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.

Stars fell on Toscana…

Above: The 1990 Tignanello was youthful and powerful and had a woody note on the nose that some folks like but a turn-off for me. The 1979 Sassicaia was unbelievably good and had that goudron, tarry note that you find in left-bank Bordeaux yet still tasted uniquely Tuscan — at least to me. Photos by Tracie B.

In what seems to me such an uncanny confluence of events, Tracie B and I had the wonderful opportunity to taste two truly iconic wines of Tuscany, from two (arguably) outstanding vintages, on Saturday night — 1990 Tignanello and 1979 Sassicaia. I say “uncanny” partly because there was a white elephant in the room: despite the festive nature of our get-together a casa di Alfonso, no one could ignore the news that broke in Chianti last week. Alfonso had graciously offered to open not just a few gems from his cellar, inspired in part by BrooklynGuy’s recent post on one of the wines he happened to have in his collection. But when he “stood the bottles upright” last week in anticipation, none of us imagined that Tuscan wine would once again find itself in crisis.

Above: Ace made one of his signature dishes, grilled eggplant layered with hard-boiled eggs and tomato sauce, topped with grated pecorino romano and the fired au gratin.

Eric’s exquisite post from last week added another layer of uncanniness to our fête. Tempus vincit omnia: the owner and curator of the Tignanello estate, the Antinori family and enologist Renzo Cotarella, recently told Eric that they plan to replant the legendary Fiorano estate near Rome, where its now defunct master, Prince Buoncompagni Ludovisi, purportedly once swore (as legend has it) that he had ripped out his vines so that his son-in-law, Piero Antinori, would never have the chance to bring modernity to the farm. Tempus vincit omnia.

Above: The 1994 Primitivo di Manduria by Savese was still a baby! It was such a wonderful treat to get to taste this wine with some age on it — a fantastic example of how traditionally made wine, even when made from a grape lacking tannic structure like Primitivo, can achieve ineffable nuance with age.

But like the grated pecorino romano that Ace used to finish his eggplant pie, a final layer of uncanniness was provided by the superb 1994 Primitivo di Manduria from Savese, which we paired with dried figs from Calabria. He stood the Primitivo upright after reading Franco’s wonderful post on his visit with Vittorio Pichierri at the Savese winery. Our “blend” of wines from Tuscany and Apulia seemed to unwittingly match the rumors that arrive these days via the internet from Etruria (I hope they’re untrue but I fear they are not).

Thanks again, Ace, for a truly unforgettable serata da leoni. It felt like stars fell on Toscana that night…

Sing these lyrics, substituting “Toscana” for “Alabama”…

We lived our little drama,
We kissed in a field of white,
And stars fell on Alabama,
Last night.

I can’t forget the glamour,
Your eyes held a tender light,
And stars fell on Alabama,
Last night

I never planned in my imagination,
A situation — so heavenly,
A fairy land where no one else could enter,
And in the center — just you and me.

My heart beat like a hammer,
My arms wound around you tight,
And stars fell on Alabama,
Last night.

One riot, one ranger

Tracie B and I were treated to what can only be called an “epic” meal and flight of wines last night da Alfonso in Dallas. Many truly great bottles were opened, including the 1990 Tignanello that Alfonso had “stood upright” after reading BrooklynGuy’s post on it, and a 1979 Sassicaia, which just totally blew me away.

So much is going on in the blogosphere and beyond and I have a lot to post about (I regret that the news from Chianti is not good and I will post about it tomorrow at VinoWire and here). I’m staying on in Dallas for work tomorrow and so Tracie B took a commuter flight home from Love Field.

This afternoon, when I took her to the airport, I finally got to see the famous Texas Ranger statue that Étienne de Montille told me about when he visited here. He loves repeating the line “one riot, one ranger,” inscribed in the pedestal of the statue. The aphorism is apocryphal (evidently) but it ably evokes the ethos of the legendarily indomitable Texas Rangers.

Stay tuned for more tomorrow… and in the meantime… buona domenica ya’ll!

1970 Sassicaia (no, I didn’t drink it)

Above: One of the very few things I miss about living in New York City is the availability of good smoked fish and New York bagels. We get frozen H&H bagels at our local Central Market. Scrambled eggs and bagels and lox have become a happy Sunday habit.

Kermit is coming to town and I’m prepping today (following our now traditional late-morning breakfast of toasted H&H bagels, cream cheese salmon, thinly sliced tomatoes and red onion, salted capers, brined olives, and eggs scrambled with Parmigiano Reggiano and an onion soffritto, a casa della bellissima Tracie B) for my presentation of the wine-industry great and singer-songwriter tomorrow night at Vino Vino in Austin.

I’ve been rereading his most recent book, Inspiring Thirst, an anthology of his newsletters stretching back to the beginnings of his career in the wine industry in the early 1970s (the first newsletter in the collection is dated 1974). In many ways, the gathering of glosses and notes is an excellent primer on how to sell wine. I don’t think its unfair to say that Kermit essentially invented wine blogging with his “little propaganda pieces,” as he called them.

