As a setting in which to sip a decades-long vertical of Italy’s most sought-after Super Tuscan, Manhattan’s Babbo is, as the Italians themselves might say, sènza pari—without peer. Mario Batali’s West Village mecca, located in a townhouse on Waverly Place, merges streamlined modernity with traditional warmth; the result is a hearty elegance that suffuses the restaurant’s softly lit saffron-colored walls, as well as its boldly flavored Italian cuisine. Such an enlightened take on tradition also informs the winemaking at Tenuta San Guido, producer of Sassicaia, the famed Cabernet Sauvignon from Bolgheri, which for four decades has served as Tuscany’s answer to the superstars of Bordeaux. A new-breed Italian that, like Babbo, strikes a superb balance between innovation and classic style, Sassicaia integrates complex structures with beautifully rendered fruit, both of which reached perfection in the 1985 vintage.
“The ’85 Sassicaia is one of the rarest and most difficult Italian wines to find, and easily one of the top five in the Italian auction market,” noted Babbo’s wine director, David Lynch, shortly after we—his guests—seated ourselves to a vertical tasting that, beginning with this prized vintage, traced Sassicaia’s evolution to the present 2001 release. Lynch, along with Piero Incisa della Rocchetta, export director for Tenuta San Guido and the nephew of Sassicaia’s owner, Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta, had arranged the tasting of wines shipped directly from the cellars on the Rocchetta family estate. With 1985 as the benchmark, our panel was charged with determining whether any of the subsequent, younger vintages could challenge this wine’s preeminence.
Sassicaia’s recognized status as the greatest Cabernet Sauvignon made in Italy did not simplify our assignment. But greatness had been the goal when Piero’s grandfather, the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, purchased Cabernet vines from Château Lafite-Rothschild and planted them in 1944 at Tenuta San Guido. Like other members of the Italian nobility at the time, the marchese had a penchant for classified-growth Bordeaux, and he wanted to discover whether Bolgheri could render similar results.
Depending on one’s point of view, his plan was either visionary or completely ludicrous; most experts held the latter opinion. For hundreds of years, the stretch of low, sloping plains along Tuscany’s southern coast where his vineyard is situated had been regarded as a dismal, disease- and mosquito-ridden quagmire. Though the swamps had been drained during the early 20th century, the marchese’s venture seemed to observers about as promising as the prospect of growing tangerines in the Arctic. Still, the land’s stony soil and proximity to the sea recalled Bordeaux’s Graves region, home to such legendary estates as Château Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion; the property, the marchese reasoned, might well prove suitable for Cabernet. But the initial vintages tasted disappointingly harsh and ungainly beside Italy’s lighter, Sangiovese-based wines, and so the marchese abandoned the project, sequestering the remaining bottles in his cellar. And there they might have remained had he not opened a few bottles several years later: Only then did he understand how correct his assumptions had been. Though at first he gave the wine only to his friends and family, in 1968, he allowed the wine, now named Sassicaia, to be sold on the open market. Acclaim was immediate, and the wine’s legend has only grown with passing vintages.
At Babbo, we ran through several of these. Among the highlights was a sublime 1988, graceful and still vivid with youthful red currant and berry flavors; a smoky, mocha note characterized the finish. “I have a love affair with this wine,” remarked Piero of that particular vintage. “For me, I drink the ’88, and I think, ‘Sassicaia.’ It’s restrained, elegant, not flashy, but all there.”
His description could easily apply to the character of Sassicaia overall. Power is always secondary to grace in this wine, despite the hard structure of Cabernet in general. To borrow an architectural metaphor, Sassicaia’s tannins have the tense, pulsing strength of the cables of a suspension bridge, rather than the massive weight of the bridge’s piers—a quality perfectly apparent in the 1985 vintage. Black-red, with scents of black currants and violets and an impossibly lush texture, the wine was taut with tannins that supported its profound richness. As Piero observed, in 1985 “we had almost perfect conditions—the summer was very long, never excessively hot, and the harvest very even and long.”
However, it was the most current release, the 2001 vintage, that answered the question with which the evening had begun: whether any of the newer wines could stand up to 1985’s masterpiece. Though young, the 2001 shares the ripe seductiveness of the 1985; yet, across the palate, it remains perfectly poised, not fat in the least, all of its velvety black cherry fruit held in dramatic tension by the tannins. And happily—at a mere $170 a bottle—the 2001 represents a bargain by comparison to its older, celebrated sibling.
Sassicaia, www.sassicaia.com, 866.KOBRAND