– October 1, 2003
As creator of Antinori’s Tuscan superstars Sassicaia, Tignanello and Solaia, Giacomo Tachis is arguably Italy’s most renowned winemaker. Now retired, but still consulting, Tachis has strong views on today’s Italian wines. MICHELE SHAH is all ears
He is known to all as the ‘father of Super Tuscan wines’, the man behind legendary labels such as Sassicaia, Tignanello and Solaia. Yet Giacomo Tachis modestly shies away from such titles. Sitting behind a pile of ancient manuscripts – a mix of winemaking, philosophy and history – Tachis meets my questions with an amiable smile and a twinkle in his eye.
When Tachis set out as a winemaker for Antinori in 1961, at the age of 28, his real interest was in distillation. ‘I have always been fascinated by alchemy,’ he says, patting his books. His first employment after graduating from Alba’s school of oenology was for a large distillery in Bologna.
Tachis had by no means set his mind on becoming a winemaker. His employment with Antinori coincided with the early renaissance of Italy’s wine scene, which began at the Ricasoli and Antinori Tuscan-based estates. Tachis had been offered employment by both estates and chose Antinori. By 1965 he had moved from cellar master to management, overseeing all stages of production. That same year Piero Antinori entered his father’s business and together the pair doubled Antinori’s cellar capacity and increased production from 900,000 to 14 million bottles.
That was just the start of an auspicious career. By the end of the 1960s, he was blending Tenuta San Guido’s first batch of Sassicaia, the 1968 vintage. ‘I selected the best barrels of 1965, 1966, 1967 and the current 1968 vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon, and these were blended to produce 6,000 bottles of the first Sassicaia vintage,’ recalls Tachis. The 1968 Sassicaia set a benchmark for Tuscany’s great wines.
’These were exciting times,’ says Tachis. ‘I would often travel to Bordeaux and spend time with Emile Peynaud, lecturer in oenology at Bordeaux University. He taught me the art of blending Bordeaux varieties.’ In the early 1970s, Peynaud started consulting for Antinori, spending a few days every couple of years in Tuscany, working with Tachis.
Peynaud’s influence and expertise convinced Tachis and Antinori that the way to make premium quality Italian wine was via the barrique and by planting international varieties. By the end of the 1960s, Antinori had become the first winery to install a large number of barriques in its cellars.
At the time, many of the then top Italian winemakers scorned at the initiative, dismissing the wines as excessively oaked. ‘Nonsense,’ laughs Tachis. ‘We wanted the wine to evolve in the best way possible. Today, 30 years later, every winemaker uses barriques to age their wine. Open any wine magazine and you’ll countless photographs of winemakers proudly sitting astride flights of barriques.’
Tachis stresses the importance of the Super Tuscan wines. ‘They opened the door to a new market – as well as the road to a better quality wine – at a time when, especially in Tuscany, Chianti was a weak, cheap wine.’
He also acknowledges the importance of international varieties and how these have helped Italian wines win world acclaim. Tachis even goes so far as to suggest that Cabernet plantings in Chianti and Bolgheri flourish even more vibrantly than those in Bordeaux, due to the ideal Tuscan terroir.
Today, most producers have planted international varieties to imbue their wines with a more pronounced structure and to create super-blends which appeal to a wider market. Tachis is aware that this use of international varieties has contributed to the standardisation of wine, and advises moderation. ‘International varieties can add tone and structure to territorial wines,’ he stresses. ‘But there is a danger at times of overriding the wine’s original character.’
Italy has a great wealth of indigenous grape varieties. In addition to his passion for Sardinian Vermentino – a variety with an extraordinary rich bouquet and aroma, thanks to the favourable climate – Tachis is also a keen promoter of Sardinia’s Carrignano; Nero D’Avola, Inzolia, Grillo and Cataratto from Sicily; Lambrusco from Reggio Emilia; Barbera and Nebbiolo from Piemonte and ‘good’ Tuscan Sangiovese.
Varieties he does not favour are high-yielding ones which lack structure, aromatic complexity and personality. Ever the diplomat, Tachis won’t be drawn on examples, but don’t expect to see him planting hectares of Gamay any time soon.
For Tachis, the art of blending comes with experience. ‘It’s up to the sensitivity of palate and skill of the oenologist to interpret the character of each individual wine and adapt it best to the traditions and culture of its area of production,’ he says. ‘Italy has some great winemakers,’ he adds, though out of tact he does not mention names. He later lets slip his admiration for French winemakers such as Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux and Charles Chevalier of Château Lafite.
The thought of the high-flying consultant winemaker makes Tachis laugh. ‘They’re always in a hurry dashing from one place to the next, preoccupied with achieving too much in too short a time,’ he says. The main failing of Italian winemaking, in Tachis’ eyes, is the haste with which producers and consultant winemakers rush to achieve things. One needs years of experience, he says with conviction, and time to experiment and to follow through the evolution of a wine: ‘Winemakers, like wines, need to go through a malolactic fermentation before they are ready.’
Looking to the future of winemaking, Tachis voices a need to return to nature and to nurture the vine. He is not a fervent believer in biodynamics, but has always sustained the belief that great wines should not be refrigerated, filtered or clarified. ‘I bottled my Tignanellos, Solaias and Sassicaias as they were, adding only a small amount of sulphur dioxide to prevent the wines from oxidising.’
Since retiring in 1992 Tachis has had many offers of consultancy but chooses to work only in the areas he is most passionate about – Sicily, Sardinia and the southern islands. He spends his free time here, too. ‘There are still parts of Sardinia which I consider virgin land. It’s a spectacular island, especially the south, which is the true soul of the island.
’The climate in the south plays a central role in the winemaking; the sun and light are its key elements. Winemaking in the south is far more satisfying; the aromatic complexity is richer, the experience is more intense.’
Among his achievements in the region, Tachis has helped create Donnafugata’s Mille e una Notte and Tancredi labels, plus Abazia Santa Anastasia’s Litra. Since 1998 he has had an ongoing consultancy with Corvo di Salaparuta, Sicily’s largest winery. And he also consults for the Sardinian winery Argiolas and the large, quality-driven cooperative Santadi.
In central Italy’s Marches region, Tachis was consultant to Umani Ronchi from 1992 to 2001, and created its top ‘Pelago’ label. However, his roots remain firmly in Tuscany where he consults for such top estates as Argiano in Montalcino, Tenuta San Guido in Bolgheri and Castello di Rampolla and Querciabella in Chianti Classico.
Tachis believes Italy still has a long way to go, yet the sheer diversity has great appeal. By comparison, New World wines are too technological for his palate. ‘The New World is still young when it comes to winemaking,’ he says. ‘[The producers] need to find their way, develop their own character, through error and experience, but not by relying on artificial means of stabilisers and clarifiers, as it takes the soul away from a wine.’
The lasting impression of Tachis is of a man of charm, wit and understanding. The father of great Italian wines has simple tastes. And when it comes to the future, he is looking squarely to Sicily and Sardinia.
Michèle Shah is a wine and travel writer, based in Italy. Look out for Decanter’s Italy 2004 guide, free with the January 2004 issue.