Wine Time

Odd Pair: Pappasito's Queso and 96 Sassicaia (Yes, It's True)

One of my new-found Texas cousins' traditions is weeknight family dinner with Pappasito's take-out. And so, the other evening, when I just happened to have a rather remarkable bottle in my wine bag (reserved for my beloved Cousin Marty, the clan's patriarch, who recently and thankfully emerged victorious in a no-less-than-heroic battle with a life-threatening illness), it was meant to be: Sassicaia -- the original "Super Tuscan," the legendary blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc from Bolgheri, Tuscany, the wine that (some say) "started it all," the first world-class Bordeaux-style blend from Italy to command the attention of the collectible fine wine market -- paired with Pappasito's take-out queso in a plastic container.

Many of you must be crying "outrage," "blasphemous," "heretical," and perhaps even "sinful," as you shudder at the very thought of such a noble wine complemented by a humble staple of the Velveeta-dominated world of classic Houstonian Tex Mex.

Even the greatest of wines are only as good as the people with whom you share them and the occasions you chose to open them. And frankly, an otherwise workaday Thursday night with my long-lost cousins was, in my view, the perfect way to apply this wine (which was generously given to me by everyone's favorite Texan Master Sommelier Guy Stout).

I visited the vineyards where Sassicaia is grown (above) and the winery where it is raised back in September 2008.

This historic wine was created in the years that followed World War II by the Marquis Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, a Piedmontese noble who bred some of the world's greatest racing horses on his Bolgheri (Tuscan riviera) estate, Tenuta San Guido.

Legend has it that he planted vines given to him by the Château Lafite-Rothschild in Bordeaux and originally, the grapes grown there were vinified exclusively for the family's consumption. It wasn't until 1968 that the first commercial bottling was released: Italian wine maven Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers in Sacramento sold that vintage for $6.99 and French-wine guru Kermit Lynch sold the 1970 in Berkeley for $5.50, writing in his newsletter, "to my taste it compares easily with over-$8 California Cabernets."

Today, the average price for the current release of Sassicaia (2008) is $180 per 750 ml bottle.

Called by many the "original Super Tuscan" (a term most likely coined and popularized by British wine writers in the 1980s), Sassicaia reshaped the way the world saw Italian wine. And while there were many other labels that helped to pave the way for the current renaissance of Italian wine in this country today, Sassicaia was Tuscany's undisputed flagship. When British and American journalists began to lavish praise on this label in the 1980s and 90s, particularly in the wake of great vintages like 82, 85, and 88, the English-speaking world began to pay attention to Italian wine in way it never had before. The rest is history.

In my view, what sets Sassicaia apart from the now crowded field of Tuscan blends of international grape varieties (read Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah) is the superb growing sites overlooking the Tyrrhenian sea (see the photo above) and the age and pedigree of the vines themselves. Where many Super Tuscans are produced in a "California" style, with low acidity and high alcohol, Sassicaia has remained true to its original character: healthy acidity and freshness (thanks to sea-kissed, elevated growing sites) and balanced alcohol, with judicious cask aging (as opposed the invasive oak found in many Bolgheri blends today).

Where many wines in this category are oaky, opulent, and overwrought (in my opinion), Sassicaia stands apart as a wonderfully food-friendly wine -- especially with some age, as in this case, where the tannin had mellowed and the black fruit and earthiness (think tar) had gloriously emerged.

It wasn't bad with the fajitas either...

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Jeremy Parzen writes about wine and modern civilization for the Houston Press. A wine trade marketing consultant by day, he is also an adjunct professor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, Italy. He spends his free time writing and recording music with his daughters and wife in Houston.
Contact: Jeremy Parzen