A Vertical of Icons from Bordeaux and Tuscany

At a recent tasting, I had the opportunity to compare the iconic wines of Château Haut-Brion and Tenuta San Guido's Sassicaia going back to the 1980s
May 14, 2010

I believe in icon wines, even if they may not be the very best from their respective regions. Some wines are the real deal, both for their pedigree and their ability to represent where they come from, regardless of the quality in the bottle.

I was thinking of this a few weeks back when I was visiting some friends in Montreal over the weekend on the way to the Wine Spectator's Grand Tour in Las Vegas. I was sitting in a room with about two dozen other wine lovers tasting a range of wines from Bordeaux's great Château Haut-Brion and Tuscany's legendary Sassicaia. These two famous red wine producers have in their own ways changed the way their areas make wine, and they are symbolic of the quality of the wines from there.

Sassicaia was first commercially produced in 1968, although it had been made for decades before as the house wine for the family of Incisa della Rocchetta at its horse farm called Tenuta San Guido on the Tuscan coast. The Cabernet Sauvignon-based Sassicaia was one of the wines at the forefront of the super Tuscan movement, when wine producers decided to make wines outside of Italian appellation rules. In fact, it wasn't until the late 1990s that Sassicaia began using an appellation more than table wine or "vino da tavola."

I am the first to admit that Sassicaia is not the best wine of Tuscany. And I think that the wines could be better quality and should be in the future as yields are reduced and the winemaking is fine-tuned. But for many people around the world, Sassicaia is synonymous with world-class new-wave vino Italiano. And I love drinking it.

Haut-Brion obviously has been around for a lot longer. The first-growth dates back almost six centuries. It was famous among the cognoscenti of Europe at the time and has been ever since. Thomas Jefferson even regularly bought and drank it in the 18th century. But, more important, Haut-Brion was the birthplace of the "new claret," whereby the best reds of Bordeaux in the mid-1660s began to be produced in a more structured, richer style, enabling them to age and to be more easily transported. In some ways, Haut-Brion is the Holy Grail of Bordeaux.

Today, it is one of my favorite Bordeauxs due to its beautiful balance of rich and decadent fruit and firm and racy tannins. I think it is the darling of the Bordeaux wine trade. I constantly hear of wine merchants there drinking Haut-Brion.

So, it was extremely exciting to sit down with a group of Canadians and taste through a range of the reds from the two wineries. The Société des Alcools du Québec organized the tasting. Most of the wines came from its reserve cellars.

The wines were served side by side in pairs, Sassicaia with Haut-Brion. Here are my tasting notes (all were tasted non-blind):

2004 Haut-Brion: Blackberry and milk chocolate with berry and minerals. Full body, with soft and silky tannins and pretty fruit character. Tight and solid. Chewy. Needs another five years. 93 points, non-blind.

2004 Sassicaia: Plummy, with loads of currant, cassis and chocolate. Full and soft, with lots of pretty fruit and a juicy, rich finish. Better after 2012. 93 points, non-blind.

2000 Haut-Brion: What a ripe and sunny nose! Decadent and very ripe fruit with milk chocolate and tobacco. Full body, with supersilky tannins and loads of iodine, stone and currant on the palate. Long and fabulous. This gets better and better. I underrated it when it first came out. Best after 2020. 96 points, non-blind.

2002 Sassicaia: A little disappointing due to the wet growing season, but not bad quality. Chocolaty, cheesy, buttery nose. Medium body, with good fruit, but very simple and straightforward. Herbal edge at the finish. Drink now. 84 points, non-blind.

1998 Haut-Brion: This is a blockbuster. It's almost Port-like. Tight and powerful with velvety layers of tannins. Full and beautiful, with fresh fruit and layers of currant and black chocolate. Wonderful length. Still a baby. Best after 2015. 98 points, non-blind.

1998 Sassicaia: The 1998 Sass is better than the 1997, like many reds from Bolgheri. Blackberry and chocolate, with currant and mint on the nose. Full-bodied, with supersilky tannins and a rich texture. Almost chewy, but very powerful and rich. Tight and big. Getting bigger all the time. Best after 2013. 96 points, non-blind.

1995 Haut-Brion: This is just starting to open. Floral and very pretty on the nose, with cassis and berries that follow through to a full body, with supersilky tannins and a long, racy, tight finish. Why wait? But with more bottle age it will be even better. 95 points, non-blind.

1990 Sassicaia: Sadly a bad bottle at the tasting. Maderized. I drank a bottle recently and it was outstanding.

1985 Haut-Brion: Cassis and berry and milk chocolate on the nose. Some mint. Full-bodied, with silky tannins and iodine flavors that follow through to a long, beautiful finish. A little lean on the midpalate, but sweet and yummy. Needs drinking. 92 points, non-blind.

1983 Sassicaia: Beautiful balance of mushroom and currant, with hints of plum on the nose. Full and very soft on the palate, with velvety tannins and a fruity finish. Lots of currant and flowers. 93 points, non-blind.

1982 Haut-Brion: This is the most drinkable of the 1982 first-growths. It's all there. Shows incredible nose of subtle iodine, tobacco leaf, dried flowers then turn to milk chocolate and delicate currant. Full-bodied and layered with wonderful length. Lasts for minutes on the palate. Generous yet subtle. Will improve with age, but why wait? 98 points, non-blind.

1981 Sassicaia: Wow. Very youthful nose of currant, mineral, tobacco leaf and cedar. Minty. Some mushroom. Full body, with round and velvety tannins and rich and decadent flavors. Layered. 92 points, non-blind.

1977 Sassicaia: Love the mushroom, prune and berries, with hints of truffle here. It's full and layered, with dried mushroom and ripe fruit. Even dried fruits. Big and juicy. 93 points, non-blind.

1989 Haut-Brion: This is the legend. I have had it numerous times in the past year and it is one of my favorite wines on earth. I wrote it was my personal Wine of the Year last year. The nose is memorizing, with plum, milk chocolate and dried fruit aromas that follow through to a full body, velvety tannins and a long, seductive, gorgeous finish. It will improve with age for decades ahead. Still a perfect wine. 100 points, non-blind.

1985 Sassicaia: No wine has ever been as great as this from Sassicaia, and it is one of the best wines Italy has ever produced. It has an unreal richness and silky texture that exudes class, with currant, mineral and milk chocolate. It's full-bodied and very bright with lots of tannins and a powerful, superrich finish. The wine changes all the time in the glass. A symphony. 100 points, non-blind.

The small group voted at the end of the tasting whether they preferred the 1985 Sass or the 1989 H-B. The former was voted first. However, it seemed like splitting hairs …

France Bordeaux Italy Tuscany

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