Nil Nisi Bonum?

By now, every wine lover of any pretentions has heard of the death of Giacomo Tachis, a figure of central importance in the 20th century Italian wine scene. The homages have been unstinting and the praise unqualified. (See for instance the New York Times’s reverential obituary.) I have even seen him credited with introducing temperature-controlled fermentation – a decisively important development for Italian wine, to be sure, but the credit for it belongs to many individuals in many countries, not to Tachis alone.

I know we are supposed to speak only good of the dead, but I feel strongly that Tachis’s influence, though crucial for the commercial success of Tuscan wines in the sixties, seventies, and eighties of the last century (god, saying that makes me feel ancient!), has been in the long run baneful for the development of Italy’s wine culture. That’s the reason behind this contrarian take on his enological legacy.

Tachis of course achieved fame and prominence first for his work with the Antinori firm, primarily in the development of Sassicaia, Tignanello, and Solaia. Tachis did not, as many people seem to believe, invent Sassicaia. Rather, he lucked into it. The Antinori’s cousins, the Incisa della Rocchetta family, had – back in the forties, I believe – planted an unlikely stretch of their property in the Tuscan Maremma (a very untraditional area for serious winemaking then and even much later) in the two Cabernets, sauvignon and franc, which their patriarch loved. The family had for years been vinifying them for their own consumption.

It is unclear – I have heard several versions of the story – whether the Incisa della Rocchetta approached the Antinori or the Antinori approached their cousins about commercializing the wine. But the Antinori did successfully accomplish that, and Sassicaia began winning prizes and gathering attention from press and public and wine lovers generally.

Many people speak of Tachis as a student of Emile Peynaud, the great Bordeaux enologist and teacher. That is not literally true, though Tachis was an intense admirer of Peynaud’s work and writings. His own talent was for blending, a skill that fits very nicely into the traditions of both Tuscany and Bordeaux. With Piero Antinori’s backing, reinforced by the commercial and prestige success of Sassicaia, he soon developed Tignanello, which, except for its first vintage, has been a blend of predominantly Sangiovese with about 20% Cabernet sauvignon. Tachis then followed that with Solaia, a blend of mostly Cabernet sauvignon with about 20% Sangiovese and a little Cabernet franc.

These were immensely successful wines, soon spoken of in the press as Super Tuscans, a nom de guerre that, as the practice of using “international varieties” spread within Tuscany and Italy at large, almost pushed native Tuscan wines into economic oblivion. And there is why I think Tachis’s influence has been in the long run harmful, not just for Tuscan wine but for Italian wine generally.

I don’t drink Tignanello and Solaia. I just don’t like ‘em. They don’t taste Tuscan to me, and they don’t taste French. They taste commercial, as if they could have been grown and vinified anywhere, of almost any grapes. They’re sleek, and polished, and hollow at the heart, as most of the now-happily-fading-into-oblivion Super Tuscans all were. But their 20-year run of commercial success left vineyards of Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Merlot, and Syrah dotted all over Italy, while perfectly worthy but untrumpeted native varieties have been allowed to languish.

Rucché, anyone? Pignolo? Pallagrello? Nerello?  These are varieties capable of making great wine, and there are many more such indigenous vines all through Italy. Their development has been slowed, and even their survival threatened, by the to-my-mind undeserved and unwarranted attention to international varieties. Beyond that, many Italian wines have been denatured – homogenized – by the continued admixture of international varieties. Cabernet sauvignon and Syrah particularly – even in small quantities – take over a blend and drown the distinctive characters of the native grapes.

For both these effects, it seems to me that Tachis and the Antinori must take primary responsibility. I’m not a forgiving sort: I will hold that grudge as long as a single Italian winemaker muddies the character of Sangiovese with Cabernet. And I every day bless the Piemontese and Campanian winemakers who resisted the lure of such varieties and stuck faithfully to their native grapes. Nebbiolo and Aglianico are powerful consolations in a world elsewhere gone awry.

18 Responses to “Nil Nisi Bonum?”

  1. Aldo Fiordelli Says:

    Seems to be a limited analysis in my opinion. Tachis was very important fir his work on Mlf to be done immediatly after the alcoholic fermentation to make clean wines, which was not obvious in that time. More, Tachis was one of the first winemakers to understand the strenght of Sicilia and Sardinia. He was strongly linked with terroirs and vineyard, indeed I find his blend quite obviously tuscan. Ruchè or somenthing else is funny, but we can’t compare it with sangiovese or nebbiolo to reduce the importance of Tachis.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      We disagree on these points. Of the accomplishments you cite for Tachis, he was one of several people working on those problems and in those directions. In both Sicily and Sardinia, he championed the use of French varieties. If by his blend you mean Tignanello, I totally disagree: for my palate, it just isn’t Tuscan, or even markedly Italian: It’s international. But that is a matter of individual taste: If for you it tastes Tuscan, so be it.

  2. Kerin O'Keefe (@KerinOKeefe) Says:

    Great article Tom! Bravo!

  3. Livio Caroli Says:

    Magnifico articolo. Viva la Verita’

  4. Bob Griffin Says:

    Dear Mr. Maresca: Thank you for your article. You have stated in a much more eloquent manner than I ever could the influence that non-indigenous grapes have had on the development of Italian wines. Later in life and as a hobby I have been focusing on wines from Southern Italy. Over the past six years on annual trips to Southern Italy I have been impressed with the passion and commitment winemakers have in making wine from indigenous grapes. Thank you again.

  5. tom hyland Says:

    Tom: Excellent article and good for you to write this. Further evidence of the influence of Tachis- and away from the traditional, indigenous varieties in Italy – can be found in the list of Italy’s Top 100 wines from the Wine Spectator. As you can imagine, while there are a few inspired choices, such as Il Poggione Brunello and Planeta Santa Cecilia – there are far too many Internationally styled wines that have achieved fame, as they are tailored to an audience that wants the same characteristics from most of their wines.

    Italy’s strength has been – and will continue to be – in its individual, highly distinctive wines that communicate a sense of place.

  6. Tablewine Says:

    Bravo!

  7. Charles Scicolone Says:

    Ciao Tom- Great article- I agree- let the truth be told!!!

  8. Ed Mccarthy Says:

    Generally, I agree with you, Tom. But I think you were a little bit harsh with Tachis. He did accomplish a lot for Italian wines, particularly Antinori, despite the unfortunate “super-Tuscan” plague.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Ed:
      I acknowledged right at the start that he accomplished a great deal; my point — which nobody else seems willing to say — is that a lot of what he accomplished was in the long run harmful to genuinely Italian wine. How is that harsh?

  9. Ernest J DeSalvo Says:

    Ciao Tom, Ben detto!

  10. Eric Kroes Says:

    And the Etna based winemakers with their Nerello I guess…

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