2 Jul 2013
by Walter Speller
Cheek gets you everywhere. At least that is what I thought for a moment when I contacted Alberto Tasca d’Almerita (pictured below, on the phone) with a request to taste older vintages of their flagship red Regaleali Rosso del Conte a couple of months ago. This wine is a true Sicilian icon because it was the first of its kind to emerge on the international market from Sicily in the early 1970s confidently combining high quality with an elevated price tag. At the time, the island was still predominantly known as a bulk producer and was certainly not associated with complex wines that could age.
I say cheek, because the flight originally suggested to me by Alberto, going all the way back to 1979, would have made anyone grateful, except me, I am sorry to admit. I was dying to know what the first few vintages looked like and how and if they had stood the test of time. After all, it was Alberto’s grandfather, Conte Tasca d’Almerita, who, upon his return from Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the 1960s, was so taken by what he called ‘the best wine in the world’, he decided to have a stab at producing one himself. So I asked if we could go back just a little further, just to satisfy my curiosity. And, see below, my wish was granted. Sorry, Alberto, for the cheek!
It takes visionaries to put bold plans into action, especially when there aren’t any contemporaries doing the same thing. Sassicaia may have been longer in production, but Rosso del Conte came onto the market with the 1970 vintage (back label above left and front label below), while Sassicaia’s first commercial bottling was not made until two years later . ‘It can be a hard job doing something completely new on your own’, Alberto told me during the tasting. ‘To do new things you need to be understood by someone. Sometimes you can have a vision, but it can be too advanced for its time, and when you have that vision alone you will have difficulty explaining it. If there are more voices saying the same thing it is easier to be understood.’
Being a trailblazer turned out to be a challenge because ‘Rosso’, a blend just like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, did not contain any international grape varieties at the beginning. Cabernet Sauvignon & Co were not only considered much more glamorous than any Italian variety at the time, but the sine qua non of quality. We have all grown wiser since then, but although ‘Rosso del Conte’ stubbornly kept its Sicilian character, some concessions to the market were made along the way. Most notably in its use of oak.
You can literally trail the market’s growing appetite for an ‘international' style (as well as the beginning of its decline) by Tasca’s oak regime alone. The first vintage of the wine was fermented without the addition of yeast in cement tanks and aged in large chestnut oak casks of Sicilian provenance. Chestnut casks remained the norm until 1988, when the wine was aged in 30- and 60-hl casks made from Slavonian oak. But the career of this type of cask was rather short, because from 1990 on the wine was aged in 350-litre barrels of Alliers and Tronçais oak, of which a whopping 75% was new. And there was no holding back from 2002 on, when only French barriques and tonneaux were used for the ‘Rosso’.
‘We think in terms of wood', Alberto explained their seemingly ever-changing oak regime, ‘and it is hard work with barriques. Sometimes a wine spends 36 months in oak and you never notice it in wines, while the same wine in other barriques seems already over-oaked within six months, so we try very hard to find the best barriques.’ Throughout my tasting from old to young the growing impact of oak on the wines was clearly noticeable, with the most striking example the 1994 vintage.
‘With the 1994 we tried to show off', Alberto told me. ‘At that time the estate was famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, while there was no real interest in either Rosso del Conte or the indigenous varieties.’ The wine world was rather enamoured with the so-called international styles – wines of high quality, richly fruity and with lashings of oak. To create much-needed momentum for Rosso del Conte the Tascas tuned it more internationally in an attempt to woo consumers, but at the same time Alberto confessed their frustration at having to follow a trend to get the exposure they so dearly wanted for the wine.
That ‘tuning’ of Rosso was achieved not just by the use of French oak, but also by harvesting the grapes later in order to achieve super-ripe fruit. While we were going back and forward between the glasses throughout the flight, Alberto remarked on the fact that from 1994 on the wines hardly seemed to change in the glass, indicating a very slow evolution. According to him, it is not just the tannins and oak that cause this very slow ageing but also the increased fruit concentration achieved by later harvests. And because a large part of the blend that is Rosso del Conte is Nero d’Avola, this can easily lead to a certain overripeness. ‘There is a small window for picking Nero d’Avola', Alberto explained. ‘The grapes can go from green to overripeness in just a few days. To get complexity [in the later wine] you need to achieve the perfect ripeness of both tannins and fruit.’ Needless to say, this balancing act can be greatly challenged by the weather pattern throughout the growing cycle of the vines.
