“Buongiorno Marchese!” sing the stable hands from their mounts. “Buongiorno Marchese” waves the farrier grappling with a shoeless three-year-old colt. The Marchese – Nicolò Incisa della Rochetta – acknowledges their greetings with a bashful nod, hands tucked in the pocket of his wax jacket. He’s the Marchese to everyone, despite aristocratic titles having long gone the same way as the Italian monarchy. “It doesn’t mean anything,” he says, when asked what the title denotes today. “Titles ceased to exist when Italy went from a kingdom to a republic in 1946.” Yet everyone still uses his hereditary noble title Marchese, a sign of respect for this shy gentleman who says he is happier drinking Campari and soda at home than being the frontman at glamorous wine dinners or race meetings.
Unfortunately for him, as head of the aristocratic family that owns the celebrated Tuscan estate Tenuta San Guido, dinners and race meetings rather go with the territory. Wine and horses dominate the Marchese’s life. He has dozens of racehorses in training but these days it is Sassicaia, a red wine that wasn’t even conceived when the family won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (twice), that is the estate’s real thoroughbred. The original ‘Supertuscan’, Sassicaia, is considered one of the finest Bordeaux-style wines in the world alongside the great names of California, and of Bordeaux itself. Its first commercial vintage was as recently as 1968 but its status is such that it was even granted its own denominazione in 1994 – the first single-producer ‘DOC’ in Italy.
Today though, the Marchese only has eyes for his horses. On a blustery Tuesday morning, the stables are awash with activity. There are still more than 100 horses on the books of the estate’s equine arm, Razzo Dormello Olgiata but its fortunes have waned. There is no forgetting its past glories: gleaming silverware lines the mantelpieces and dressers at the family’s historic home. Everywhere you turn, interspersed with family photographs, are prints of the stable’s most successful mounts. Here is Tenerani, the 1948 Goodwood Cup winner; across the room is Botticelli, the 1955 Ascot Gold Cup Winner; and there, in pride of place, is the undefeated Ribot, two-time winner of the Arc de Triomphe in the mid-fifties and widely acknowledged as one of the greatest racehorses of all time. “Until the 1970s, the horses were our main activity, “says the Marchese. “The stables were maintained for 12 or 15 years by Ribot’s stud fees [until his death in 1972]. We had a lot of success until the 1980s then the competition became harder. After my father’s death [in 1983] we were investing more in wine, less in the horses. Maybe we concentrate too much on the wine. “
The accolades accorded to the wine in question would suggest otherwise: Sassicaia, which blends Cabernet Sauvignon with a liberal splash of Cabernet Franc (15%), has notched up as many prizes as his father’s late thoroughbred. Yet, the Marchese is not a man who flaunts its success nor takes credit for steering the ship for more than 30 years.
During his tenure, Sassicaia was named the ‘Wine of the 20th Century’ by Italy’s leading wine magazine, Civiltà del Bere – despite being made from an international rather than a native Italian grape variety. It first outshone the world’s best Cabernets in a high profile blind tasting in 1978, placing this rebellious red firmly on the fine wine world’s radar. And it has regularly been mistaken for Bordeaux first growths when slipped into blind line-ups of Bordeaux blends, even being judged ahead of such wines in a famous Paris tasting in 1996. Today this aristocratic Tuscan red with a brilliant star on its label shines brightly in 80 countries around the world, largely thanks to the Marchese’s efforts.
The astonishing thing about the wine is that it was conceived purely as a wine for family and friends. While his focus was trained on horses, the Marchese’s claret-loving father, Mario, embarked on a “simple, charming experiment” in the 1940s. Tenuta San Guido, the vast family estate of his wife, Clarice della Gherardesca, gave him room to dream and he chose an unforgiving terrace in the middle of a forest high above the coastal plains to plant Cabernet Sauvignon. His granddaughter Priscilla Incisa della Rocchetta, heir to the Sassicaia throne (and Game of Thrones fan, as it happens), explains his motives: “He liked to drink good wine and had a passion for wines coming from France, especially Bordeaux. When he moved here, he realised that it was not easy to get hold of the wines – particularly during the [second world] war, so he had the idea to try [growing] Cabernet Sauvignon here in order to produce a wine that resembled the very good château that he liked to drink. It was a very ambitious project.”
