Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

A TASTING AT TASCA D’ALMERITA – SICILIAN WINE PIONEER

June 2015. I first tasted a wine from the Sicilian estate Tasca d’Almerita some years ago at the Lo Scuderio restaurant in the centre of Palermo. It was by accident, or at least happenchance. This is how it came about.

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We’d booked for lunch on the last day of our stay on the island, arriving at the restaurant at about 13.30.

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“Our flight home isn’t until this evening,” I told the manager. “So we have several hours to pass. And we don’t want to get out to the airport too soon. We’d love to spend as much as possible of the intervening time at your excellent restaurant.” (We’d been there just a few days before).

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Our aim, I explained, was to eat our valedictory lunch very slowly, with a longish gap after the starter, ditto after the main course, thus leaving us free to leave as late as possible before our flight’s departure. We might even insert a dessert… In the process, I went on, with the whole afternoon before us, we’d like to try two of Sicily’s best wines, one white and one red. Not being an expert on the wines of Sicily, I asked:

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“Which two wines do you recommend, a white and a red? And what should we eat with them?”

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It was a lot to ask of a busy restaurateur. But he was more than up to it. Clearly a man of great sensibility, he immediately grasped what we wanted. “Don’t worry, take as much time as you like. The table is yours for the whole afternoon if you like.” The sort of restaurateur I appreciate.

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As to food, he recommended some of Sicily’s exquisite pink prawns with a carpaccio of raw fish to start with, followed – after a suitable wait – by grilled sea bream, one of the Mediterranean’s choicest fishes, moistened with virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Then the wines: the white he recommended was a Chardonnay from Planeta (it was excellent) and the red – I’d assured him we enjoyed reds with fish – was the 2006 Rosso del Conte from Tasca d’Almerita. (“The best wine on the island!”). I was delighted with both bottles, but the red, in particular, seemed to be an especially eloquent expression of what Sicily was all about in vinous terms. It wasn’t perfect. Emphatic almost to the point of violence, wonderfully fleshy, it had real depth and “sincerity” (like Van Gogh’s earliest paintings). And it had the potentially explosive, yet held-in force, of Mount Etna.

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Nearly black, reeking of underbrush, chocolate, black fruits, and liquorice, and as voluminous as port, it gave a thrilling note of finality, a quality almost of intimacy, to our stay on the island.

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*****

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Back again on Sicily less than a month ago, I decided to pay a visit to Tasca d’Almerita at their Regaleali estate, some eighty kilometres southwest of the coastal township of Cefalu. Not being a driver, I had no choice but to go there by taxi. But luckily I found a taxi firm that would do the job for no more than it would have cost to hire a car. The drive across the hilly, sparsely populated hinterland was a feast for the eye. The sky was cobalt blue, and though the temperature was already at around 30° C in May, the sun had not yet had time to dry out foliage, bushes, and grass, so that the whole landscape presented a shimmering patchwork of countless shades of the most delicate greens and yellows – you could have imagined yourself in the coolest, most arcadian part of northern Europe. The very air and sky seemed to shimmer and vibrate with vernal energy.

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We got lost a few times (for some reason, our driver always turned right when the Satnav said left, and left when it urged right). Then we were confronted by a “Closed Road” notice, with a vista of deeply cratered highway ahead. Luckily for us he – in a very Italian, or rather Sicilian way – he ignored that sign and ploughed on (almost literally).

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We were an hour late for our appointment. But we did get there.

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Entrance to the remote winery of Tasca d'Almerita's Regaleali estate, near the village of Sclafani Bagni.

Entrance to the remote winery of Tasca d’Almerita’s Regaleali estate, near the village of Sclafani Bagni.

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Regaleali is one of Tasca d’Almerita’s five estates, which are scattered all over Sicily, with “a great diversity of soil and climatic conditions, from volcanic lava to clay, from Mediterranean sea breezes to a landlocked mountain environment.” No fewer than 40 indigenous grape varieties are grown on their various properties, as well as a further number of experimental plantings.

