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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Vertical of Sassicaia

There’s something to be said for smaller, more intimately selected verticals. Nearly every time I return from an offline of 5 or so attendees (as opposed to the more customary baker’s dozen), I ask myself ‘why don’t we do this more often?’ Well, I’ve got a Napoleon complex as much as any other, wanting to squeeze in as many vintages as possible, recruiting plenty of my favorite geeks to fill the room. We get greedy….but alas, there is more than bliss in a cozy gathering, there’s clarity.

Although I’ve previously tasted almost every vintage in this particular Sassicaia vertical, this evening gave me a tangible pulse of the wines that I did not have before. With the exception of the mature ’94 and the infant ’04, the wines all shared savory mid-palates, w/ beefy overtones to their bright Bolgheri fruit. Aromatically, each vintage had a flutter of things to say, from decaying leaves and crushed flowers, to more classic graphite and black currant notes that we’ve come to expect from top Cabernet. The blend at Sassicaia is unique in that it is exclusively Cabernet, w/ Sauvignon taking up 85% of most blends and Franc rounding out the cuvee. The lack of the supple, fleshy Merlot is evident in the wine’s youth, as this estate is renowned for an immediate austerity that is almost unapproachable on release, but slowly develops and blossoms into a Tuscan swan, as this vertical demonstrated aptly.

In addition to the lack of Merlot (or Sangiovese for that matter, as several Super Tuscans have taken to the blending of Bordeaux varieties w/ the Tuscan staple), Sassicaia tends to be one of the first to harvest a la Moueix, to preserve freshness and bouquet. While the vintages we tasted through didn’t show green characteristics, they had a profound sense of verve, with high toned fruit and fresh, floral qualities that later harvesters (like the Ornellaia ’97 Tim brought for the end of the tasting) don’t preserve to the same degree. Stylistically, I appreciate both camps when they are executed well, and Ornellaia provides a supremely successful counterpoint to the Sassicaia M.O.A. The one, over-riding advantage I noted from the viticultural choices made at Tenuta San Guido was found in the scorching 2003 vintage. I’m certain that the coastal Bolgheri breezes tempered some of the heat, but what really struck me about the ’03 was its confluence of dramatic richness and airy sense of lift (likely due to an earlier harvest). All of us were wowed by the ’03 and it’s a vintage that, in spite of the lofty price tag, I’m certain to buy and tuck away as it evolves into what I believe will be a legendary wine.

Many thanks to the uncompromising generosity of Leo, not only in setting this up but for bestowing us all w/ his bevy of Sassicaia knowledge, passion and, of course, wine. I really enjoyed all our discussions (which are immensely difficult to have when there are 12 large at the table) and I think this evening demonstrated that there is more to this producer than a commercial ’68 vintage & a profound ’85 vintage. Let’s hope that the best is yet to come.

The perfect foil for the abusive heat that reeked havoc on our tasting, showing wonderfully mature hints of decaying foliage, dried mushrooms, rose petal and tomato seed in the soft, subtle aromatic profile. In the mouth, there was a refreshing, almost lip-smacking acidity that kicked the red fruit laced palate into high gear, pumping out bing cherry and red plum sauce notes along a fine, minerally spine. The wine was deceptively medium bodied and actually gained a bit of steam as it aired, picking up a truffle laced grip in the back end, 88 points.

While this vintage was more frankly concentrated, I didn’t find it to be any more compelling. Distinctive scents of iron, wilted lilac, and bloody black currants shot through the air w/ a bit more density and penetration than the ’94. The attack came off to me as a bit stewy, w/ a cooked beef and a tomato leaf undertone that was firm, yet high toned and completely esoteric. While the ’94 was gaining in presence from air exposure, I noted the ’96 becoming more shrill and angular. To me, this was an esoteric showing that was outclassed and overmatched by its peers, 86 points.

Welcome to the big leagues of Sassicaia….I couldn’t imagine a sharper contrast than this titan and the ’96. A completely alluring nose of graphite, melted licorice, freshly paved road tar, peppered steak, hearty plum sauce and notions of cold steel shuddered from the glass. The attack is intense, channeling its great depth of flavors through a dense, constituted mid palate. While there is no shortage of flesh, what separates this wine is its ability to effortlessly glide its layered heft over a bed of minerals w/ an almost electric pulse. This ’01 is a distinctive class act that is sure to cruise in the cellar, 95 points.

While I have not had the fortune to taste the ’78, ’85 or ’88, vintages like this can only lead my mind to wander aimlessly as to what the great ones were like. This is easily the ripest, most glycerin packed Sassicaia I’ve tasted, as it exploded from the glass w/ toasty black currant sauce, truffle oil, cocoa powder, violet and all sorts of devilish aromatic delights. Dark and hedonistic in the palate, w/ fantastic levels of extract, coating an enormous wealth of tannic structure that is almost completely concealed by the wine’s richness and supple layers of texture. In spite of all its excess, there is a river of freshness flowing underneath all that sinew that wraps up the package in sheer wonderment. As I mentioned before, I’m very confident that this will continue to evolve into a legendary Sassicaia and I imagine it will go toe to toe w/ the top left bank Bordeaux of the same vintage, 96+ points.

I know most of the table was disappointed w/ this vintage’s performance (I had high expectations too, simply based on how great the Guidalberto from Tenuta San Guido is showing), and I do wonder if our impression was affected by the two diamonds we drank right before it. Easily the most backward wine of the evening, only hinting at crème de cassis, mocha coated toast, dark plum and lead pencil notes. This was tight as a drum in the mouth, but revealing excellent concentration, w/ a focused charge of acidity beaming the body along to an easy finish. While there is great structural density and a foundation for solid potential, I’m not convinced that the materials will be truly compelling as they unravel, 91+ points.

There was a bit of a troubling impression w/ the ’04 as it aired, become a bit sweeter and dominated by toasty, new oak. We can only speculate as to whether or not the formula at Sassicaia has changed a bit for ‘04, but I think a few more years in the cellar will help ease those fears.

1997 Ornellaia
This was a terrific way to punctuate the evening, and although the wine’s temperature (much less our, sweat drenched body temperatures) was a touch hot, there was no denying the outstanding quality of Ornellaia’s flagship Cabernet. The color had a more saturated purple core than any of the Sassicaia wines, revealing an exotic nose of Asian spices, warm ganache, incense, fried truffles, and heady black currant paste. Initially this seemed a bit rambunctious, but it settled into a dynamo, revealing terrific opulence, plush texture and a long, seamless finish. What surprised me, and perhaps the rest of the group, was that this was the most Bordeaux like wine of the evening and the only wine were I made the ‘left bank like’ remark in my notes, 94 points.


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