‘Alberto Tasca d’Almerita – CEO’ reads his business card. It perfectly describes this elegantly clad, dynamic 40-something who, together with his brother Giuseppe, is in charge of 400 ha of vines and another 100 ha of olive groves in the centre of Sicily where, on the border of the provinces of Palermo and Caltanisetta, they produce some three million bottles of wine annually. He welcomes me to Regaleali, their regal estate which stretches over hills as far as the eye can see. Think Lampedusa’s The Leopard and you get the picture. (My picture shows the pillow embroidered T d'A on which I spent an extremely comfortable night.)
Tasca d’Almerita is a scion of an old noble family of lawyers, solicitors, politicians and clergymen originating from Palermo. The family’s 19th-century Palermitan Villa Tasca, which still exists to this day, was the city’s cultural salon where Europe’s beau-monde used to rub shoulders. It was here that in 1881 Richard Wagner finished his opera Parsifal.
Although the family may be an ancient one, they became landowners ‘only’ in 1830 when they added large swathes of land, called ‘Regaleali,’ to their possessions. At that time Regaleali constituted an astonishing 1,200 ha of land devoted to wheat and olives, while grape production was limited to a tiny vineyard enclosed by a wall, and which, in good French tradition, they still refer to as a ‘Clos’. In the past this enormous possession was managed by share croppers. When in 1953 this system, known as mezzadria in Italian, was abolished by law, the Tasca family lost more than half of their land, after which Alberto’s grandfather, Count Giuseppe Tasca d’Almerita, decided to change the focus of the estate from wheat to wine.
I had arrived at Regaleali from the Etna, whose patchwork of high-density vineyards are planted in an intricate puzzle of terraces and plateaux. I was quite unprepared for the endless hectares of perfectly tended vines with, here and there, an artificial lake shimmering in the evening sun (later I was told there are four of them in total). It is a vast and expansive, heartbreakingly beautiful landscape full of silence spanned by an endless blue sky with birds of prey floating on the warm airstreams. It is also the source of no fewer than 15 different Tasca wines, which have one trait in common: an undeniable sense of Sicilianità.
The sea of vines that is Regaleali is planted on a multiplicity of hills with myriad exposures and altitudes ranging from 400 to 600 m. As the terrain is so very diverse, the University of Milan was called in to do research on what to plant where as early as the 1950s. The oldest part of the estate is a 50-year-old vineyard of Inzolia, which is still the main component for their Nozze d’Oro, the white wine that commemorates the 50th anniversary of Conte and Contessa Tasca d’Almerita, and one of Tasca’s key wines.
Tasca d’Almerita was the first to plant international varieties in Sicily, notably Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, a full generation before Planeta shot to fame with the same strategy. But the estate’s top wine has always been from indigenous varieties only. At the end of the 1960s Alberto’s grandfather read somewhere that Châteauneuf-du-Pape was the ‘best red wine in the world’, and he decided to travel to the Rhône to find out for himself. After his return he decided to produce ‘the best wine in the world’ himself, Alberto told me. As Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a blended wine, his grandfather decided to blend Nerello Malscalese, Nero d’Avola, Perricone and the light-coloured, high-acid Frappato, but it turned out that the best blend was that of Nero d’Avola and Perricone.
Conte Tasca’s ‘best wine in the world’ is appropriately called ‘Rosso del Conte” and has become one of Sicily’s mosty iconic wines, triggering a flurry of imitations. Initially it was vinified in large chestnut casks, which imparted such a strong flavour that it practically ruined the first four vintages of his experiment. The estate started using tonneaux in 1989 and Alberto told me that since then they have tried virtually every cask and oak type imaginable, but have now returned to the ‘Ur-version’ using chestnut casks once more. These casks are from Sicilian chestnut and are made by a Sicilian cooper Alberto pointed out proudly.
After having been handed a glass of the Tasca metodo classico sparkling wine, Alberto Tasca, in full CEO mode, took me through a presentation of climate, temperature and altitude on different charts, which illustrate that the Tasca holdings they have acquired over the years are scattered through five completely different climatic zones, from Regaleali in the hot centre of the island to Tascante in the cool and wet Etna region. The Tasca portfolio further includes an estate on the island of Mozia on Sicily’s extreme west coast called Whitaker after their partners in this joint venture; one on the island of Salina; ‘Capofaro’, where they produce a Malvasia di Lipari and run a luxury resort; and the Sallier de la Tour estate South of Palermo in Campo Reale, which is devoted to Syrah.