The corpus of his blurbs is also an amazing historical document with fresh tasting notes and observations on now-nearly-forgotten vintages, like his take on 1970 Sassicaia, penned in 1975:

    1970 Sassicaia

    Unlikely, perhaps, but here we have a very impressive Cabernet Sauvignon made in Italy. It shows a pronounced varietal nose, while the effect upon the palate is akin to Bordeaux, explained by the fact that the winemaker is French and is using Bordeaux barrels. Regardless, the wine is extremely well made; to my taste it compares easily with over-$8 California Cabernets. Highly recommended! $5.50 per bottle $59.40 per case

The first commercially released vintage of Sassicaia was 1968. Darrell Corti told me that he sold it at Corti Brothers in Sacramento for $6.99 (Kermit was selling it for more than 20% less!).

Kermit talks a lot about how the 1970s recession led a lot of importers to “advance” their inventory to him. “Pay me when you sell it,” they would tell him, and he would pass the excellent pricing on to his customers. His description of the economic climate sounds a lot like the situation today and his blueprint for selling (and marketing) wine is good advice for anyone involved in the wine industry today — on any level, be it importing, wholesale, on premise, or retail.

Tomorrow night Kermit, Ricky Fataar (his producer), and I will be talking about Kermit’s new record, Man’s Temptation (and the event is already sold out) but I hope to get a chance to ask him about Sassicaia at $5.50 a bottle. The wines sells for $599.00 a bottle today.

In other news…

The fall weather’s been fantastic here in Texas and the sunsets and the Texan sky are amazing, as always. I took this photo yesterday evening before Tracie B and I headed out for the night. Happy Sunday, ya’ll!

Wondrous Cabinets (or My Dinner With Darrell)

“…as a smell while it passes and evaporates into air affects the sense of smell,” wrote Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) in the tenth book of The Confessions, “whence it conveys into the memory an image of itself, which remembering, we renew, or as meat, which verily in the belly hath now no taste, and yet in the memory still in a manner tasteth; or as any thing which the body by touch perceiveth, and which when removed from us, the memory still conceives. For those things are not transmitted into the memory, but their images only are with an admirable swiftness caught up, and stored as it were in wondrous cabinets, and thence wonderfully by the act of remembering, brought forth.”

If there ever were an Augustine of the contemporary food and wine world, it is Darrell Corti. And there are no cabinets more wondrous than the shelves of his store Corti Brothers in Sacramento and the memories he generously imparted on a traveling amanuensis who happened to be passing through the California state capital last week.

The night I had dinner with Darrell at his home in Sacramento, he was reluctant to speak of his induction into the Vintners Hall of Fame by the Culinary Institute of America. The night before, he had been honored at a gala event in Napa as a “Highly respected and often controversial, wine and food expert… at the forefront of the development and growth of the California wine industry since joining his family’s grocery business, Corti Brothers in Sacramento, in 1964… a catalyst in the re-evaluation and Renaissance of Zinfandel…” and mentor “to a generation of seiminal food and wine professionals…”

It’s not every day that you drink 1972 Louis Martini Zinfandel with a man who was a “catalyst… in the renaissance of Zinfandel.” The wine was light and vibrant, with subtle fruit and gentle acidity, a gorgeous complement to the béchamel and ragù prepared for the lasagne.

“It’s the acidity and the lightness of style that make this wine age so well,” said Darrell. There was no need to mention Darrell’s widely known opposition to the current hegemony of highly concentrated, high-alcohol-content wines.

The night of our repast, Darrell wanted to sample a new breed of beef, “HighMont,” a cross of Scottish Highland and Piedmontese (razza bovina piemontese) cattle. The lasagne were followed by a bollito of beef and salsa verde, paired with a 1999 Stoneleigh Marlborough (New Zealand) Rapaura Series Pinot Noir.

The coda to our meal was a bolo de mel, a Portuguese honey cake, which Darrell was also sampling as a potential offering at Corti Brothers.

Of the many memories that Darrell shared that evening, he revealed that he was among the first (if not the first) to sell Sassicaia in this country. “In 1972, we sold the first vintage of Sassicaia — 1968 — for $6.89,” he said.

After dinner, we retired to the living room where we drank port and perused Darrell’s collection of incunables (I was keen to see his editio princeps of Andrea Bacci’s Historia Vinorum).

Earlier in the day, I met Darrell at his office in the store and we chatted about a stack of tomes he recently received from the Libreria Editrice Vaticana, the Vatican’s publisher (I was particularly fascinated by America Pontificia, a collection documents pertaining to the New World issued by the Holy See; “There’s bound to be something interesting in there,” Darrell said). His phone rang and I eavesdropped as he patiently extolled the virtues of bergamot marmalade to the customer on the line. Twenty minutes later, a half dozen jars had been purchased.

O, what wondrous cabinets this man keeps…

Gambero Rosso in San Diego (or What Would Happen if All Tuscans Became Super Tuscans?)

