The Horse & The Wine
The story of Sassicaia and the Super Tuscans birth in general is perhaps one of the most exciting to learn and, from our perspective, to talk about. It’s a tale about discovery, observation and experiment.
Within the fine wine industry, the trials of Marquis Mario Incisa della Rocchetta are known by the many. And for wine neophytes, learning about how one of the most representative French grapes found new life and success in Tuscany – despite the rules back then forbidding that – is indeed fascinating.
What only the few might know is that the story of Tenuta San Guido is also a love story.
Mario the Horse Breeder
Despite having become famous in Tuscany, the inventor of Sassicaia actually was born in Rome in a family originally from Piedmont, another Italian region famous for its fine wines. His ancestor Leopoldo Incisa della Rocchetta published an essay about grape varieties already in 1862. As a matter of fact, one branch of the Incisa della Rocchetta’s family is today still based in Piedmont and involved in viticulture as per family tradition.
Mario had two passions in life: agriculture and horses. He served in the cavalry during the First World War and, once returned home, enrolled in the faculty of Agriculture in Pisa. That was a key move for him, as he had brought his beloved horse with him and he started getting involved with the local thoroughbred community. It was within this new group of friends that Mario met Clarice della Gherardesca: they married in 1930 and moved together to Rome to pursue their dream of breeding race horses.
After the Second World War, Clarice inherited a property in the hills of Bolgheri and Mario decided to move back to the Tuscan countryside with Clarice, looking after that estate named after his wife Saint ancestor Guido della Gherardesca: Tenuta San Guido.
Collaboration with Federico Tesio
In 1932, Mario and Clarice partnered up with one of the most iconic names in the horse breeding industry; Federico Tesio. Federico has been called “the only genius ever to operate in the breeding world” and “the greatest single figure in the history of Italian racing”.
Tesio-Incisa first major success was the victory in the Grand Prix de Paris in 1938. The horse Nearco was sold after the race for the price of £60,000, a record for those times. Federico Tesio died in 1954 and sadly he could never witness the greatest achievement of the Tesio-Incisa partnership: the horse Ribot, unbeaten in 16 races in the 1950s, was so highly regarded to also appear among sportsmen like Alberto Tomba and Roberto Baggio, ranking fourth as “Italian athlete” of the century in a survey of sport magazine “La Gazzetta dello Sport”.
Mario the Winemaker
Looking at the time line of the events at Tenuta San Guido, it is quite curios to notice actually viticulture happened several years after the establishment of the horse breeding business. In fact, it wasn’t until 1942 that Mario planted the first vines of Cabernet Sauvignon.
The choice didn’t happen by chance. Coming from a noble family, Mario not only had the chance of growing in an environment with easy access to Bordeaux wines, but also could spend some time at the château Mouton Rotschild to understand the finest winemaking techniques from one of the highest ranked producers in the region.
Also, he noticed a very interesting similarities between the soil on the hills surrounding the estate in Bolgheri and the region gravelly soils in Bordeaux’s Graves. This specific feature is actually the reason for the wine to have been named Sassicaia, as “sasso” is the Italian for “stone”.
Despite its first vintage being recorded in 1945, Sassicaia actually didn’t reach notoriety until the late 1960s, when Mario started collaborating with oenologist Giacomo Tachis. They were introduced by the Antinori’s family, Mario’s cousins and themselves quite a prominent name back then – as well as today – in the fine wine Tuscan scene.
Marquis Mario Incisa della Rocchetta sadly passed away in 1983, before Bolgheri was awarded his own D.O.C. classification. Sassicaia actually got his own D.O.C in 2013, a recognition awarded only to the top estates in the world and the only wine in Italy to have achieved that. Tenuta San Guido also produces a second wine called Guidalberto, made from Merlot and the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that didn’t make the cut for Sassicaia.
Today, Mario’s legacy is carried on by his son Nicolò, a passionate winemaker that takes enormous pride when he talks about Ribot and Sassicaia: two names that are today equally synonym of excellence in their respective fields.