Special Feature on Tenuta San Guido’s Sassicaia

With tasting notes on upcoming releases

By John Szabo, MS

In mid-September I sat down with Priscilla Incisa, daughter of Sassicaia founder Niccolò Incisa della Rochetta, for a tasting of Tenuta San Guido’s latest releases, and a few back vintages as well. Sassicaia remains one of Italy’s, and the world’s most famous and collectible wines, and I’m happy to report that the 2019 vintage is one of the finest ever.


To reach the estate, named after 13th century nobleman San Guido della Gherardesca, you’ll travel along the famous viale dei cipressi, the famous avenue lined by some 2500 cypress trees planted by Guidalberto della Gherardesca in the 19th century in Bolgheri, and which is now a national monument.

Tenuta San Guido occupies some 2500 hectares on the Tuscan coast in the Maremma in Bolgheri, a multi-generational family estate. Of course, it’s not all planted to vines; wine was indeed the latest addition to the range of products made on the farm, a traditional Tuscan estate that also cultivates olives, many types of grains, as well as fodder to feed the 100 or so thoroughbred horses of the Dormello Olgiata breed raised on the state. An additional 500 hectares near the sea is reserved as a wildlife refuge, the first private one in Italy, which has become an important migratory stop for birds.

Winemaking started in the 1940s by Mario Incisa della Rochetta, though the production was not initially sold; the wine was reserved for family and friends. Mario had realized that San Guido was a unique biosphere of Mediterranean Europe, sharing similarities with the Graves region in Bordeaux thanks to the gravelly soils that give Sassicaia its name, from “sasso”, stone, in Italian. He started to experiment with French grape varieties obtained from the nearby vineyard of San Giuliano, belonging to the Dukes Salviati di Migliarino, near Pisa, and concluded that cabernet sauvignon had “the bouquet” he was looking for.

San Guido enjoys a unique climate, shaped by, “an amphitheatre of hills embraces the land that stretches from Bibbona to Castagneto, protecting the vineyards and olive groves from north-east winds, while in summer this corridor is cooled by winds generated between the valleys of the Cecina river. The energy and sunlight are reflected from the sea to the hills, which in turn retain the sea breeze and generate refreshing humidity.” In fact, this famous wine has it’s own monopole appellation, the Bolgheri-Sassicaia DOC, first established in 1994 as a subregion of Bolgheri, and later in 2013 as an autonomous appellation.

It was Mario’s son Niccolò who later decided to turn the wine production commercial, with help from his cousin Piero Antinori, and the young oenologist Giacomo Tachis. Together, they developed the first red Bordeaux blend in the history of Bolgheri. The first vintage of Sassicaia sold was the 1968, released in 1971. Success and international recognition came swiftly, especially a blind tasting of cabernet wines organized in London by Hugh Johnson for Decanter magazine in 1978, when the 1972 Sassicaia, an exceptionally rainy vintage, won first place among 33 top international cabernet sauvignons.

In addition to Sassicaia, two other wines are made at San Guido: the new millennium marked the birth of: Guidalberto, harvest 2000, which portrays the oratory of San Guido on the label and takes its name from the family ancestor Guidalberto della Gherardesca. Guidalberto is generally a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot, originally designed as a wine to enjoy younger than Sassicaia at a more approachable price point. Yet it has evolved into a wine that can age a decade or two without a stretch, and has developed its own character, not really a second wine as such, with mostly its own vineyards and made in its own facility.

The third wine of the estate, Le Difese was first made in 2002. Le Difese is a blend of cabernet sauvignon selected from estate lots that are not used for Sassicaia or Guidalberto, and sangiovese, usually the dominant variety, which is purchased from two estates in Chianti Rùfina and Chinati Classico, hence the IGT Toscana designation.

The Wines

Tasting Notes

Tenuta San Guido Le Difese 2020

92pts Tenuta San Guido Le Difese 2020, Tuscany Italy
$42.95, (LCBO #147876)  Sylvestre Wines & Spirits (700 cases of 12 arriving in 2023)
John Szabo – 2020 was considered quite a warm vintage in Tuscany, and Bolgheri, helped however by timely rain towards the end of August. Harvest was nonetheless fast-paced, in sharp contrast to 2019, a race especially to get cabernet sauvignon off the vine before overripeness set in, and one that paradoxically favoured earlier ripening sangiovese (and merlot). This explains why the blend in this year has a dominance of sangiovese, 60% vs. 40% cabernet, though most years it’s usually closer to the reverse. The cabernet selection is determined at harvest in the cellar, after portions for the two top wines, Guidalberto and Sassicaia itself, are determined, while sangiovese comes from long-time grower-partners in Chianti Classico and Chianti Rufina, much better suited to the variety than Bolgheri. It’s a fine and fruity vintage, with fully integrated wood influence even at this early stage (aged in barrels formerly used in Sassicaia and Guidalberto production), while the palate is fleshy, ripe and silky, with very fine tannins, polished and supple. Flavours span the fresh red fruit spectrum predominantly, more focused on the sangiovese DNA with its savoury herbs and blood orange, red and black cherry flavours. Length and depth are very good; a polished, elegant, immediately delicious vintage, best 2023-2027 or so, and an excellent entry point into the estate’s wines, displaying the class expected. Tasted September 2022.

93pts Tenuta San Guido Guidalberto 2020, Tuscany, Italy
$69.95 (LCBO #72439) Sylvestre Wines & Spirits (300 cs. of 6 coming in March 2023)
John Szabo – Though usually a cabernet-dominant blend, the 2020 vintage mixes equal parts cabernet sauvignon and merlot, as it was a year that favoured the latter, earlier-ripening variety (and sangiovese). It’s a marvellous wine, ripe but still markedly fresh, gently extracted, with a measured amount of wood influence supporting the broad and plush, dark fruit flavours. Tannins are abundant but velvety, framed by zesty-succulent acids. Length and depth are excellent, lingering on an appealing saline saltiness. Best 2024-2032+. Tasted September 2022.

98pts Sassicaia 2019, Bolgheri Sassicaia, Tuscany, Italy
$249.95 (LCBO #480533) Sylvestre Wines & Spirits ) (LCBO Online exclusive release on October 20,2022)
John Szabo – 2019 was, according to Priscilla Incisa of Tenuta San Guido, “A very regular vintage, where everything went according to plan, nothing was rushed, ripening was slow and even and harvest lasted into mid-October. We could pick parcel by parcel when everything was perfectly ripe. It’s suitable for long ageing no doubt”. 2019 Sassicaia is indeed a spectacular vintage, one for the ages. The colour is a medium-deep red in the usual estate style, never inky black nor over-extracted, while aromatics are still tightly wound up for the moment though already starting to show some of the potential future brilliance of this wine with a wide range of aromatics simmering beneath the surface. I love the depth and power on the palate, but also, and especially, the elegance and finesse that runs through it all. The palate is supremely well-balanced, with succulent acids and ultra-fine, but structured tannins. It’s the sort of vintage that will have a very long drinking window; while nowhere near prime, it’s surprisingly approachable even now. But I’d suggest another 4-5 years minimum before revisiting, or cellar comfortably into the late ’30s or ’40s without a stretch. A magnificent Sassicaia, full stop. Tasted September 2022.