The Legendary Sassicaia, and Other Iconic Italian Wines

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This guest post comes to us from Mira Advani Honeycutt, author of California’s Central Coast, The Ultimate Winery Guide: From Santa Barbara to Paso Robles. She frequently contributes wine and travel pieces to the Good Food Blog.

A selection of cheeses paired with Italian wines at Sofitel Hotel’s Esterel restaurant.

I have long waited to savor Tuscany’s Sassicaia, and here I was at Kobrand’s Italian tasting at Sofitel Hotel in Los Angeles, where this legendary glass of wine stood number four on a line-up of seven iconic Italian wines.

So after tasting – and spitting since we started at 11 A.M. – the first three, Pinot Grigio, Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino, I picked up a glass of the ruby-hued Tenuta San Guido’s Sassicaia (2010). A riot of wild herbs mixed with spice and complex aromas of red and black fruits, the wine was utterly graceful with elegant tannins and a long finish. I say finish, because I did take a sip or two and let the heavenly experience linger on for a moment. No, I didn’t finish the pour, but I also did not use the dump bucket.

Sassicaia wines are Cabernet Sauvignon-based and blended with a small percentage of Cabernet Franc. Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta was the first to plant this varietal in Tuscany’s Bolgheri region back in 1940, said Piero Incisa dell Rocchetta, a third-generation winemaker. However, these wines were not released commercially until 1968 and then simply as table wine. His grandfather, said Piero, gave them the name of Sassicaia (meaning stones) due to the region’s gravely soil.

Incisa dell Rocchetta pouring a Teunta San Guido wine.
Incisa dell Rocchetta pouring a Teunta San Guido wine. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

This wine not only set the benchmark. It also started a trend for other Cabernet-based wines made by Tuscan producers, later dubbed “Super Tuscans.” Piero is not too pleased when this word is applied to Sassicaia, because it does not contain the Sangiovese varietal. (A typical Super Tuscan is a combination of Cabernet and/or Merlot blended with Sangiovese.) However, the winery’s sister label Guidalberto — Cabernet blended with Merlot and Sangiovese — certainly would qualify as Super Tuscan.

In 1994, Bolgheri Sassicaia received its own DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) appellation, the only single estate in Italy to enjoy this privilege. The family also produces wines in Umbria and Sardinia and an elegant Pinot Noir called Barda from Patagonia in Argentina.

Exploring Italian wines is like getting lost in a maze — so many varietals, labels, appellations, regions, etc. To add to this confusion, in some regions wines are named after the grape variety while in others they’re named after the village. So in Piedmont, Barolo wine is named for its village, while Barbera is named after the varietal.

To simplify the experience, the tasting included wines from seven key regions:  Piedmont, Tuscany, Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino Alto-Adige, Umbria and Sardinia.

Line-up of Italian wines
Lineup of Italian wines (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

We started with Fernando Pighin & Figli’s 2012 Pinot Grigio from Friuli’s Collio appellation. The wine was aromatic yet it had a bracing acidity and citrusy notes.

In the red line-up there were two Cabernet-based wines. The 2010 Il Pareto, from Chianti’s Tenuta di Nozzole winery, is a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon with classic notes of cassis, vanilla and spice.

“Purists from Tuscany say why Cabernet, but our Cabernet has identity, it has good Tuscan notes, leathery and earthy with good acidity” said Giovanni Folonari, an eighth-generation winemaker.

Layered with black fruits and chocolate notes, the Tuscan 2011 Oreno from Tenuta Sette Ponti was a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Petit Verdot.

A 100% Nebbiolo from Piedmont, the 2009 Cerequio Barolo, was a mix of spice and black fruit on the nose, full bodied with a finesse and supple tannins. Alberto Chiarlo, son of the winemaker Michele, commented that uncorking the 2009 is like committing infanticide. “This wine will be good in five years and great when it’s 15 to 20 years.”

The 2006 Manchiara Brunello di Montalcino, a 100% Sangiovese Grosso from Tenute Silvio Nardi, was lush with ripe fruit and well-balanced with supple tannins and acidity.

The tasting ended with the Mazzano Amarone from Veneto’s Masi Agricola, a vineyard that dates back to 1772. Made from a blend of Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara varietals, Amarone is produced in the ancient method of ‘appasimento’ (drying of the grapes).

After harvest, grapes are dried on bamboo racks in naturally ventilated lofts for three to four months and the crush is done in February. The grapes do not shrivel up, but they do lose some of their moisture.

This is not a raisin-y wine, but a perfect combination of tannins, acidity and color. On the nose it’s a burst of violets and plums and it’s simply delicious on the palate.