Marchese Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta Sassicaia

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen

Sassicaia, Bolgheri 2018
 

Sassicaia, Bolgheri 2018


 
 

A conversation with Marchese Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta on his magnificent estate about the legendary Tuscan Sassicaia wine and also how the Incisa della Rocchetta family became world-class breeders of racehorses.
 
 

The story starts in the early 1920s when Sassicaia’s founding father, Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, was captivated by the dream of making a great Tuscan wine which would resemble the Bordeaux wines he admired so much. In his student days in Pisa, Mario had been a frequent guest of the Salviati Dukes in Migliarino, drinking wine from their vineyards which had a Bordeaux-type bouquet that came close to what he was searching for. Years later, Mario and his wife Clarice settled on the Tenuto San Guido estate in Bolgheri on the Tyrrhenian coast in Tuscany. A beautiful estate, renowned not only for its classic Tuscan castello but also for its unique, rustic setting in the Bolgheri wetlands, famed for the wide variety of birds that visit in winter and spring and now a World Wildlife Fund protected site. Mario had noticed the similarity between the stony, gravelly terroir and the Graves terroir in Bordeaux, which got its name from the gravel there. He then made the key decision to use the Bordeaux blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc grapes, thus breaking with the ancient Tuscan tradition of using the sangiovese and nebbiolo grapes. An innovative, daring choice, enhancing the unique taste and composition of the Sassicaia wine. Without it, Sassicaia would not be the great Tuscan wine it is today. Though Mario started his experiments with French grape varieties in the early 1940s, it took the family two decades of refining the wine before deciding to bring it to market in a highly successful commercial launch of the 1968 vintage. Piero Antinori of the famous Tuscan wine family, and a nephew of Mario, was hired to introduce the Sassicaia 1968 vintage to the world. The welcome was worthy of a Bordeaux premier cru. Prior to the 1968 vintage, Sassicaia was primarily for local consumption. Then Mario discovered that ageing the wine, allowing it to mature and develop, would allow Sassicaia to grow to excellence. The 1968 vintage and subsequent famous vintages—1985, 1988,1998 and 2005—rank Sassicaia as among the leading wines in the world. Today, Sassicaia is a truly superb wine, one-of-a-kind, which has grown beyond the stage of comparison with other great wines, be they from Bordeaux or Tuscany. The Incisa della Rochettas are not only famous for their wines, they also breed horses. Ever since 1932, when Mario became a partner of the famed racehorse breeder, Federico Tesio, the family has been involved in breeding world-class, champion racehorses. Their stallions are legendary: Teso, Nearco and, foremost, Ribot, which many experts say was one of the best racehorses of all time. The incredible accomplishments of this one family make one wonder: how did they reach world-class levels in producing wine as well as breeding horses? What is the secret, the magic of Sassicaia? Who will lead Sassicaia into the future? The list goes on. Time to talk to Marchese Nicolò Incisa della Rochetta, Mario’s son and the man who has led the Sassicaia and Incisa-Teso businesses since his father passed away. Nicolò has grown both to their current heights, although as a modest and softly-spoken man he would never admit that himself. We met Nicolò at the stables where he prefers to start his working days by visiting the horses and horsemen. You clearly sense his passion for breeding when you see him in these equestrian surroundings.
 
 

Mart Engelen: We have thoroughbred horses and wine. A remarkable combination. Which came first, the wine or the horses?
Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta: In 1930, the year he married, my father became a partner of Federico Tesio, who ran a well-known racing stable at the time.
ME: So, the horses were there before the wine.
NIdR: Before Sassicaia, yes. My father had always envisioned creating a wine of his own but in the early days of his marriage he lived in Rome and was more occupied with racehorses than with wine. And he was very successful, especially considering that Italy was not a traditional place for breeding racehorses, like England or France.
ME: How is it possible for your family to have achieved such excellence in both wine-making and horse breeding? What is the ‘family secret’?
NIdR: For the horses, the secret is maybe that my father’s business partner, Mr Tesio, was the first person to dedicate himself full-time to horse breeding. He treated it as a profession, not a private pastime. It was his job; that’s kind of how it started.
For the wine, I think the secret is in nature. Finding the right land and climate. Together with the blend of grapes, this produces the wine. Our German distributor once said that the special thing about Sassicaia is that it is already good when relatively young and it improves with age, while Bordeaux wines need to age for longer. With the wine we were very lucky to find the right combination of land and climate.
(Editor’s Note: NIdR modestly added that with horses it is easier to find land but rather than boasting about how the family reached the world top in breeding horses, he let their achievements speak for themselves, not giving away the secret of the family’s success to the interviewer).
ME: How do you divide your time between the wine and the horses?
NIdR: We have somebody who is very well qualified for the wine. For the horses, it is much more complicated. ME: With the wine you know its secrets, it is more about maintaining and further enhancing the tradition. But the horses are quite a different story.
NIdR: Yes.
ME: How many jockeys do you employ?
NIdR: Fifteen in total, in fact three horses per jockey. ME: Back to the wine. Next to Sassicaia, you also produce Guidalberto and Le Difese. What is the reason for producing wines other than Sassicaia?
NIdR: The land suitable for Sassicaia is limited. When we reached the limit, and as demand for our wine was ever increasing, we decided to expand and produce other, more accessible wines in terms of price and taste.
ME: You of course have the great and legendary Sassicaia
vintages of 1985, 1998 and 2005 which received incredible ratings, but what are your own favourites?
NIdR: Personally, the 1988 has been my favourite for a long time. In fact, “8″ is somewhat of a lucky number for us, as 1968, 78, 88, and 2008 were all great vintages.
ME: So are we going to see another great vintage, this year, 2018?
NIdR: Yes. And returning to the 1985, Robert Parker gave it a very good rating.
ME: 100 points…
NIdR: (modestly) Yes. Last year, during an event in Asia, Robert Parker said that if he had to rate the 1985 Sassicaia today he would give it 150 points! (Laughs, not so modestly this time.)
ME: What about vintages that were of lesser quality? NIdR: Well, that is difficult to say. For example, the 2002 was not so well received by the press upfront, but it developed into a very nice year after all. And the same story for the 1984, weak reception by the press but still it reached 97 Parker points.
ME:The taste and the comparison to Bordeaux. We know the famous tasting characteristics of Sassicaia: blackcurrants, berries, layered tannins and exceptional elegance and depth. We discussed this yesterday evening. For me personally there is a sensation when I drink a special Bordeaux; it can make me feel happy. What is the “high” from Sassicaia?
NIdR: Personally, I prefer wine that is not as concentrated as most Bordeaux. At Sassicaia, we prefer elegance, I think the sensation lies there for me.
ME: Let’s talk about sales, which markets are important for you?
NIdR: Switzerland is important. We sell half as much there as we sell in the US.
ME: China?
NIdR: We sell well there, but we have to be careful. We don’t want to abandon our traditional clients.
ME: How long can you cellar the wine?
NIdR: As long as you want, the 1968 is still very good. We don’t have anything older, because before we did not use sulphites, since my father was against them. And of course you need sulphites for wine to age.
ME: Do you drink a glass of wine every day?
NIdR: Not a glass of Sassicaia every day but, yes, a glass of wine every day.
ME: Let’s talk about succession, who will continue the Sassicaia tradition when you retire?
NIdR: There is someone in the next generation of my family and I hope they will continue the tradition of our family with both the wine and the horses.
 
—Copyright 2018 Mart Engelen

 
 

Sassicaia, Bolgheri 2018
 

Sassicaia, Bolgheri 2018

 
 

Sassicaia, Bolgheri 2018
 

Sassicaia, Bolgheri 2018