VINO 2010: Sassicaia & the Cradle of Italian Cabernet

The wine blogger gasped. “Attilo Scienza was here? And the room was half empty?” Indeed, the threat of a snowstorm and Friday restaurant duties kept many from hearing the best speaker at VINO 2010, the Italian wine conference in New York (February 3-5).

A professor of enology at the University of Milan, Attilo Scienza is one of the greatest authorities on the science of the vine. In his introduction to the panel “Tuscany’s Coastline: Bolgheri and Morellino di Scansano,” the grey-haired prof launched into a fascinating portrait of terroir in coastal Tuscany.

He explained how the hills around Bolgheri and Scansano—the main wine towns in the Maremma—were once islands in an archipelago. As Africa pushed towards Europe, tectonic plates buckled upward to form the Alps, Pyrenees, and Apennines. At the same time, this shift closed the Gates of Gibraltar, turning the Mediterranean into a desert. Eventually as Africa continued its northward drift, Gibraltar re-opened. This rush of water created the hills and valleys at the foot of the Apennines and accounts for the vastly different soil deposits in Tuscany’s coastal wine region, which range from marine sand to 100-million-year-old soil from the 3rd geological era.

Why should we care? Because differences in terroir explain the mystery of Sassicaia, for one. It also explains why sangiovese prefers the hills, while the Bordeaux grapes that created the original Super Tuscan—cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon—prefer the coastal plains.

Fast forward to Sassicaia. Until the 1970s, the Maremma was known for its racehorses, not its wine. One prized horse, Ribot, came from the stables of the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta. “He had a great horse, but not a great wine,” says Prof. Scienza. Tired of thin local sangiovese, the piemontese transplant tried his luck with other Tuscan grapes, but without success. He turned to wine critic Luigi Veronelli for advice, as well as enologists Emil Peynaud from Bordeaux and Giacomo Tachis, then working with the Marchese’s cousin, Piero Antinori. They convinced him to plant bordelaise grapes, reasoning that Bolgheri’s low coastal terrain was similar to the alluvial plains of Bordeaux.

“Here the story becomes mysterious,” Scienza recounts. Some say he took his cabernet cuttings from Chateau Lafite Rothschild; others insist they came from the Bordeaux property of his wife’s family; still others says they were obtained from a nursery near Pisa. Likewise, there’s confusion as to whether he planted cabernet franc or cabernet sauvignon, since the Italians didn’t distinguish at the time.


The Marchese first planted cabernet along with Italian grapes on a hilltop vineyard at Castiglioncello, his wife’s property. The cabernet clearly liked the climate, outperforming the Italian varietals. He then looked for land closer to the sea, choosing a plot called Sassicaia, named for its abundant rocks, or sassi. “It was a very strange choice,” Scienza notes. “It’s only in that exact spot that this type of soil exists in Bolgheri. It came from the waves of a torrent”—deposited there during the flooding of the Mediterranean eons ago. “It’s rich in metals and has a clay content that’s not present elsewhere in Bolgheri. This is important for giving wines long life.” Resembling the gravelly soil of Graves in Bordeaux, the Sassicaia vineyard gave birth to the eponymous wine, commercially launched in 1968 by the Marchese’s Tenuta San Guido estate and considered the first Super Tuscan.

From the beginning, this coastal cabernet led a charmed life. When the Marchese introduced it in 1960 at a blind tasting in London, it beat the great names of Bordeaux and took first place. At a blind tasting the following year, it won best cabernet in the world. By the late 1990s, the Italian authorities recognized that the wine’s terroir was truly unique and granted it its own DOC, called Bolgheri Sassicaia—the only DOC in Italy given to a single wine estate.

The Marchesi never aimed to make a blockbuster cab. His goal was French elegance. In this, he was helped by Bolgheri’s climate. Wedged between the sea and the Apennines, the zone enjoys extreme temperature excursion owing to air currents from the sea and the mountains, which cool off the hot coastal plains at night and provide a freshness to the wine.

Today, notes Scienza, “all the wineries in Bolgheri are faithful to the formula and principles of the Marchese. They didn’t create a revolution, but maintained his principles.”

French grapes under a Tuscan sun—that’s one part of Super Tuscans’ magic. The other comes from the geological upheavals and aquatic forces that rearranged the Tuscan coast eons ago. As Scienza puts it, “theanima or soul of Bolgheri is in the terroir.”

A visit to Sassicaia is included in XTREME TUSCANY, La Dolce Vita Wine Tours' 6-day tour in Bolgheri and Montalcino.