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The Wine Spectator number 1 Wine of 2018 is Sassicaia 2015
Sassicaia, like many of the best things in life, began as an experiment, a passion project that came to fruition thanks to good fortune and hard work.
The wine began in the 1940s as a homemade red crafted by a curious Renaissance man trying to emulate Bordeaux on his Bolgheri estate near the Tuscan coast. It became the prototype of the nascent Bolgheri region, inspiring many others while establishing itself as one of the great wines of Tuscany and Italy. And now, in 2018, 50 years after the wine’s first commercial vintage, Tenuta San Guido Bolgheri-Sassicaia Sassicaia 2015 is Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year.
Sassicaia is an iconic wine, as blue-chip as first-growth Bordeaux, grand cru Burgundy or Napa Valley cult Cabernet. Although its character is austere in comparison to other Bordeaux-style blends from Bolgheri, it ages magnificently, as a tasting of the 1985 vintage at the estate late last year proved. In a stellar vintage like 2015, Sassicaia has everything: rich and concentrated black currant, blackberry, violet, mineral and spice flavors allied to a dense structure; vibrant acidity that drives the long aftertaste; and beautifully integrated oak, providing impeccable balance.
But the Sassicaia 2015 is very different from the early vintages made by Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, the wine’s creator. Those wines were produced from Cabernet Franc cuttings taken near Pisa and planted high on an inland hillside, near Castiglioncello. Though the original vineyard still exists, the bulk of Sassicaia’s vineyard parcels today are located at lower elevations.
“He was experimenting,” explains Mario’s granddaughter Priscilla Incisa della Rocchetta, who now manages the estate. Few innovators get it exactly right the first time around.
Ironically, the locals found Incisa della Rocchetta’s wine too green, preferring the light, fruity reds made from high-yielding Sangiovese. Nevertheless, after aging in cask and bottle for 10 years, Sassicaia was a revelation. It caught the attention of Piero Antinori, Mario’s nephew, who was enlisted to make Sassicaia known to the world. The debut commercial vintage was 1968.
With Antinori came his enologist, Giacomo Tachis, who applied his knowledge and skill to the development of Sassicaia. Vineyards lower on the slope and closer to the sea were planted, mostly to Cabernet Sauvignon, which became the backbone of the blend. Sassicaia today is typically 85 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 15 percent Cabernet Franc.
The new Sassicaia soon caught the attention of wine lovers worldwide. Yet it never lost its Old World character or its Tuscan roots. The 1985 and 1988 vintages are legendary, and the 2015 reveals all the hallmarks of a great Sassicaia that will one day enjoy a similar reputation.
Though the Tenuta San Guido estate grows other crops and raises and trains thoroughbred horses, wine became its main economic focus by the early 1970s. Mario’s son Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta took over from his father in the early 1980s; Nicolò’s daughter Priscilla now represents the third generation.
Since 2009, Carlo Paoli has been the estate director, overseeing a team of vineyard and cellar workers. Sassicaia is fermented in stainless steel and then aged in French oak casks, one-third new, for 24 months. Average annual production is 10,000 cases, making the wine widely available.
Tenuta San Guido produces two other red wines. Guidalberto is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (60 percent), including some young vines of Sassicaia, and Merlot. Eighty percent of the grapes come from a leased vineyard near the Sassicaia vineyard; the remaining fruit is purchased. Le Difese is the only San Guido red that contains any Sangiovese (40 percent), with the remainder Cabernet Sauvignon. Fruit for Le Difese comprises a combination of estate-grown and purchased grapes.
The Sassicaia story might never have been written at all if it weren’t for the personalities involved: fully committed and with the deep pockets to tackle the project. But it is a story with a happy ending, an amazing journey that began with the vision of its creator, shepherded along the way by some of Italy’s most respected vintners. Sassicaia has taken its rightful place in the pantheon of the world’s great wines and, spotlighted by the success of the 2015 vintage, it earns the honor of being named Wine Spectator Wine of the Year.
For Monica Larner, who took over the Italian reins of the Wine Advocate and who has had the 1985 numerous times, the 2015 is the second-highest scoring Sassicaia of all time, and she’s consumed all of them.
She writes, “Having followed this wine’s evolution in barrel for the past few years, it is an honor to evaluate the final product. This Sassicaia has blossomed since my previous encounters with it as a young, awkward adolescent. The long-awaited 2015 Bolgheri Sassicaia represents a tremendous effort that comes together with seamless precision and focus. This is a confident and proud red wine from Tuscany. Starting with the primary material at hand, you sense the quality of fruit thanks to the wine’s beautifully dark appearance and the rich texture it offers to the palate. The acidity is integrated, but more freshness still would have been welcomed in my view (and would also contribute to its longevity). The bouquet is amplified both in terms of volume and length. Its playlist includes dark berry fruit, spice, leather, licorice and roasted coffee bean. Yet, the mouthfeel is extremely graceful and silky. The wine’s undisputed pedigree is showcased on the palate. 97 points.”
Another critic who has enjoyed every vintage of Sassicaia since its inception is none other than James Suckling. For him, he ranked the 2015 one point higher than the fabled 1985, writing, “Love the aromas to this young red with blackcurrants, sage, cinnamon and five-spice character. Changes all the time. Full-bodied, dense and powerful with a ripe and rich tannin backbone that gives form and beauty to the ripe and beautiful fruit. Tight and very long. Approachable now but will reward more in five to six years. A classic Sassicaia. 98 points.”
Folks, these are not fly-by-night critics. These are two cats that have more experience with this wine than just about anyone else on the planet. When they give this wine that kind of score it equates to or surpasses all but the most legendary 1st Growth Bordeaux from the best vintages…but for a lot less.
Now for the best part. The 1985 Sassicaia sells for $3000 a bottle, if you can find it. The second-best (and maybe potentially, the best?) Sassicaia of all time, the 2015, sells for…$199.98.
Yes, this is a $200 bottle of wine that is a flat-out steal. They do exist, and this is one of them.
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, now oversees all estate operations.
Sassicaia means “the place of many stones,” and refers to the region’s gravel soil. The original vineyards have a southwest exposure with extensive sun and maritime breezes that create robust vegetation. The grapes were handpicked, destemmed and crushed before fermenting with natural yeasts for 15 days in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks. The wine was aged in French oak barriques (40% new) for 24 months, then refined for 6 months in bottle before release.
Always exciting to taste this icon wine on release, none more so than in block buster quality years like 2015. First bottled commercially in 1968, this 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc blend comes from vineyards at 100 to 400 metres altitude, planted in soils rich in limestone and clay. The aromatics are instantly noticeable for their deeper, darker, riper, broodier fruit profile. Fairly closed and tight on opening, the perfume is a little shy but you can sense the depth and complexity waiting to emerge from beneath. So many notes of pithy black cherries, black currant, leafy black plum and a sappy, resinous fragrance from the Cabernet Franc component. The oaking is almost imperceptible, allowing the fruit and mineral terroir notes to take centre stage. The palate shows beautiful poise, elegance and harmonious balance, framing the red and black berry fruits with incredibly dense, creamy, velvety tannins. The acids are fresh and vibrant, embroidering the palate and keeping it crystalline and vital. Beautifully complex at this youthful stage, it remains imposing yet light on its feet, concentrated but energetic and pure. With such depth of fruit, intense structure and graphite minerality, this vintage looks set for a very long and distinguished road of evolution. A really outstanding effort. Drink from 2022 to 2045+
(Wine Safari Score: 97+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)