Topic: TN: Sassicaia 1979 - 1997
Author: Bill Spohn
Date: 20031129191102

I have had a long time appreciation for Sassicaia. Seven years ago, I arranged a vertical tasting of eleven vintages, and I wanted to repeat the event to see how the wines had matured, and to see how the newer vintages compared with the old ones, so I set up a 14 vintage vertical to survey the wines.

In my experience, there is no substitute for being able to taste the wines together at the same time, in order to form a sense of what the wine is all about. There are always differences attributable to the vintages, but there are commonalties you can see that are at the root of what the wines are. Once you have gone through this process, you can say that you really know something about the wine - it is totally different from trying to form an opinion based on one vintage you tasted last month, another a year ago, a third tonight.

All of these wines were sourced from my cellar, where they had resided since release, except for the 81, which came from a cooler cellar, the better to ensure it was still in good shape, and the 1996 and 1997, one of which flew in for the event from Toronto with its owner.

If you visit the website for Sassicaia, you will get a slightly Bowdlerised version of the history of the wine. There is no mention anywhere of Giacomo Tachis, the winemaker from the first commercial vintage in 1968 until the early 1990s, and the story of the carefully planned viticultural journey from planting specific varietals to winemaking techniques would indeed seem quite odd to Tachis, who relates a somewhat different tale.

The vineyards at Bolgheri were planted in the usual hit and miss fashion, with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, cannaiolo and sangiovese intermixed. The latter two were eliminated early on (the wine is now 10-15% cab franc, the rest cab sauvignon), and the first vintage was 1968. If you read the material on the site, you'd believe this debut was carefully planned - if you listen to Tachis, who made the wine, it was a combination of wine salvaged from casks of 1965, 1966, 1967, and mostly 1968, blended and issued as a single vintage, the balance discarded.

By the 70s, they had sorted the vineyards out and refined the winemaking technique to the extent that they merited the reputation as the first and perhaps most reliable 'Super-Tuscan', a wine made from varietals not allowed by the DOC rules of the region, and thus (until it was awarded a DOC designation for 1994, the first single wine DOC) it was sold as a vino da tavola.

That this wine is remarkably reliable even in weak vintages, a testament to technique as much as terroir was amply demonstrated in our tasting, which spanned three decades, from 1979 to 1997.

Here are the notes:

1991 - I started with this wine as I predicted that it would be the weakest of the modern vintages. We drank it while I talked a bit about the tasting and the wines. The best part was the nose, for the wine was a bit tannic and tart, and the lean profile was acceptable only when taken with food. Definitely the weakest wine there, and in comparison to the 1991 Tignanello that I opened for lunch the next day, a less satisfying experience (probably the only vintage I can think of where the Tig out-shone the Sassicaia).

1980 - a decent mature nose, nice weight in the mouth, soft and ready, with a nice reprise of fruit right at the end. Perhaps the only wine detectably on the 'other side of the hill'. It faded in the glass, but was presentable at the beginning.

1986 - much riper fruit in the nose of this wine, and weightier in the mouth, with the tannins of the vintage finally softened to allow it to be enjoyed.

We had lamb carpaccio with Reggiano, capers, and extra virgin oil from Sassicaia that I had picked up on a trip to Italy a few years ago with this flight.

1979 - this wine has never received much respect from the reviewers, nor the winemaker, but when we tasted it seven years ago, it showed beautifully and was one of the favourite wines. It started off poorly, though it had good colour, and I was at first disappointed with the wine, as it seemed too acidic and closed. Then it started to open and showed some cocoa/mocha in the nose, with good sweetness on palate. Not as good as it was in the first tasting, but nonetheless still enjoyable now.

1989 - tough year for the region, but this wine wasn't shabby at all - a bigger, riper more fruit driven nose, and a good tannin to fruit balance. Best wine so far.

Served with pan seared sweetbreads with spiced lentils, 'candied' prosciutto and truffle sauce.