Above: Giovanni Folonari pours his new Super Tuscan, Campo al Mare (Bolgheri) at the Gambero Rosso Tour in San Diego, California.

Does the world really need another Super Tuscan? This question plagued me as I tasted through the wines on display at the Gambero Rosso “Top Italian Wine Roadshow” at the San Diego Wine and Culinary Center in downtown San Diego.

Otherwise useful as a directory of Italian wineries, the Gambero Rosso Guide to the Wines of Italy favors the big “lip-smacking,” luscious wines that seem do sell well in the United States. The three-glass scoring system used in the guide is yet another – however poetically veiled – points-based system, and while the same big-name wines seem to score well year after year in the guide, few small producers and even fewer lower-end wines make it up the ladder.

When I asked how the guide has grown in the 20+ years he’s served as editor-in-chief, Marco Sabellico told me, “the guide hasn’t grown because Italians are making more wines. The guide has grown because Italians are making more higher-end wines.”

It’s not really clear to me how the wines are chosen for the Gambero Rosso “Top Italian Wine Roadshow” (held this year in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and for the first time San Diego). Its “Three Glass” tasting features only those wines that have won the guide’s top award. For the roadshow, it seems that Marina Thompson PR might have something to do with the selection. Marina happens to be Gambero Rosso president Daniele Cernilli’s wife.

What lured me to the event this year was the fact that it was held for the first-time in San Diego, California.

Above: Tim Grace of Il Mulino di Grace, a Chianti Classico producer in the township of Panzano.

I was asked by many presenters to taste this or that “new” Super Tuscan.

Giovanni Folonari had me taste his Campo al Mare, made from Merlot, Cabernet, and Petit Verdot (no Sangiovese). The estate, he told me, lies between Sassicaia and Ornellaia. The wine was well made, not overly woody, and not too high in alcohol. But does the world need yet another Super Tuscan? Maybe it does and since I’m not a fan of Merlot and/or Cabernet Sauvignon in the first place, maybe I should just keep my mouth shut. Giovanni told me it will retail for about $35 and that’s good news, I guess. Maybe the world does need a new reasonably priced Super Tuscan.

I also tasted a Super Tuscan (Gratius) by Mulino di Grace (Panzano, Chianti Classico). The Grace family’s Chianti Classico is a blend of Sangiovese with smaller amounts of Merlot and Cabernet. I kinda liked its Chianti Classico, where the addition of small amounts of international grapes give the wine more color and forward fruit, thus making it more modern in style. But I really liked the Gratius, 100% Sangiovese, a wine that showed the balance of fruit, acidity, and gentler tannin, and the lightness in the mouth that you get with Tuscany’s Sangiovese. To my palate, the Gratius tasted the most like Chianti Classico of all the wines he was pouring (in fact, owner Tim Grace told me, the wine could have been classified as Chianti Classico DOCG).

Some believe that the term Super Tuscan was coined by Nicolas Belfrage and was first used in print in Life Beyond Lambrusco (1985), co-authored by Nicolas and Jancis Robinson. The early Super Tuscans were generally made with international grape varieties and the wines generally saw some time in new wood. Because the wines — most famously, Sassicaia and Tignanello — did not meet standards for any existing appellations at the time they were first released, they were officially classified as vini da tavola or table wines, even though they were marketed as high-end wines.

According to usage, a Super Tuscan is a Tuscan-made wine that 1) does not meet requirements set forth by local appellation laws (in many cases, this is due merely to the fact that a given wine uses grape varieties not allowed by the appellation); or 2) has been intentionally declassified by the producer (as in the case of Tim Grace’ wine). While barrique aging is often used for Super Tuscans, barrique is not a sine qua non.

One of the reasons why the term Super Tuscan helps winemakers to sell wines in the United States is the moniker itself: it just sounds good and it implies that the wines are somehow better, that they surpass the rest of the field. I certainly can’t blame Tim for declassifying his wine. Chianti is a confusing appellation for Americans and if declassification helps him to promote awareness of his wines, more power to him (and his wines are good and deserve attention).

But because the term Super Tuscan is now applied to wines made in Bolgheri (on the Tuscan coast), Chianti Classico, Chianti Rufina, Chianti Colli Fiorentini (and other subzones), Montalcino, Montecucco, Montepulciano… and the list goes on… it has became a de facto über-classification that eclipses the personality of those places and the character of the persons who make those wines.

Tuscans are a highly diverse group of people and their language, their food, their traditions, and their wines change from city to city, town to town, from village to village (and from principality to principality, we would have said in another age). Just ask a Florentine what s/he thinks of the Pisans and you’ll see what I mean (and I won’t repeat the colloquial adage nor the often quoted line from Dante here). I’ve traveled extensively in Tuscany and have spent many hours in its libraries, its trattorie, and wineries. I would certainly be disappointed if the Tuscans, like their wines, all became Super Tuscans.

My Dinner with Piero

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.