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Regaleali itself has 400 hectares of vines at altitudes that vary from 400 to 750 metres above sea level. It was originally purchased from a Spanish family in 1830. To begin with, all of its varieties were indigenous. But in the 1960s the heir presumptive to the estate, Lucio Tasca d’Almerita, against his father’s wishes, secretly planted some international varieties, notably Chardonnay and Cabernet-Sauvignon – then not officially recognized. After a few years he presented the first results to his father, Count Guiseppe.

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Those samples were presented “blind”. Now, the Count was in principle strongly opposed to the use of foreign varieties on the noble, indeed unique, soils of Sicily. On that understanding he tasted the samples in good faith, not knowing what grapes the samples contained. He was, it seems, greatly impressed by these new wines, though innocent of their ampelographic identity.

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When the son’s ruse was revealed it seems that, to start off with, the Count was very much taken aback, even extremely annoyed. He had, after all, been duped. (Remember, this is Sicily, and nearby communities, perhaps innocently, are called Corleone and Prizzi respectively). But common sense prevailed. Not only did the Count finally acknowledge that the new varieties gave superb results but he also declared himself, after due reflection, prepared to back this revolutionary step in Sicilian viticulture. In due course the new varieties were accepted not only by him but, eventually, also by the wine regulating authorities.

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At their remote hilltop location, I tasted a selection of Tasca d’Almerita wines with Laura Orsi, the estate’s oenologist. Also present was Signor Corrado, who filled me in on the estate’s history. Signora Orsi, who spoke eloquently about her wines, is from Milano and arrived in Sicily in 1997. Her first vintage at Tasca was 2004.

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2013 NOZZE D’ORO (Golden Wedding), Inzolia 72%, Sauvignon Tasca 28%

Vinified entirely in stainless steel, this has a fresh, smooth aroma hinting at melon and grapefruit. Not very concentrated but impeccably clean. An uncomplicated wine to drink with shrimps, prawns, or as an aperitif.

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2004 CHARDONNAY

This looks older than its years, having a bright, unduly rich yellow colour with daffodil highlights. The nose is full and rich – too rich to be really fresh – with suggestions of butter, apricot, and exotic fruits. Slightly musky. On the palate, weighty and full, but with such low acidity as to be vulnerable to oxidation in the near future (a process which, in fact, was already under way). A hint of toasted almond on the slightly bitter finish. Best with grilled shellfish.

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2010 CHARDONNAY

The intervening 6 years have brought huge improvements: the colour is a true Chardonnay green-gold and the aroma of peach and orange blossom is altogether fresher, subtler, and more true-to-type. There’s also a hint of chlorophyll and dill. The longish flavour is succulent and smooth, with good acidity and fine minerality, with a delicate suggestion of pineapple on the finish.

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I’m astonished to learn that this balanced, quite complex wine doses 15 ABV: it certainly carries its alcoholic burden lightly.

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Mrs Orsi herself much prefers this wine to the ’04 – so do I. She tells me that she started ageing the Chardonnay in larger barrels – 350 litre size – in 2008 and feels that the larger format gives much better results. (And so do I).

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2012 CHARDONNAY

A nuanced green-gold, this has an excellent, incisive scent, typically Chardonnay, of lime, honey, pineapple, and chlorophyll. A very focused aroma. On the palate, it’s both crisp and viscous, with plenty of incipient Chardonay fruit, the fullness of which still partly veils the wine’s underlying minerality and structure. At three years, it’s still in its infancy. It needs to slim down before its fine proportions show themselves fully – a process that will take at least three years. It should then improve for at least a further five.

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2013 CHARDONNAY

This has an intense green-gold look and a fine, soaring aroma suggestive of mirabelle, yellow flowers, chlorophyll, and honey. A very round smell. The flavour is crisp and precise, with an ethereal aspect; but with that delicacy a certain tensile strength too. A buoyant, round wine, delicious to drink now, and ideal with carpaccio of raw fish or such fine fish as John Dory, sea bream, or sole.