Alberto appears to be hooked on heights. ‘On Sicily we have the longest harvest in the world, beginning August and only ending well into November.’ This extensive harvest period, of course, is due to the characteristics of the individual varieties they work with, but even more so to different altitudes and expositions of the vineyards. It is one of the reasons he is eyeing up vineyards in the Nebrodie mountains on Sicily’s north coast, close to another DOC, Mamertimo which existed on paper only until Planeta began to revive it some three years ago. It is not his intention, though to slavishly copy Planeta’s example. According to him, the markets nowadays demand fresher wines and with lower alcohol levels, and higher altitude vineyards will help in achieving this goal.
Although it is easy to see the logic behind this reasoning, I do not entirely feel confident that the answer to increasing the quality of Sicilian wine is planting vines in parts of the island where there have never been vineyards before, just to create a style of wine the market demands. I have the distinct impression that something similar happened in the recent past, when international grape varieties where planted everywhere, and especially in the centre of the Island where large scale operations started to produce wines with an international appeal as well as taste, largely made possible due to irrigation and a high level of mechanisation. These sunny, international styles certainly put Sicily on the map, but are now considered anonymous in a marketplace full of these wines. A more interesting approach would surely be to focus on Sicily’s subzones where viticulture has been part of its history for many centuries, often even millennia, and work with the local grape varieties which have adapted themselves to the environment over a time span and in a way international varieties never will be able to.
The following wines are a selection from the wider Tasca d’Almerita portfolio which were served during dinner at Regaleali. The next morning Alberto Tasca showed six vintages of the Tasca Chardonnay, which revealed a completely different style than is normally the case for Sicilian Chardonnay and which reminded me a little bit of Margaret River. Alberto mentioned that the wines do not go through malolactic fermentation.
Tasca d'Almerita, Regaleali 2011 IGT Sicilia 15.5 Drink 2012-2014
One million bottles produced. A blend of Inzolia, Grecanico, and Catarratto Comune fermented in stainless steel. Pale straw. Fresh tropical fruit nose but not too overwhelming. Same fresh, appealing fruit on the palate driven by acidity. GV (WS) 12%
Tasca d'Almerita, Regaleali Nozze d'Oro 2010 Contea di Sclafani 16 Drink 2012-2015
This is a blend of Inzolia and 45% of what the estate refers to as ‘Sauvignon Blanc’, but according to Alberto Tasca d’Almerita it cannot be called as such officially as it seems to be a mutation of Sauvignon Blanc planted in the beginning of the 19th century. The Sauvignon component comes from a high-altitude vineyard on 700 m.
Intense, perfumed white fruit but without the catchiness of SB. Wonderfully succulent and fresh palate. White fruits, hints of passion fruit, lemon. Uncomplicated and delicious. (WS) 12.5%
Tasca d'Almerita, Tascante Seconda Vendemmia 2009 IGT Sicilia 16 Drink 2012-2016
This is 100% Nerello Mascalese from 50-year-old vineyards in the Contrada of Sciaranuova. The vines are trained on a trellis system and the density is 500p plants/ha. Alberto Tasca d’Almerita mentioned he finds the tannic structure of Nerello Mascalese a challenge, and to tame it they only employ short skin-maceration times.
Medium to pale ruby with broad, watery rim. Posh new oak and lifted fruit, but well integrated. Soft and round and with hardly any tannin. Not without interest, but seems more straightforward and less complex than the 2008 version. (WS) 13.5%
Tasca d'Almerita, Tascante Prima Vendemmia 2008 IGT Sicilia 16.5 Drink 2012-2018
Shade deeper in colour than the 2009. Brooding, concentrated and quite dense on the nose. Obvious oak, very good balance and good tannic structure too. A bigger style of Etna. (WS) 14.5%
Tasca d'Almerita, Sallier de la Tour La Monaca Syrah 2009 IGT Sicilia 15 Drink 2012-2016
Concentrated crimson. Really hard for the fruit to come through the oak at first. International profile with sweet fruit and oak. Well made, but lacks tannin as well as bite. Ends a tad alcoholic. (WS) 14%
Tasca d'Almerita, Rosso del Conte 33 Edizione 2007 Contea di Sclafani 16.5 Drink 2012-2018
Deep ruby, still quite youthful. Mediterranean herbs, sweet dark fruit and a hint of leather. Very good integrated oak. Shows some development on the nose too with hints of tobacco. Velvety tannins support a generous dose of dark fruit. Not the most complex but ageworthy all the same. (WS) 13.5%
Tasca d'Almerita, Tenuta Capofaro Malvasia 2010 IGT Sicilia 16 Drink 2012-2017
Brilliant yellow. Very creamy, sweet honeyed and butterscotch nose. this hasn’t seen any oak, though, only temperature-controlled stainless steel. Fruit has been dried appasito style in cases in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room. Alberto Tasca d’Almerita is not for the ancient method of drying the grapes on straw mats in the sun: ‘if you put it under the sun you lose everything’. Exotic too. Candied peel and apricot. Opulent sweetness counteracted by a good dose of acidity. 14,000 bottles made. (WS) 13%
Tasca d'Almerita, Fondazione Whitaker Mozia Grillo 2011 IGT Sicilia 15.5 Drink 2012-2014
A joint venture with Whitaker on the island of Mozia. Organically tended vineyards. Vinified at Regaleali, where the grapes need to be trucked to, and which is why the fruit is harvested a bit earlier to keep the freshness. ‘We discovered Grillo via our new venture with Whitaker,’ Alberto Tasca d’Almerita told me.
