Donnerstag, 7. April 2016

The Times of London: Giacomo Tachis: Celebrated oenologist who sparked a renaissance in Italian winemaking and popularised the 'Super Tuscans'

Were it not for the Italian oenologist Giacomo Tachis, crime writing would have been deprived of one of its most memorable lines. In The Silence of the Lambs, published in 1988, Hannibal Lector boasts that he ate one his victims' livers with some fava beans “and a nice chianti“.

Yet until Tachis's efforts began to bear fruit in the 1970s, chianti - and indded most of Italian wine - was commonly regarded as plonky by comparison with its French neighbours. It was fit for a little more than a cheap night out, served up in raffia-covered bottles.

Tachis, however, sparked nothing less than a renaissance in Italian winemaking, relying not on his nose nor on tradition but on science. Using his expert knowledge of chemistry and microbiology to govern cultivation and fermantation, he created a new class of Bordeaux-style chiantis, soon dubbed the “Super Tuscans“. These included Sassicaia, which in 1985 the critic Robert Parker called “the wine of the century“. It became the first Italian red to beat French vintages in a Wine Spectator tasting, and its sales did soon likewise. All this Tachis accomplished without a particular liking for wine as a drink.

“I've never been passionate about wine“, he admitted. “For the chemistry of wine, yes. For organic chemistey, for plant chemistry, but I couldn't care less about wine.“ He was nontheless comforted by his belief that other peoples's enjoyment of it meant that it provided steady employment. When he drink wine, he confined himself to modestly-priced bottles, reflecting his own temperament. Despite his fame in the industry, he described himself as nothing more than a “country wine mixer“, though he liked to see himself in a line that descended from Galileo: “He said that wine is a blend of the humours (earth, water, air and fire) and light.“

Tachis's first job after graduating from oenology school was at a distillery near Imola, near Bologna. He recalled having been prised from there with some reluctance as the city had both good food and pretty women. Yet his professor had recommended him to the Marchese Antinori, who had a vineyard in Chianti, near Florence. Tachis started work in the cellar in 1961, and stayed there after retiring 32 years later.

For decades, Italian winemaking had been suffering the effects of blight, flight fom the land and lack of innovation. Consumption was staggeringly high, averaging half a litre per day across the poulation, but this favoured quantity rather than quality of production. Chianti was a light wine with an ephemeral aroma, and though Antinoris's was drinkable enough, the Marchese admitted that it was not fit for export, which was his aim.

Tachis was influenced by the French oenologist Emile Peynaud, who was based in Bordeaux and an expert in blending. Encouraged by the marchesel's son, Piero, Tachis inteoduced some of his methods to give Antinori's produce greater structure. These included malolactic fermentation, using bacteria to convert the tart acid present in grape juice into a softer taste. He also began to age wine in oak casks, pressed for the planting of varieties more usual in France than Italy, and grew these on south-facing slopes. “Nature teaches man“, he reflected, “not vice-versa.“ Antinori's annual production would grow from 900,000 bottles to 14 million.

The first of the Super Tuscans was Tignanello, created in 1970 from a mix of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc grapes. It was the first Tuscan red not to use any white grapes, and so at the time could only be marketed as low-class “table wine“.

Recognition in Italy came earlier for Sassicaia, first sold in 1971. It was made by Antinori's cousin, the Marchese Incisa della Rochetta, to whom Tachis was lent as a consultant. The family had roots in Piedmont, where Tachis came from too, and were used to drinking more robust wines from across the Alps.

In 1944, they had planted cabernet sauvignon at Bolgheri for their own consumption. Once they came to drink it in 1958, it proved vile, but when the marchese returned to the bottles a decade later it had become superlative. Demand for the first 3,000 bottles proved so high that Tachis was brought in to refine production. In 1977, a Decanter tasting of clarets made Sassicaia's international reputation when it was first out of 33 wines from 11 countries.

“One of Tachis's characteristics was that he didn't impose his ideas but that he listened and decided together with you“, observed the Marchese Nicolò Incisa della Rochetta. As more Tuscan vineyards began to copy his lead, he faced criticism from departing too far from the region's traditions. Yet Tachis was profoundly sensitive to the heritage and character of local wines. He told winemakers that they should not be in the industry just to make money that would buy them fast cars and Hermès scarves.

Giacomo Tachis was born in Poirino, near Turin, in 1933. His father was a textile worker. His brother, Antonio Mario, became an expert on nuclear physics, while Giacomo thought first of being a butcher. He was a rebellious teenager and three times ran away from school. The headteacher told his mother that he would only begin to study if he was taken away, and so it proved.

It was a cousin of his mother's employed by Martini, the drinks firm, who suggested that there might be an opening there if he trained as an oenologist. After studying at the school in Alba, he had an interview at Martini but was not taken on; he suspected the interviewer was worried he would take his job.

In 1965,  he married Marina Vadini. They had a daughter, Ilaria, herself now a winemaker with a small estate in Chianti. She survives her parents, Tachis's wife having predeceased him by a few weeks. He had suffered latterly from Parkinson's disease and heart problems.

Tachis left Antonori in 1993. Thereafter he worked as a consultant, especially for vineyards in Sicily and Sardinia. For him, winemaking in the south was more satisfying, not least he enjoyed the historical ties with Greek and Phoenician settlers. “They maintained that wine likes to breathe sea air, and it's still true today“, he said.

“My father thought that wine was the essence of the earth“, observed his daughter. “He believed that wine had a soul.“

Giacomo Tachis, oenologist, was born on November 4, 1933. He died on February 6, 2016, aged 82