The 2004 Rosso del Conte heralds another stylistic turning point – and not just because of the creation of the Contea di Sclafani DOC. ‘It was the year in which I started to get involved with the production, and we set up a vertical tasting of the wine to detect a red thread throughout the wines. We wanted to make a multi-grape-variety blend like they do in Châteauneuf-du-Pape [most previous vintages were a blend of Nero d’Avola and Perrricone], and hence we increased the number of grape varieties and looked for balance and freshness. We were really happy with the result, and there is a clear change’. It is presumably no coincidence that in that same year star oenologist Carlo Ferrini began consulting at Regaleali, and the wine shows the distinct leafiness of Cabernet Sauvignon and, even more, Merlot. Although Ferrini still seems to be involved in some way with Regaleali, the winemaker nowadays is Laura Orsini.
The last and what looks to be the final stylistic fine tuning has come with the 2010 vintage, which sees a return to chestnut for ageing. ‘The 2010 is an innovative way of working with the past', was Alberto's explanation. The wine was once again fermented using indigenous yeast. ‘Chestnut is quite powerfully noticeable on the nose, but with age it creates something much more interesting', he added. But in a way, the wine still seems to be in its test phase, because only the Riserva version of the 2010 Rosso was aged in chestnut, whereas the normale is, at least for the time being, aged in barrique. Perhaps this two-tier system is designed to ease existing customers into what Alberto sees as a radical change.
And it is true that chestnut adds a whole different layer of aromas and complexity to the wine. It seems less creamy and more spicy, but makes itself less noticeable on the palate, at least in the wine’s current youthful state. I am easily bored when whirling a wine, be it red or white, and the first thing you pick up is vanilla. Not so in this case. When looking back to the wines from the 1970s in the flight, and without knowing the age of the casks at the time, I am inclined to say that the wood was hardly noticeable, having built a real unity with the fruit.
With the 2010 Riserva Rosso del Conte, Tasca d’Almerita have come full circle. Rosso del Conto has always been a highly original wine but from 2010 there is another layer of complexity previously not seen. Alberto likes to call the Rosso their ‘Super Tasca’, referring to its pioneering role in the 1970s, a full decade before the term 'Supertuscan' was coined for Tuscan wines made predominantly from international varieties. It certainly doesn’t need this reference any more, if ever it did.
The first vintage ever of Rosso del Conte was 1970; it was not produced in 1972, 1973, 1974, 1982, 1996 and 2009.
The wines are listed in the order tasted.
Tasca d'Almerita, Regaleali Riserva del Conte 1970 Vino Rosso 17.5 Drink 1974-2000
First vintage. 8,500 bottles produced, this was number 4,116. Perricone and Nero d’Avola from the Piana di S Lucio vineyard. 720 ml bottle.
Mature but still quite concentrated ruby with a brickstone rim. Treacle and hints of mushroom. There is some sweet red fruit lurking underneath. Savoury. With aeration the oxidation goes back. Hints of earth and spice, hints of orange peel. Elegant and still succulent with liquorice-like fruit. Well concentrated. Should be decanted! Still in good health. Elegant and complex. (WS) 14%
Tasca d'Almerita, Regaleali Rosso del Conte 1977 Vino da Tavola 18.5 Drink 1982-2020
Calabrese and Perricone from the Colline di Case Vecchie vineyard. 720 ml bottle.
Quite dark, mature ruby with narrow brickstone rim. Denser and more concentrated than the 1970 and with powerful fruit. Still amazingly concentrated on the nose. Hints of dark chocolate and malt bread. Very lively acidity and fine powdery tannins. Still lots of freshness and concentration, but has yet to come out.
A second bottle was opened after Alberto expressed doubt about its condition. The score is for the second bottle.
More pronounced and focused on the nose with dark cacao powder, iron and dried cherry, orange peel. Hugely appealing. Complex and succulent and fantastic tactile impact of the tannins. Impressive and still loads of potential. (WS) 14%
Tasca d'Almerita, Regaleali Rosso del Conte 1979 Vino da Tavola 17.5 Drink 1983-2008
Calabrese and Perricone from the Colline di Case Vecchie vineyards.
