Discovery Tasting: Tasca d’Almerita

A riot of lagoons, mountains, islands and volcanoes, this tasting with Tasca showed off Sicily’s incredible geography to the max

Let’s face it, most of the wine trade don’t know anywhere near enough about Sicily. There’s a temptation to assume that because it’s an island it’s not very big, and because until 30 years ago much of what it produced went into bulk wine that it’s devoid of interesting terroir.

In fact, neither of these things is remotely true. Sicily is bigger than Wales. It’s 100,000 hectares of vineyard (just less than Bordeaux) makes it one of the biggest wine regions in Italy, and its scenery is extraordinary – as we discovered in this tasting.

Collective members tried wines from tiny windswept islands, salty lagoons, rocky mountains and Europe’s largest active volcano.

‘Everyone imagines Sicily is a flat island,’ says Alberto Tasca, of our hosts for the day, Tasca d’Almerita. ‘But it isn’t at all.

5 Territories, 5 Estates, 5 stories to tell – Tasca d’Almerita

‘70% of the production comes from hills, and that makes a big difference.’

Alberto Tasca

Tasca d’Almerita have an almost 200-year history of winemaking on the island, and exploring such diverse terroirs has very much become part of their philosophy, with the family-owned company adding small estates the length and breadth of the island.

‘We use as little ego [in the winemaking] as possible,’ explained Alberto. ‘We just want the wines to talk about where they’re from; the age of the vines and what kind of grape varieties they are.’

The Wines

Tenuta Capofaro, Didyme 2021

This comes from the island of Salina, off Sicily’s north-east coast. It’s a spectacularly beautiful place, with vineyards overlooking the thundering waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

‘It has a little what we call ‘sapidity’ – a kind of saltiness,’ says Alberto. ‘It could be because of the strong winds blowing salty water everywhere.’

The island used to be best known for making sweet wines from Malvasia di Lipari. But in 2013 – a big year – Tasca had no space to dry all the grapes, so made some dry wine as well – a style that’s become increasingly popular and should get its own DOC soon.

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

‘I see this kind of wine working very well with sushi,’ said Raphael Thierry. ‘The oily texture is perfect with the texture of the fatty fish like tuna and the saltiness of the wine combines well with soy sauce.’

Vines with a view out over the Tyrrenhian Sea. Spray could give the wines a gentle salty finish.

Tenuta Regaleali, Buonsenso Catarratto 2021

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

Tenuta Regaleali is the homeland of Tasca d’Almerita. It’s in the high, mountainous interior of the island. With much cooler nights, grapes ripen one month later here, which was particularly important in the days before temperature control, since it meant fermenting in October rather than much warmer September.

Catarratto is Sicily’s most-planted white variety, characterised by good natural acidity and an inherent ability to age, even without oak. ‘Because of its ability to hold acidity, you can get it ripe without worrying about it losing freshness,’ says Alberto.

It’s defined by apricot flavours. ‘But there’s a little sapidity to the finish of this wine which is just what we’re looking for,’ says Alberto. ‘We don’t want it to be all about primary aromas.’

Tenuta Regaleali in the mountains of the interior. The heartland of Tasca d’Almerita’s operation

Tenuta Whitaker, Grillo di Mozia 2021

Mozia is another extraordinary place: an incredibly low island off Sicily’s west coast, Alberto claims (almost certainly accurately) that these vines are the lowest vineyards in the world, just a couple of metres above sea level.

The sea around the island is so shallow that the grapes need to be transported to the mainland in small numbers of boxes at a time (see main picture), otherwise the boat runs aground.

Grillo is a cross between Moscato and Catarrato, and the vines are trained in the ‘Marsala bow’ – which involves intertwined bush vine branches trained on a wire, to protect them from the strong sea breezes. It’s a naturally rich wine, particularly from 2021 which Alberto says was ‘the warmest, driest vintage of my whole life.’

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars
Mozia: vineyards barely above the water, surrounded by a 50cm-deep sea

Tenuta Sallier de la Tour Madamarose 2021

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

This large estate inland from Palermo is at 450m of altitude and a mixture of sand and clay. ‘It’s the perfect place for Syrah,’ says Alberto. Tasca d’Almerita tried planting the grape at Regaleali, but it was too cool, and the soils too poor. It performed far better on this estate.

‘We think this is the best place for Syrah in Sicily,’ he continues, pointing out that the grape has a long tradition in Sicily, though it’s a different biotype to the examples grown in France and Australia.

This deep-coloured example from the hot 2021 vintage is ‘a step up in richness’ compared to a normal year, but Alberto says that it ‘pairs very well with food. That’s very much part of our culture in Sicily now. It’s great with barbecued meat.’

High, but warmer than the Regaleali estate, Sallier de la Tour is perfect for Syrah

Tenuta Tascante Ghiaia Nera 2019, Etna Rosso

Nerello Mascalese has found its spiritual home on Etna, which is just as well because it’s not an easy grape to grow. Tasca d’Almerita tried to grow it in Regaleali but ended up just using it for rosé. ‘It’s like trying to grow Pinot Noir in a place that isn’t suited to it,’ says Alberto. ‘But in Etna the volcanic soil brings a crazy tension to the wine.’

Pale in colour, John Prime commented that it ‘seemed to tread a fine line between Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo’ and Alberto backed this up.

‘It makes crisp, gastronomic wines,’ he explained. ‘They don’t work without food. There’s something nervous about it. You need an educated palate.’

