Ribot the horse that united Italy & gave the world Sassicaia

Looking forward to Piero Incisa della Rocchetta’s visit to Austin in a few weeks, I was reminded of the night that he and I had dinner in New York back in 2007, not long after I launched my blog.

To this day, Piero calls me “Dr. Bianchi” (he’s a super cool dude, btw).

Here’s the post on our dinner and conversation and a remembrance of the great thoroughbred Ribot, a horse who — for a brief moment — united post-war Italy in its cheers for his triumph. I’ll see you after the Labor Day holiday…

sassicaia super tuscan

Above: “Orietta Incisa Hunyady with Ribot, after his second victory in the Arc de Triomphe, 1956.” (Sassicaia, the Original Super Tuscan, Firenze, Centro Di, 2000, p. 32)

Piero Incisa della Rocchetta is at once everything you would and would not expect him to be. On the one hand, he is the scion of one of Italy’s most historically significant families, an Italian noble, the face of one of Italy’s most important wines, and one of his country’s leading “cultural ambassadors,” as it were. On the other, he is a thirty-something Italian, extremely hard-working yet very easy-going and personable, self-deprecating and sensitive to the people around him, keenly aware of his station in life yet down-to-earth, funny, and fun to be around. When we sat down for dinner the other night at Babbo, I wasn’t sure if he’d be interested in talking to someone like me — especially in the light of the fact that his family’s wine is the most famous barriqued wine in Italy and that I am an outspoken (however unimportant) critic of the use of new oak in Italy.

I believe we were both surprised by the other: he, to meet an Italophone American who knew so much about other aspects of his family’s history beyond the famous wine; I, to discover a winemaker acutely conscious of the role his family’s wine has played in Italian wine history but also a wine lover who despises the overblown, overly concentrated, and extracted style of some of his would-be peers.

“My grandfather [Mario] planted Cabernet,” Piero told me, “because he grew up drinking wines from Bordeaux and he wanted a wine to pair with the rich French and Piedmontese food he was accustomed to eating.” People always think of his family as being Tuscan, and, of course it is in part, he explained, but the male line comes from Rocchetta Tanaro in Piedmont (historically, Piedmont, once ruled by the house of Savoy, has always been Francophone and Francophile). So it was only natural his grandfather would plant Cabernet and experiment with making a Bordeaux-style wine (Mario Incisa della Rocchetta began to manage the now legendary estate in Tuscany after he married Florentine Clarice della Gherardesca, whose family once ruled the Tuscan coastline).

When we touched upon the thorny issue of new oak, he flatly told me that he can’t stand the jammy, concentrated, highly alcoholic style of most Super Tuscans and he pointed out that only in 2003 did Sassicaia’s alcohol content creep above 13.5%. The figure, he told me, represented the warm vintage and not anything they had done differently in the cellar. We agreed that many of the overblown Super Tuscans are impossible to drink with food and he remarked that Sassicaia was conceived as a wine to be consumed at the table.

Sassicaia is a misunderstood wine, he said, especially in the United States. “Most Americans consider 1985 and 1997 [in which warm temperatures prevailed] to be among of the greatest vintages for Sassicaia,” he told me. “But years like ’88 and ’98 really brought out the delicate bouquet in the wine.” In fact, he revealed, his grandfather hoped to achieve superior bouquet and not the forward fruit that other Super Tuscans have become so famous for.

Piero’s eyes lit up when I asked him about Ribot, his family’s legendary race horse, trained on their estates in Piedmont and Tuscany, arguably the most famous race horse in history. “Most people don’t realize,” he said, “that winemaking is just one small part of what my family does.” During the 1950s, when a still war-torn Italy was trying to put itself back together (literally and figuratively), Ribot and his triumphs were a point of pride that all Italians could share.

Piero divulged that trainer Federico Tesio never thought that Ribot would be a winner. “He didn’t believe that Ribot was handsome enough,” he said. It was his grandmother, Clarice, who knew that the stallion would be a champion.

Just as Ribot bolstered Italian pride at a very delicate moment in the country’s history, Sassicaia laid the groundwork for the current Italian wine renaissance by showing the international community that Italy could produce world-class wines. In 1968, when it was first released commercially, Americans thought of Italy as a land of straw-flask and fizzy quaffing wines. Today, Italian wines have nearly eclipsed French dominance in the American market. I can’t say that I am big fan of Sassicaia (those of you who read my blog know I prefer the indigenous grapes of Italy and that I don’t like barriqued wine). But my little brush with history that evening revealed that the people who make it care deeply about their wine… and their country.

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