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(Tasting this prompted me later to order this very wine in two different restaurants on Sicily: it gave real pleasure on both occasions).

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Signora Orsi, oenologist at the Tasca d'Almerita estate, speaks eloquently about her wines, which she has been fashioning there since 2004.

Signora Orsi, oenologist at the Tasca d’Almerita estate, speaks eloquently about her wines, which she has been fashioning there since 2004.

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2004 ROSSO DEL CONTE (Laura Orsi’s first vintage) (blend of native Nero d’Avola & Perricone vines)

A deep, glittering black purple, (imagine black cherries with the bloom rubbed off), this has a huge, assertive, distinctly gamey scent of a whole range of black fruits, smoke, liquorice, underbrush, and prunes in port. It has, in fact, the weight and concentration of a vintage port without being spirity. There’s a roasted aspect too. It tastes like black cherry compote mixed with herbs and spices, with the addition of dark chocolate, cinnamon, and cloves. A veritable Heathcliffe of a wine, it can be drunk now if decanted several hours in advance, but will clearly gain from further ageing: it will grow softer and rounder in time, mellowing somewhat but without ever becoming merely polite! A wine of great personality.

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2007 ROSSO DEL CONTE

Slightly lighter in colour, this has a round, “furry” scent that calls to mind peony, crème de cassis, fig, and black pudding. Initially closed, it soon opens up in contact with the air and its exact structure begins to show. On the palate, it’s clean and very fruity, with a reprise of fig, chocolate, black fruits, underbrush, and smoke. A true child of Sicily, it is emphatic, full-blooded, and with underlying complexity – a complexity that won’t be fully evident in less than 4-5 years. It should then continue to improve for at least a further decade.

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It is already clear that, just three years after her arrival, Signora Orsi has endowed this remarkable, uniquely Sicilian wine with an extra layer of complexity.

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2012 ROSSO DEL CONTE

A limpid, intense blue-purple, this has a fine, vital aroma of black cherry, blackcurrant, and redcurrant. It’s purer, more vibrant than the preceding two vintages. The fruit is distinctly juicy, even succulent, with a suavity the others cannot match. I have to sniff again, it’s so inviting. The flavour and aftertaste are long, subtle, and quite complex, ending on a note of black cherry and liquorice. This is a superb, truly southern wine, a wine that’s gained in subtlety and depth without loss of force or originality. More rigorous selection combined with finer-tuning has resulted in a wine that’s better balanced, deeper, and even more characterful than in earlier years.

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2011 CABERNET SAUVIGNON

A deep blue-purple, this has a big, vital smell, extremely juicy, of blackcurrant, beetroot, and peony. The finish is spicy with a gritty texture. All of a piece, this powerful, exuberant wine needs time.

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“The power of Sicily and the character of the Cabernet-Sauvignon,” comments Signora Orsi.

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2010 LA MONACA (SYRAH)

A rich black-cherry colour, this has a big, luscious nose full of rich, effortlessly expressive Syrah fruit, suggestive of dark chocolate, cherry, and elderberry. A glossy, exhilarating wine of tremendous sweep, packed with superripe fruit, and with real depth. To judge from this, the Syrah grape has enormous potential here. In due course it could well challenge some of the top wines of the northern Rhone. A wine that really sings (probably an aria by Verdi!).

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AFTER REGALEALI

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Following our visit to Regaleali we headed eastwards, in the general direction of Catania, our point of departure from Sicily. But first we would stop one night on the way there, in the hilltop town of Enna. The country between the winery and Enna is wild and remote and, there being no bus service, we again travelled by taxi – there was no other choice. But the cost was reasonable. Our hotel that night was Grande Hotel Sicilia, in the centre of Enna. A bit run-down (shabby-shabby rather than shabby-chic!), it did at least have large rooms with fine views. The town is noted for its ancient Castello (well worth a visit); but I shall remember Enna most of all for its magnificent public terrace, cresting an escarpment, which affords a stunning view of Mount Etna in all its majesty.

