I spent a recent afternoon with Corrado Maurigi, Estate Director for Sicily’s Tasca D’Almerita, discussing the winery’s deep roots and ascension to leaders of the Sicilian wine industry.
In 2012 Tasca was declared “Italian Winery Of The Year” in the prestigious Gambero Rosso annual wine guide.
The story starts well before this, when continental plates of Europe and Africa pushed together to create the mountainous island of Sicily. Archaeological remains prove humans inhabited the fertile valleys below Mount Etna, Europe’s most active volcano, more than 10,000 years ago.
Sicily became a center of agronomy during the reign of the Roman Empire. Wheat ruled, and the cereali produced fueled their armies in battle. For centuries after, viticulture was practiced on the “island.”
Wheat and other crops were grown along with vines, until the end of the 19th century, when most of the grapes succumbed to phylloxera as it swept Europe.
During this time the aristocratic Tasca Estate known as Regaleali was generally enjoying a rising tide at the “center of Sicily.” Composer Richard Wagner finished his opera Parsifal — about a knight and his quest for the Holy Grail here in 1882.
After vines returned to Sicily, Dr. Lucio Tasca inherited Regaleali in 1920. Lucio’s son planted bush-trained nero D’Avola and perricone vines in 1954. With the aid of a man-made lake built by governmental civilian corps at the time, these would become the present-day San Lucio vineyard, which in the 1970s created Rosso Del Conte — Tasca’s own “Holy Grail” flagship wine — and Sicily’s first single-vineyard bottling.
Maurigi points out that Sicily, rather than being an island, is more like a continent due to the various levels of diversity. A misconception is that Sicily is searingly hot. Different elevations of the hillsides, valleys and flats — along with the constant Mediterranean sea and mountain breezes — allow as many as 70 indigenous grapes to thrive in microclimates.
Tasca grows 50 indigenous varietals at elevations between 1,200 and 2,800 feet. Twenty-two are vinified, the rest are grown experimentally. The diversity doesn’t end there. These vines root in 12 soil types, from sand and loam to various colored clays and calcareous limestone. In 1990 Milan University conducted a soil study using Tasca’s land as an example. The diverse varietals and moderated climate allow for an incredible harvest window of up to 90 days.
At Tasca, ancient grains, fava beans, olives, bees and other wildlife all share in the dance. And while olive oil is synonymous with great wineries the world over for its imagery and culinary symmetry, the real synergy is the wealth of biodiversity these trees bring, housing insects and birds. The olive oil, which they source and produce from five different terroirs, is as good as it gets. Their main protocols of farming are natural, using no pesticides or herbicides. Soil is life. Tasca is a member of the SOStainability program; a Sicilian third-party, 10-point compliance treatise.
Giuseppe’s planting of the San Lucio in 1959 was an investment in a future that few Sicilians could see, but the vineyard became a story of time, as the Rosso Del Conte wine was bottle-birthed from the 1970 vintage, hitting the marketplace in 1975. That project was a result of his visit to France, where he fell in love with the wines, especially those of Châteauneuf-du-pape. This inspired Tasca’s own French-influenced Italian wine in the vein of the famous “Super-Tuscans” of the 1980s and beyond. They suspended the use of local chestnut barrels, which imparted a strong wood tannin, replacing them with French barriques.
In the same vein as the then-experimental Super-Tuscan wines, his son Lucio brought French chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon cuttings to Sicily in the mid 1970s. They were “unauthorized” and thus grown experimentally. A harvest in 1988 was so magical that the government soon acquiesced. Tasca now produces these varietals.
Corrado sees wine as a “social message in a glass” offering an intimate view of Tasca, a place he says “was born to make wine.”
The 2017 Tasca D’Almerita Tenuta Regaleali Catarratto Antisa showcases an indigenous thick-skinned white grape that could come off like viognier if the phenolics were not enhanced by “the freshness of altitude”. Grown at over 2,700 feet and made in stainless steel, the catarratto is altitude-lifted, with pear, lychee and pink grapefruit. Salt, minerality and soft-but-supple acid define a vertical wine that pulls sweet and savory notes from the starchy-ness of a roasted beet salad.
The 2016 Tasca D’Almerita Tenuta Regaleali Nero D’Avola “Lamuri” means “love” and describes what Tasca puts into its wines. 1,200 to 2,200 foot elevation gives lushness and aromatics without the burden of over-ripeness. Aged barrels give soft elegance and ancient aromas, with mature fruit profile and spices. The wine holds an overall lightness of being.
The 2016 Tasca D’Almerita Tenuta Regaleali Perricone “Guarnaccio”, another indigenous grape that was “born and died” three times (due to phylloxera and use in Marsala) is vibrant, dynamic and tannic, with Mandarin orange, bitter notes and deep black cherry. It is tense, dry and a hit with creamy sauces, like ravioli with fresh spring garlic and leeks in mint-butter.
The Rosso Del Conte wines were presented in a mini-vertical, with 2010 showing some age, depth and grace; 2014 showcasing a superior vintage for this Sicilian miracle, while the ’12 and ’13 rested nicely and quietly in between. The perricone/nero d’avola blend has only been produced in “on” vintages, and not surprisingly, there have been 40 releases since 1970. They are deep, settled and speak of this amazing Sicilian geological-archeo-agrarian timeline while conversing with a perfectly seared flat iron steak.
I’ll drink to that. Cheers! Remember, wine reveals truth.
Drew Stofflet lives in Carbondale. Correspond with him at email@example.com