perhaps it helps that, in stark contrast to the monoculture of the Côte de Nuits, wine is only a small part of the Tenuta San Guido story. This vast Bolgheri estate of 2,500 hectares encompasses a large forest, olive trees, arable crops, a world-renowned horse stud and the Padule di Bolgheri nature reserve and wetland. Vines occupy only 4% of the total acreage.

To a wine lover, Tenuta San Guido means Sassicaia, but horseracing enthusiasts will associate the place with Ribot, bred by the San Guido stud and one of the greatest horses of the 20th century – unbeaten in 16 races in the mid-1950s, including two consecutive Prix de l’Arc the Triomphes and one King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.

Horses and farming were the twin passions of Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, father of Nicolò and grandfather of Priscilla, when he moved to San Guido after the Second World War, having married Clarice della Gherardesca in 1930. Wine was perhaps not quite an afterthought, but it was only a small part of the picture, and one that Mario Incisa approached with some caution.

“The first wine was made from a one-hectare parcel of vines, planted on top of a hill, facing south-east,” says Priscilla. “At the time, they were not sure if the winds from the sea would be good or bad for the grapes. The vines were south-east-facing for that reason.”

Perhaps the Sangioveses of inland Tuscany would have been the obvious vinous inspiration here, but the gravelly soils put Mario Incisa in mind of the Cabernet Sauvignons of Graves, which he adored. Sassicaia takes its name from this stony ground.

‘Our house wine’

Sassicaia is also famous for not being famous, and for decades – “It was really our house wine,” as Priscilla puts it. Instead it was a wine experiment tested only on family and friends until 1971, and the commercial release of the 1968 vintage.

Since then, the changes have been minimal. As Sassicaia’s star has risen, what was once essentially a one-man operation under the legendary Giacomo Tachis has evolved into a team approach, spearheaded since 2009 by general manager and winemaker Carlo Paoli.

Meanwhile, Sassicaia remains a Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant wine alongside Cabernet Franc (typically 85%/15%; the DOC stipulates at least 80% Cab Sauvignon). Cabernet/Merlot blend Guidalberto was added in 2000; Cabernet/Sangiovese blend Le Difese in 2002.

Newly-released Le Difese 2022 is, in Priscilla’s words, “the first step into the Tenuta San Guido world”, originally a Cabernet-dominated blend but, since the hot year of 2020, 55% Sangiovese, sourced from Chianti and Chianti Rufina (there’s not much Sangiovese in Bolgheri).

Since the change to the blend, the time in oak has been cut from 8-10 months to 4-6 months, with no new wood, making for a wine with immediate appeal. “It can age for five, six, 10 years, but it’s not the purpose,” explains Priscilla. “It’s a wine to be enjoyed when it’s youthful.”

The same can’t be said of Sassicaia 2021. Even after double-decanting an hour-and-a-half before tasting, it’s still tight-knit and needs plenty of coaxing out of the glass – but then it was only bottled in January.

The precision, freshness, plushly sweet fruit and backbone are apparent, and denote a “classic” – in other words, not too hot – year. “It’s a bit similar to the 2019 vintage in the way that we had at the end very favourable weather conditions,” says Priscilla, highlighting the gentle rain at the close of the growing season that lends the wine an extra dimension of freshness.

Priscilla likens the year to 2016, 2011 and 1998 – all tasted alongside 2021 during the release event – although variations are also apparent, from 2016’s magnitude and balance to the greater warmth and evolution of 2011 (even in magnum), and the beautiful, lifted, slightly leafy character of 1998.

The blockbuster 2015 was famously Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year in 2018, but time has seen 2016 – a fresher, more classic year – emerge as arguably an even greater vintage.

“It is very much about elegance and balance,” says Priscilla of Sassicaia 2021, and the other vintages tasted. “We like this style, which is not so much about body. These wines are all good representatives of what we want to convey as a style. We have many different styles in Bolgheri. You have this, and you have that, and the consumer can make their choice.”

To which she might have added: “And that’s fine.” There’s a feeling of constancy and consistency about Sassicaia – a sense of a wine that, more than 50 years after that first commercial release, is secure in its own identity, doesn’t go chasing the latest fashion, and is content, on occasion, to concede the limelight to others.

The wines of Tenuta San Guido, including Sassicaia 2021 and Le Difese 2022, are represented in the UK by Armit Wines

It looks like you're in Asia, would you like to be redirected to the Drinks Business Asia edition?

Yes, take me to the Asia edition No