1982 - a really attractive mocha and cassis nose, smooth, balanced, long and sweet. This wine had the sweetest fruit so far, and was the first one that had a level of terminal acidity and structure that would allow it to masquerade as a Bordeaux in a blind tasting. It was also the favourite wine of the night for a couple of people. Lovely!

1983 - the nose on this one was a bit reticent and took longer to open up, but eventually showed as a bit riper, perhaps even better balanced than the 82. An elegant wine.

Served with rabbit loin stuffed with it's own liver, sweet potato roesti and Port reduction.

1981 - good colour, a nice high-toned nose of cocoa and fruit, excellent sweet fruit on palate, not too much acidity, and very much like a Bordeaux. This was the last one I was worried about being in good shape, and I gave a figurative sigh of relief once we reached this point, as all the rest were sure to be good.

1990 - this wine was very good - sweet currant and vanilla in the nose, very full in the mouth, good concentration and sweet fruit like the 82, and the more typical slightly high terminal acidiy. Will last for years, but drinks very well now. I cannot recall why I didn't buy more of this vintage!

Served with a wild mushroom ragout with roasted garlic on a brioche.

1985 - this flight were the big guns - this wine is a Parker 100, and it is really amazing. Very dark; even more so than the already quite dark wines that preceded it. The nose was a wonderful, luscious black currant extravaganza topped off with cedar and a little tar. In the mouth, it had a creamy smooth feel, and the fruit was exemplary with layers of subtlety. The tannins are soft, the acid lively, and the wine has many years to go yet. It is a truly great wine, and when I see reports that some people think it to be over the hill, I have to attribute it to poor storage or lack of tasting experience. It is magnificent, but having said that, it is also a bit of a blonde among a family of brunettes - all of the previous wines were clearly identifiable as cut from the same cloth, while this one was qualitatively different, a more international style of wine with less regional typicity.

1988 - it is always a bit unfair to compare wines as good as these, but either would overwhelm any of the other vintages, so I elected to taste them against each other. In fact while we tried many of the pairings at the beginning of the courses, together, we most often drank one wine, then moved on to the next, as this method allows the best opportunity to savour the merits of each wine. The 1988 had a rich nose, and was forward and ready, sweet in the mouth, with great length. One to drink while waiting for the 85 to develop.

Served with Tournedos Rossini on scalloped potatoes.

1995 - I elected to serve the last 3 vintages from the 90s together with cheese, which included the often dreaded Vacherin de Mont d'Or, this one at a perfect stage of ripeness, and therefor approachable with pleasure. Dark, with a sweet oak/cassis/anise nose. An unusually sweet entry followed by a well structured forward and drinkable wine with quite a few years of potential ageing ahead.

1996 - a similar sweet profile, bright, with the most tannins of the three, and with the nicest nose, I thought. I have a concern about the level of fruit in proportion to tannin, but trust that it will all sort out in a few years.

1997 - a good nose in the same style, a bit more terminal acidity, good structure and fruit, but not as fresh as the 1995.

While we could see the family resemblance of this trio to the previous wines, they did seem to be cut from a different template, more fruit and sweeter, and the tannins not as tight as the others were at that age. This is nothing new - many areas went through a revolution in winemaking at the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s, and added to this is the fact that Tachis, who made all of the other wines, was replaced by a new winemaker for these vintages. It will take a taster with either more experience, or a better crystal ball than I possess to predict whether these wines will fit easily into the traditional Sassicaia lineage, or if they represent a departure in a new direction for the winery.

At the end of the event there was demand made to repeat this tasting again in another 5-7 years. Some of the older wines would by then be beyond their drinking plateau, but new vintages could be added to extend the vertical forward, and perhaps the correct place for the 90s wines could then be more accurately assessed. I had five people from the original 1997 event at this tasting. Maybe we should get together again in 2008 or so to repeat the experience.