Pale, green-tinged straw. Very Sicilian in spite of its cool-ferment styled nose. Very fresh and lemony. Great alternative to most Pinot Grigio. (WS) 13.5%
SIX VINTAGES OF TASCA D’ALMERITA CHARDONNAY
Note: the two 1992 vintage Chardonnays are harvested at different times.
Tasca d'Almerita Chardonnay 2009 IGT Sicilia 16.5 Drink 2012-2016
Aged in 100% new oak. Brilliant straw yellow. Sweet and complex with hints of hazelnuts, honeyed apple and tropical fruit. Great concentration offset by acidic grip. Oak more evident on the finish but balanced by a nutty fruit finish. Noticeable alcohol on the finish but nothing out of line. (WS) 14.5%
Tasca d'Almerita Chardonnay 2004 IGT Sicilia 16.5 Drink 2007-2016
Bright brilliant yellow. Surprisingly composed nose of savoury fruit for a wine that seen 100% new oak. With aeration more oak. Salty almost. Hints of resin and nuts. White candied fruit palate with integrated acidity. Creamy finish with enough tension to keep it exciting. Great length and persistence. Still has some future. (WS) 14.5%
Tasca d'Almerita Chardonnay 1998 IGT Sicilia 16 Drink 2001-2014
Apparently a difficult and rainy harvest. Brilliant gold. Complex, aged nose of paticceria and lemon, honey comb and a hint of mushrooms. Candied pineapple. Savoury and more meaty with air. Very gentle attack and wonderfully integrated acidity, which takes the lead on the attack, until the finish were everything melts into place. Medium length. Fades a little in the glass. (WS) 13.5%
Tasca d'Almerita Chardonnay 1992 IGT Sicilia 16.5 Drink 1996-2015
From unusually late-harvested fruit (10 September – in Sicily, Chardonnay is normally harvested in August) as they were looking for more balance. The grapes were affected by noble rot. Deep gold. Full-blown aged and savoury, almost meaty notes. With air, it’s almost like a German Auslese (botrytis), but vibrant and not really oxidised. Generous, succulent palate with lots of weight. The 16% alcohol almost goes unnoticed. Rich and still going. And much more restraint at the finish. (WS) 16%
Tasca d'Almerita Chardonnay 1992 IGT Sicilia 15.5 Drink 1996-2014
This wine was made from the first harvested batch with the very low pH. Curiously this is more evolved than the late-harvested 1992 version, Sweet, savoury, lemon curd, meaty and beginning to show mushroom and age. Getting ever so slightly tired on the palate in spite of its acidic nerve. Clearly aged on the finish and losing complexity, but with the acidity going strong. Much less balanced than the late-harvested 1992. (WS) 15%
Tasca d'Almerita Chardonnay 1991 IGT Sicilia 17 Drink 1994-2018
From botrytised grapes. A rainy vintage. They harvested twice as the first batch proved to have very low pH and high acidity, so they decided to leave the rest on the vine. They cut off all the leaves and harvested in small crates and made a severe selection. The harvest took three whole weeks to complete (31 August to 21 September).
Tutankhamen golden, to paraphrase Michael Broadbent. Completely different from 1992, much fresher and more complex, almost dessert-wine-like. Savoury and with hazelnuts. With aeration more honeyed and with hints of butterscotch. Limoncello-like palate but without the sweetness. Complex. Waxy lemon fruit, very lively and nervy on the mid palate. Ends dry and with notes of hazelnuts. Seems indestructible. (WS) 14.5%
Tasca d'Almerita Chardonnay 1989 IGT Sicilia 15 Drink 1991-2010
Brilliant golden yellow, not unlike a sweet wine. Round generous, open-knit nose with oak and with the first signs of oxidation. Fruit a little subdued because of oxidation and creamy oak notes on the finish. Ever so slightly rancio, but works well with the hazelnut finish. Drink up. (WS) 14%