The astonishing thing about the wine is that it was conceived purely as a wine for family and friends
Until the early 1970s the estate’s resultant wine was only drunk at home; the only ‘customer’ was the Marchese’s cousin, Gherardo, who would give him one wheel of Pecorino cheese from the family’s property near Pisa for 12 bottles of Sassicaia. Adding to the original vineyard with a block of vines that would give its name to the wine, Sassicaia production increased and somewhat begrudingly Mario had to allow his wines to be distributed beyond Tenuta San Guido. With the help of wine consultant Giacomo Tachis, the wines became less “homemade”, according to Piero Antinori, and its position as one of the world’s fine wine producers was cemented when Robert Parker awarded the 1985 vintage a perfect score of 100 points, a first for an Italian wine. Thirty years on, the 1985 vintage fetches more than £1,000 a bottle although it’s not the Marchese’s favourite. “My favourite [vintage] was the 1988,” he says. “I thought it was more elegant than the 1985. The ’85 is very dense by comparison.” He concedes, though, that thanks to Parker, it is the best known. “Parker said that if he had to rate it again he would give it 150 points!” he laughs.
As the wine’s fame spread, so did a winemaking movement that grew up around it. Mario’s nephews, Piero and Ludovico Antinori of the eponymous, 600-year-old Tuscan winemaking dynasty, drank their uncle’s wine at family gatherings and it is no coincidence that the pair went on to also make Bordeaux-style wines. In so doing, they revolutionised Italian wine. Piero turned Chianti on its head by lauching Tignanello in 1971, a wine that took Chianti’s traditional grape, Sangiovese, and blended it with Cabernet Sauvignon. Several years later, he created another nonconformist wine on the Tignanello estate: Solaia. Ludovico followed suit by founding another Cabernet-based blend, Ornellaia, before Piero returned to Bolgheri to set up Guado al Tasso. Together, this group of ambitious producers, operating outside of the Italian wine law, became known as the ‘Supertuscans’. Originally classified as lowly table wines, it soon became clear that they were superior to 99 percent of traditionally made Tuscan wines and little by little, the laws changed to accommodate these superstars.
Quite often people who make great wine or own a great wine have a certain idea of themselves, and this is not the case with the wonderful Marchese because he is extremely modest and self-effacing
Today, the Marchese seems nonplussed by Sassicaia’s status as the founder of arguably Italy’s most glamorous wine category. One gets the sense that he doesn’t really do glamour nor luxury marketing. Indeed his modesty can be disarming. Serena Sutcliffe MW, honorary chair of Sotheby’s Wine has known the wines of Sassicaia since the 1970s. “Quite often people who make great wine or own a great wine have a certain idea of themselves, and this is not the case with the wonderful Marchese because he is extremely modest and self-effacing,” she says. “I think he feels that the wine does the talking for him. I’ve seen him over decades somewhat reluctantly appearing at tastings and it’s very difficult to get much comment from him. In fact, when I’ve been with him leading tastings together, he’s always said ‘please talk about them!’”
Out on the gallops, a string of 600kg athletes power past. As we pull up to the side of the track, I notice a rather less powerful Suzuki Jimny parked up with countless Jack Russells peering meerkat-like from the back window. Out steps a woman sporting a blue tracksuit and bright yellow polo shirt. She reaches through the driver-side window of our car, leans across the Marchese, shakes my hand and announces in a jolly boom that she is the Marchese’s wife. The Jack Russells in the boot of the Suzuki look on keenly. They are just some of the 32 they own, she reveals. There are ‘bastardinos’ too, she says – strays that they’ve taken in. How did they end up with so many, I ask her. “We started with one – then one had puppies,” comes the reply. The Marchese looks at me and shrugs in resigned fashion.
This is not a man given to grand gestures. One senses that beneath the unassuming air lies a quiet, unyielding commitment to his dogs, horses and wine but what is his first love? They’re different, he replies diplomatically. “Dogs are companions – they are with you the whole day. Horses are a passion. There’s nothing that can give you the adrenalin of seeing your horse winning a race. Racehorses are like women – they drive you crazy.” Is he crazy? “I am a little” he confesses, finally breaking into a rare but sincere broad smile. And wine? “It’s more like work,” he says. It is profitable work, though, a business that, possibly unlike the family’s equine interests, he will be able to hand on to his daughter Priscilla and future generations safe in the knowledge of its liquidity. “I have been very lucky to have had a horse that was considered the best horse of the last century,” he says. “Today we are making a wine that has the same reputation as the horse that we had: Sassicaia is the new Ribot.”