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The stunning view from the terrace in Enna, the hilltop city in central Sicily. Mount Etna can be glimpsed on the horizon.

The stunning view from the terrace in Enna, the hilltop city in central Sicily. Mount Etna can be glimpsed on the horizon.

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We got to Catania the next day by bus, a 90-minute journey. Etna, which dominates the skyline of eastern Sicily, was thrillingly visible at almost every point of the ride. Our hotel in that eastern seaport was the excellent Grand Hotel Excelsior, where the manager instantly gave us upgrades (just as he did last time). Believe it or not, but both rooms afforded yet another splendid view, from a subtly different angle, of the ubiquitous, the unforgettable, Mount Etna. We’d booked dinner at la Siciliana, a restaurant where, on an earlier visit, we’d enjoyed excellent food and two delicious wines. This time everything was different. Our welcome, I should stress, couldn’t have been warmer: on expressing a keen interest in wine, we were shown around the wine cellar and allowed to pick out a red and a white, an ’03 Barolo and a fine Sicilian Chardonnay, both at moderate cost. Back at our table we stressed that, after a week of twice-daily restaurant meals, we’d appreciate a light, indeed delicate supper – a friture of small fish, perhaps, then a shared pasta dish, followed by the lightest of meat dishes – did they, for example, have tiny, delicate lamb cutlets? Yes, they had indeed they said.

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Something, it soon became clear, had gone wrong with the place. It was empty when we arrived (on a Friday evening at that!) and remained virtually empty up to our departure. The previous time, it had been full. When the food started to arrive we suddenly grasped why people were staying away. The first dish was a depressed looking tangle of soggy pickled fish, clearly several days old. Then a pasta with squid-ink sauce (that sauce, ketchup-thick, looked and tasted like oil slick). The lamb was a slab-like lump of dull grey flesh that bore no resemblance to cutlets, and was so tasteless it was instantly pushed aside. Presumably wanting to impress us with their lavish hospitality, the staff continued to bring us a seemingly endless series of dishes, none of which we’d ordered, none of which gave any pleasure. Out of politeness we just picked at them, almost tempted to slip some of the food into our pockets to save hurting their feelings. It was a relief to pay the bill – which, to be fair, had not been inflated (they only charged for three dishes each) – and get back to the hotel.

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Luckily for our morale, however, our lunch earlier that day had given us the best meal of the whole week. Osteria Antica Marina is a seafood restaurant right at the very centre of Catania’s animated fish market. This quarter of the town, close to the Cathedral, is Catania’s beating heart. It is also the most visually stimulating part, both architecturally and from the human point of view. There are scores and scores of stalls selling fish and shellfish, showing a vast array of seafood of every imaginable shape and size: silvery whitebait and bream, elegant flat fish, glowing red snappers, gigantic tunas, twitching lobsters and langoustines, a range of different oysters, as well as a myriad unidentifiable denizens of the sea, some so strange looking they could have been taken for extra-terrestrial life.

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The moment you enter the restaurant, which is only a metre or two from the nearest fishmonger’s stall (they live in symbiosis) you see that the fish they purvey are as fresh as can be, some of it still moving. If, when they hand you the menu, you ask, as I did, “Which fish is best today?”, they cheerfully steer you to a big cabinet festooned with a slithering mass of shining, gloriously fresh fish and shellfish. We instantly opted for a medley of tiny grilled fish – infant red mullet, fresh anchovies, and some of Sicily’s delectable red prawns – followed by a whole grilled sea-bream straight out of the Mediterranean. As to wine: we were shown into a walk-in wine cellar where we selected a succulent Chardonnay from the winery of our new friends at Tasca d’Almerita, instantly taking a first glass of it as aperitif. The meal was pure delight from start to finish, the cooks being absolute masters of the delicate art of grilling. I can assure you that, when our lunch was over, it took real discipline not to start ordering another portion, or maybe two portions, of that lovely seafood.

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Rereading these lines, I almost feel like flying straight back to Sicily just for the pleasure of eating there again.

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Photos : Frank Ward

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© Frank Ward 2015

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