Obituary: Giacomo Tachis

Giacomo Tachis, Italian winemaker who put his nation's wines on the global map. Picture: contributed
Giacomo Tachis, Italian winemaker who put his nation's wines on the global map. Picture: contributed
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ITALIAN winemaker who put his nation’s wines on the global map

Giacomo Tachis, Italian winemaker who put his nation’s wines on the global map.

Born: 4 November 1933 in Poirino, Italy.

Died: 6 February 2016 in San Casciano Val di Pesa, Italy, aged 82.

Giacomo Tachis was considered by many as “the king of Italian winemakers,” taking his country’s wines out of their old image as cheap vino di tavola (table wines, exemplified by the famous raffia-flasked Chianti), to become some of the best in Europe with a global reputation and demand.

Using blends of French Cabernet grapes with Sangiovese and other local Italian varieties, controversially at first, he took on the big French winemakers, notably with his Tuscan wines now known as “Super Tuscans,” highly respected by connoisseurs for their quality.

He later went on to create wines on the Mediterranean Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia. From the 1960s onward, his wines often beat their French rivals at critics’ blind tastings. In 1978, the Sassicaia red wine he created for the Antinori family winery in Tuscany came top in an international tasting of Cabernets organised by the magazine Decanter, the London-based monthly widely considered the world’s most prestigious wine publication and website.

A 1978 vintage Sassicaia could cost you more than £5,000 but more recent vintages retail for around £100. It is now arguably Italy’s best-known fine wine.

Decanter magazine named Tachis its (global) Man of the Year in 2011. For his Sassicaia, first sold in 1971, Tachis used a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grape cuttings which were given to him by the prestigious Chateau Lafite-Rothschild estate in Bordeaux.

One of his mentors was top Bordeaux winemaker Emile Peynaud, who regularly visited Tuscany to advise him. Among Tachis’s other most-famous “Super Tuscans” were Tignanello and Solaia, also produced by the Antinori winery, and Ornellaia. It has been said that there are two eras in the history of winemaking in Tuscany: before and after Tachis. His name behind any wine came to guarantee it almost certain commercial success. In the late 1960s, he also pioneered the use in Italy of the barrique, a smaller-than-usual cask made from new oak to age his wines, and stainless steel for temperature-controlled fermentation.

After he branched out from Tuscany to Sicily later in life, Tachis helped create the labels Tancredi, Donnafugata and Litra. He also worked with two wineries on Sardinia.

Giacomo Tachis was born on 4 November 1933 in Poirino, just south-east of Turin in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. He something of a rebel at his conservative school and a too easily-bored student until he became fascinated with wines, the science rather than the drinking of them. He was still only 20 when he graduated from the Alba School of Oenology (the science and study of wine and winemaking as opposed to viticulture, the actual growing and harvesting of grapes). He became fascinated by the history of Italian viticulture, dating back to the Etruscans in the 8th Century BC, the Roman Empire and on through the Middle Ages, when the main producers of Italian wines were monks. After seven years working with makers of Asti Spumante sparkling white wines and for a spirits distiller in Bologna, Tachis was taken on 1961 as a junior oenologist at the Antinori winery run by Piero Antinori.

After he rose to become technical and production director, he set out to improve the quality, image and international sales of their wines, changing the face of the industry in his country. Having married Maria Vladini in 1965, he remained with Antinori for more than 30 years. Along with Piero Antinori, Tachis created Sassicaia for the Marchese (Marquess) Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, a close relative of the Antinori family.

He officially retired from the Antinori winery in 1993 but continued to advise them for the rest of his life. And although he had pioneered use of the barrique, he often warned winemakers not to overuse it. “The best barrique-aged wine is the one that does not taste of barrique,” he liked to say, insisting that the Italian Sangiovese grape, for example, is not suited to oak ageing. And even when “international” grapes are used, wines should still remain characteristic of the local terroir. “Cabernet does not express the Sicilian-ness of its origins without a drop of (the indigenous grape) Nero d’Avola,” he said. He also warned against too much reliance on technology, declaring: “Too often, we forget that the greatness of a wine lies in its simplicity and authenticity.”

“Tachis adored Nero d’Avola,” one wine expert wrote. “As he showed, give Nero a little love—coddle it with the proper terrain matched with the right clone, exacting vineyard management to preserve acidity, and precise harvest times to avoid the overripe jam effect—and you’ve got a wine that truly sings. From its inky, opaque depths comes an explosion of plum, mulberry, blackberry, and amarena cherry, chased by chocolate, herbs, and a finish that’s (ideally) smooth and bright.

At its best, it’s succulent and elegant. Lip-smacking good.” “Giacomo Tachis changed the style of Italian wine, dragging it — kicking and screaming — into the 20th century,” one leading British wine expert said after his death. “And by changing the style of the wines, he changed the way in which they are perceived. Without him, Italian wine would not be as successful as it is today.” Despite his global fame, Tachis described himself as a humile mescolavino (a humble wine-blender).

In 2010, he published his memoir Sapore di Vino (The Flavour of Wine). He died of heart disease and complications from Parkinson’s at his home in San Casciano Val di Pesa, near Florence in his beloved Tuscany. He is survived by his daughter Ilaria, herself a Tuscan winemaker, and two grandsons.