Very dark, almost impenetrable ruby with orange rim. Savoury, earthy and with orange-peel notes. With aeration, sweet perfumed dark fruit. Mouthwatering acidity and firm, dry tannin. Elegant palate weight and feel and with still some power left. Linear and long. (WS) 14.5%
Tasca d'Almerita, Regaleali Rosso del Conte 1983 Vino da Tavola 17.5 Drink 1986-2024
Dark mature ruby with orange rim. Malt bread and still quite compact on the nose. Tobacco leaf, hints of dried fruit and clearly has some age, and a little oxidative (could have been the cork) but there is complexity and the potential to open up with decanting. Surprisingly high acidity combined with concentration, but the fruit seems a little numb.
A second bottle of the 1983 was opened because of the suspicion of oxidation. The score is for the second bottle.
Second bottle: impressive, concentrated and savoury nose but still very compact. With air showing iron and orange. Full ripe, sweet fruit attack and lots of acidity backed up by real concentration. Has lots of energy and bite. Lots of grainy tannin and long and yet compact. Big big tannins! (WS) 14%
Tasca d'Almerita, Regaleali Rosso del Conte 1989 Vino da Tavola 17 Drink 1994-2020
Healthy looking mid ruby with orange rim. Not unlike a mature Bordeaux on the nose. Hints of nutty oak. Brooding nose that really needs decanting. Elegant palate but loaded with dry tannin. Fine red fruit finish, which still is not entirely open. (WS) 13.5%
Tasca d'Almerita, Regaleali Rosso del Conte 1994 Vino da Tavola 17 Drink 1998-2020
Deep ruby with orange rim. Very pronouncedly Nero d’Avola with rich dark fruit and at the same time the tomato leaf. Sweetly perfumed. Cleverly handled oak, but there seems to be a clear change of style. Less personality and more internationally moulded and with a clear dominance of Nero d’Avola. Supple and accessible. Ends warm. (WS) 14.5%
Tasca d'Almerita, Regaleali Rosso del Conte 1995 Vino da Tavola 16.5 Drink 1998-2020
Healthy looking and still youthful ruby. Balsamic notes from the oak and less pronouncedly sweet and fruit driven than the 1994. Sweet concentration on the palate but without huge depth. Bitter liquorice tannins. (WS) 13.5%
Tasca d'Almerita, Regaleali Rosso del Conte 2004 Contea di Sclafani 17 Drink 2008-2028
Nero d’Avola and Perricone with tiny quantities of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Very dark and impenetrable ruby. Quite herbal and hints of tobacco and capsicum and tomato leaf. There seems a clear herbal Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon note, which may become more dominant purely through bottle age. Palate has a fine balance between acidity, fruit and firm tannic grip. Quite concentrated on the finish. Still has time ahead of it. (WS) 14.5%
Tasca d'Almerita, Regaleali Rosso del Conte 2007 Contea di Sclafani 17 Drink 2012-2024
Deep youthful ruby. A little dusty from the oak, and not ready yet by far, judging from the youthful nose. Fine black olive notes and hints of orange and tamarind. Complex. Quite rich but not overtly sweet. Great length with bitter tannin. Should be cellared. (WS) 14.5%
Tasca d'Almerita, Regaleali Rosso del Conte 2008 Contea di Sclafani 17.5+ Drink 2018-2030
Deep, youthful ruby. Very youthful nose with hints of dusty oak. Savoury with hints of black olives, Nero d’Avola’s tomato leaf and red fruit. The fruit has completely absorbed the oak on the palate. Very good balance and succulence. Stylish! Already lovely but can age. (WS) 13.5%
Tasca d'Almerita, Regaleali Rosso del Conte 2010 Contea di Sclafani 17.5 Drink 2015-2030
Deep crimson. Fine minty fruit nose with hints of Nero d’Avola’s herbal fruit. Succulent palate with a herbal hint. The firm tannins still need to integrate. Very promising and complex. (WS) 14%
Tasca d'Almerita, Regaleali Riserva del Conte 2010 Contea di Sclafani 18 Drink 2018-2034
Higher percentage of Perricone: about 50-60%. Fermented by indigenous yeast and aged in large chestnut casks.
Mid to deep crimson. Wood yes, but very different from French oak. No vanilla or spice or cream, much more like mostarda [an Italian condiment made of candied fruit and a mustard syrup], with a hint of cardamom. The chestnut has a clear impact on the nose and yet leaves all the space for the fruit. Savoury fruit palate and yet still very compact with clinging, grainy tannins. A little herbal and the perfume is yet to come out, but fruit oak and tannin form a beautiful unity. Wait. (WS) 14%