The saying “behind every great wine is a great man” is fairly true in the history of wines.
Several of todays legendary wines have born just because of the force and foresight of these wine pioneers who had the vision and courage to create something out the ordinary in their own region. Often these men lived and influenced wine areas, which prior to their success had produced mediocre wines at most for decades or even for centuries.
In a way Brunello di Montalcino owes its origin to the Ferruccio Biondi Santi, The Bodegas Vega Sicilia Unico to Domingo de Garramiola y Arbe, Château Musar to Gaston Hochar, Penfolds Grange to Max Schubert, Barca Velha to Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, and Tignanello to Marchese Piero Antinori, as does Sassicaia to Marquis Mario Incisa della Rochetta.
Sassicaia was the drive and foresight of Marquis Mario Incisa della Rochetta, a native of Piedmont, along with the guidance from Piero Antinori´s winemaker Giacomo Tachis. In the 1920s, whilst a student in Pisa, Marquis Mario Incisa della Rochetta dreamed of creating a “refined” wine. Like many of the Italian aristocracy at the time, he preferred the taste of the finest Bordeaux – Château Margaux was particularly his favorite. This is how he described it in a letter to the esteemed wine critic, Luigi Veronelli dated 11 June 1974:
“…the origins of my experiment date back to the years between 1921 and 1925 when, as a student in Pisa and often a guest of the Salviati Dukes in Migliarino, I drank a wine produced from one of their vineyards…which had the same unmistakable “bouquet” as an aged Bordeaux….”
In the 1940s, having settled with his wife Clarice on the Tenuta San Guido on the Tyrrhenian coast, he experimented with several French grape varieties (whose cuttings he had recovered from the estate of the Dukes Salviati in Migliarino) and concluded that the Cabernet had "the bouquet I was looking for."
A wine made mainly from Cabernet Sauvignon was a fundamental change to the Tuscan and Piedmont tradition of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, respectively. The innovative decision to plant this variety at Tenuta San Guido was partly due to the similarity Mario Incisa had noted between Tuscan terrain and that of Graves in Bordeaux. Graves’, or ‘gravel’ in French refers to the rocky terrain which distinguishes the Bordeaux area; similarly, the gravely vineyard sites in Tuscany impart the same characteristics on Sassicaia, "stony ground", as its cherished French brother.
In 1942 he planted one thousand cuttings of Cabernet vines on the hillsides of Castiglioncello, which in his opinion was influenced by the location’s similarity to graves in Bordeaux. “Graves” means “gravel” in French, and likewise, the earth at Castiglioncello gave Sassicaia its name, which in Tuscan dialect means “stony grounds”. To make wine that had Cabernet Sauvignon as its primary variety was a brave decision and took courage in those days, when no one had even considered to make wines from Bordeaux varieties on Italian soil. Despite protest from the local´s, he kept experimenting with Cabernet Sauvignon as a sideline, separate from the main family business of raising thoroughbred racehorses. Nevertheless it was never his intention to make commercial wine; he “unintentionally” created the most influential wine in modern Italian history.
The Marchese's first vintages were not warmly received. Critics accustomed to light, local wines were not encouraging; it was not taken into consideration that wines made from the more complex Cabernet Sauvignon grape would need more time to mature and develop.
And thus from 1948 to 1967, Sassicaia remained a strictly private affair, only to be consumed at Tenuta San Guido.
Each year, a few cases were stored to age in the Castiglioncello di Bolgheri cellar. The Marchese soon realized that by ageing the wine it improved considerably.
In the mid 1960s he planted two more vineyards with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. The first one, new “Sassicaia” vineyard (about 10 hectares), was situated approximately 300 meters lower than the original vineyard, as was the second one “Aianova” vineyard (three hectares). In time all the wines produced from these vineyards became known as Sassicaia.
Friends and relatives now urged Mario Incisa to experiment further with his project and perfect his revolutionary winemaking style. It was not until beginning of 1970s that Sassicaia was first commercially released – the welcome was worthy of a Bordeaux Premier Cru.
After almost 30 years of experimentation and solid work the Marquis decided to release Sassicaia´s 1968 vintage to the open market using his cousin´s, Antinori´s distribution network in the early 1970s, with instant sensation. At a Decanter tasting of Cabernet wines in London, 1978, Sassicaia from vintage 1972 beat all the other 33 wines of France and California, and since then Sassicaia has been one of the leading wines in the world and in great demand among wine collectors and investors. The marquis Mario Incisa della Rocchetta passed away in 1983. His son, Marquis Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta, took over all estate operations.
In 1994 Sassicaia was granted its own DOC (Sassicaia DOC), the only wine from a single estate in Italy to enjoy this privilege. Before that, and in similarity to other wines made outside the traditional DOC/DOCG regulations, Sassicaia was classified as an Indicazione geografica tipica (IGT). Initially it was a Vino da tavola, which is normally a category for wines of little complexity.
The 2000 vintage was the first release of a new IGT Toscana wine—called Guidalberto—from newly planted vineyards dedicated to its production. Named after Guidalberto della Gherardesca, a maternal ancestor of Nicoló Incisa who cultivated vines in Bolgheri in the 19th century, the wine is conceived differently from Sassicaia but shaped by the same soil and climate.
Introduced in 2002, Le Difese is an IGT Toscana companion wine to Guidalberto, sharing Sassicaia’s pedigree but highlighting different aspects of the winery.