The 2017 Sassicaia is a fascinating wine that symbolizes a never-ending tug-of-war between vintner and vintage. The question is who comes out on top? In this case, my money is on the vintner. The 2017 vintage, characterized by scorching heat and drought across much of Italy, was not an easy one. However, vintners had ample time to prepare because those climatic challenges had already played out midway through the summer season. Vintners with experience such as that amassed at Tenuta San Guido (now on the eve of Sassicaia's 50th birthday celebration) knew exactly how to handle the tricky 2017 growing season. Fruit was harvested early to avoid any jammy sensations, and a strict selection process was employed in order to preserve the best clusters. This Sassicaia represents 83% Cabernet Sauvignon and 17% Cabernet Franc, with most of the fruit coming from the Tenuta's historic vineyards Castiglioncello, Quercione and Doccino. These plots are all located on the back hill of Bolgheri at slightly higher elevations where they enjoy cooler nighttime temperatures. Old vines also have a deeper root system that is key to braving dry and hot summers. You can absolutely taste those choices here thanks to the wine's aromatic profile that offers more variety-driven green highlights of wild berry, forest floor and bramble than I would have expected. With time, as the wine takes on more air in the glass, you get a hint of summer plum or cherry cough drop, and this, to my surprise, is the only subtle reminder of the hot vintage encountered. I found the aromas here to be authentically "Tuscan" in character, more so than other vintages, with balsamic and Mediterranean elements that borrow directly from the Sangiovese playbook.
I left the wine in my glass over the course of a day, checking back periodically, to find a growing mineral profile of rust or metal that recalls the high concentration of iron and manganese found in these Bolgheri soils. Another vintage-specific adjustment made in 2017 was shorter overall maceration times in steel tanks (from 10 to 12 days for the Cabernet Sauvignon and eight to 10 days for the Cabernet Franc). However, pump-overs and délestages were almost doubled in order to introduce more oxygen to the yeasts during fermentations at lower temperatures. Based on my understanding of fermentation kinetics, this means the 2017 Sassicaia would have achieved the same amount of extraction in about half the time. This process champions the cool-temperature fermentations that are a hallmark of Tenuta San Guido, despite the heat of the vintage. This puts more emphasis on aromatic elegance and minerality, rather than mouthfeel texture or creaminess per se. In fact, the 2017 Sassicaia is much shorter in the mid-palate compared to 2015 or 2016. In terms of oak, Tenuta San Guido takes advantage of the softer tannins found in Allier and Tronçais oak. The 2017 vintage saw a greater percentage (from 20% to 30%) of third and fourth passage barrique during the first 10 months of aging. The decision to use more neutral oak favors the reduction of oxygen and softens the tannic profile. Although the wine does end with a hint of bitterness, it took on noticeably more volume and soft richness the longer I kept my sample in the glass. To recap my assessment, and with the memory of the 100-point 2016 vintage so fresh in my mind, I would give this wine a seven out of 10 in terms of aromas, a five out of 10 in terms of mid-palate, and an eight out of 10 in terms of structure. Another way to read those conclusions is as follows: The 2017 Sassicaia was expertly built to withstand a long aging future, yet only time will tell if the beauty of the bouquet will evolve at the same pace. This fascinating wine magically captures the hallmarks of cool-temperature winemaking in one of the hottest vintages in recent years. Vintners, not vintage, won this round.
This is a world preview of one of Italy’s most anticipated wines: Sassicaia. The 2017 vintage comes on the heels of the phenomenal 2016 vintage (which scored 100 points) and the beautifully exuberant 2015 vintage (which scored 97 points). The release of those back-to-back successes spurred an unprecedented Sassicaia buying spree that in turn drove growth for the entire market of fine Italian wines. The 2016 Sassicaia in particular has become a benchmark for a new generation of collectors. It is a symbol of the very happy chapter we are living in now on the extended timeline of vino italiano. The 2017 Sassicaia is a very different wine. Its character is more technical, inward-looking and inaccessible compared to the naturally exhilarating and effortless 2016 vintage. The 2017 vintage forces you to think about vintage challenges, winemaking variables and problem solving. The 2017 vintage was not easy and only the most experienced winemakers were able to navigate it successfully. Thanks to the significant know-how and foresight of its creators, the 2017 Sassicaia achieves all of its basic promises with success. However, 2017 will always be the vintage that comes after 2015 and 2016. Sassicaia Fast Facts: Tenuta San Guido covers 2,500 hectares of prime agricultural land near Bolgheri, on the Tuscan Coast. The estate counts 97 hectares of vines today. The first two hectares were planted in 1942, and following a few years of experimentation, the vineyard holdings grew substantially during the 1950s and 1960s to the current size. The first commercial vintage of Sassicaia is 1968. This historic Italian wine will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2021, when the 2018 vintage is released. Sassicaia was not produced in 1969 or 1973. The name Sassicaia comes from the stones, or “sassi" in Italian, found in the historic vineyard. Today, the extended Sassicaia vineyards see soils with alluvial deposits, a mix of silt, clay, sand, gravel and a high concentration of iron and manganese.
These give distinctly mineral traits to the wine that become more evident as it evolves. Some 207,000 bottles of the 2016 Sassicaia were made. In 2017, production volume was reduced by about 15%. This was due to strict fruit selection following a very hot and dry growing season. Harvest in 2017 came about nine days earlier compared to 2016, especially for the estate’s Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The Cabernet Sauvignon was picked one week earlier in 2017 compared to 2016. Despite a long and intricate family tree, here is a brief synopsis of three generations that own Tenuta San Guido: Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta married Clarice della Gherardesca. They had three children: Orietta (married name Hunyady), Enrico and Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta. Marchese Nicolò runs the estate today with a team of professional managers. He has one daughter, Priscilla. She has five cousins: Eleonora, Giovanni and Piero Incisa, and Stefano and Jozsef Hunyady. Mario Incisa della Rochetta created Sassicaia as a non-commercial “family wine.” Winemaker Giacomo Tachis started with the 1968 vintage and created the current blueprint for the wine. Today, Marchese Nicolò works with Tenuta San Guido General Director Carlo Paoli and the external winemaking consultant Graziana Grassini. Sassicaia is the only Italian wine that enjoys its own appellation, Bolgheri Sassicaia, founded in 1994. The appellation was initially a subzone of the Bolgheri DOC, but it became an independent DOC in January 2014. The precise blend of grapes used in the 2017 vintage is 83% Cabernet Sauvignon and 17% Cabernet Franc.
The classic formula for Sassicaia is 85% Sauvignon to 15% Franc. Fermentation in 2017 was shorter, with macerations lasting from 10 to 12 days for the Cabernet Sauvignon and eight to 10 days for Cabernet Franc. Macerations at Tenuta San Guido always occur in stainless steel tanks, with controlled temperatures and frequent délestages and pump-overs, giving oxygen to the yeasts and softening the tannins. During its first years of production, Sassicaia was aged in Slavonian oak casks. Today, Sassicaia is aged in French barriques (mainly from the Allier and Tronçais forests, which are known for softer tannins) for about 24 months. The barrels see medium toast and long seasoning (lasting 22 to 36 months). Bottling for the 2017 Sassicaia will start in mid-January. The samples I tasted did not benefit from final racking efforts nor did they go through the traditional bottling line.