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

This was (just) the most popular wine in the tasting, with our members suggesting it with lamb sweetbreads in miso caramel (Patrick Bostock), ‘red pepper cannelloni and lemon ricotta in our vegetarian tasting menu’ (James Payne) and ‘roast chicken or turkey’ (Jordan Sutton).

Etna’s grey volcanic rocks make for distinctive terracing

Tenuta Regaleali Rosso del Conte 2016, Contea di Sclafani DOC

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The ‘Conte’ was created by Alberto’s grandfather back in the 1960s. At that time, Chateauneuf du Pape was the most sought-after wine style, and after visiting the region for a month, he decided on blending two varieties together. It’s a mix of Nero d’Avola and Pericone.

‘Typically these two varieties were planted together because they ripen at the same time,’ said Alberto. ‘But they are totally different. Nero d’Avola is rich purple with a high acidity, Pericone is redder, with a rounder body.’

It’s easy to see how they might work well together, and they combine brilliantly here. From the excellent 2016 vintage, this wine was also popular with the Collective members.

Alberto refused to be drawn on whether he prefers the Etna wine or the Conte, but does say that in 2016 the ‘Rosso del Conte was amazing – better than the best wine we produced on Etna.’

Terraces tumble down the hillside on Mount Etna

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Italian white region

Discovery Tasting: Native Italian Whites

Italian whites are among the most food-friendly wines. And this dip into the portfolio of a family-run importer showed exactly why.

Carson & Carnevale is both a relatively new name on the wine scene and one which has been around for a long time. The company was founded five years ago when the Carnevale family (specialising in Italian food) and the Carson family (specialising in Italian wine) came together in a spectacular gastronomic union. You can only imagine the catering at the Christmas party!

The company imports wines from all over the world – in fact, it’s Californian, Spanish and, particularly, it’s Australian ranges are really interesting. But the heart of its business is Italy.

Their ethos is to find wines that are authentic and full of character, but still offer value for money – and we saw that in this tasting, with a range of wines which (with one exception) were all priced to be highly sellable.

Running from Sicily to the Alps, stopping off at most points in between, this was a fascinating snapshot of the country’s wines – and of Carson & Carnevale’s range.

Steep slopes of the Alto Adige round Nino Negri

The Wines

Tenuta Scuotto Fiano 2019, Campania

£16.01 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

Campania, in the south of mainland Italy, is 50% hills, 35% mountains and only 15% plains, and the vines for Fiano di Avellino are planted on slopes ranging from 400-600m above sea level, on a mix of rocks, ash, sands and clay.

Fiano di Avellino can range in style from light to full bodied, easy-going to age-worthy, happily lasting up to 10 years in the bottle, where it moves from grassy characters to smoky iodine-like notes. A late-ripening variety, its thick skins help it to resist autumnal weather.

From an excellent vintage and one of the best areas for Fiano di Avellino it’s had, 12 months ageing on fine lees.

Our tasters found hay notes and floral aromas of blossom. Honey and ripe yellow apples, lemon and pink grapefruits, also a ‘peach and lemon rind’ character. The extended lees ageing made it quite food friendly, combining weight but also freshness.

Food matches included linguine alle vongole.

The perfect wine match. Are you hungry yet?

Nino Negri Ca’Brione Bianco Alpi Retiche IGT 2019

£11.37 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

This part of Lombardy near the Valtellina DOC is a place where winemaker are happy to play around with a bit more freedom, and  locals claim this is where Nebbiolo (known as Chiavennasca) came from originally.

Both elements are visible in this wine which is a blend of international varieties – mostly (70%) Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc – plus other indigenous varieties, including Nebbiolo fermented as a white.

Rocky terraced slopes give minerality and elegance to wine, while 12 months in oak adds extra weight and texture.

Our tasters found elderflower and peaches and loved its crunchy saline freshness.

Matches suggested were pork or veal tonnato, Jerusalem artichoke, hazelnuts, iberico and black truffle.

Nino Negri’s winemaker, Danilo Drocco

Sartarelli Tralivio, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOCI, Classico Superiore 2019

£11.38 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

In the Marche, on the eastern side of the Appennines, Verdicchio was described by Peter McCombie MW, who was presenting the wines, as being ‘one of Italy’s greatest white grapes’. It ripens slowly and reliably and retains high levels of tartaric acid, while the best examples can improve in bottle for as long as the average white Burgundy.

There’s been a shift to modern viticulture and lower yields over the last 15 years, which is seen in the fact that in 2006 60% of the region’s wines were produced by co-operatives, but that figure had dropped to 34% by 2017.

‘For us Verdicchio is a staple textured alternative to people who have been priced out of quality white Burgundy,’ said Allegra restaurant’s Max Manning.

This winery has picked up a couple of trophies in the International Wine Challenge down the years, and this wine, from 350m high vineyards in the rolling hills of Castello di Jesi was popular.

Our tasters found hawthorn, fern, elderberry, pear, almond and citrus; textural without lots of weight. A gentle austerity rather than fruitiness made it a real food wine.

Matches included baby spinach salad with goats cheese and walnuts, and rosemary and black olive focaccia. Plus, of course, the classic fritta mista di mare.

The rolling hills and shoreline of the Marche, home to Sartarelli

Le Morette Benedictus Lugana DOC 2018

£14.68 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

Officially, Turbiana is the same variety as Verdicchio, though, this being Italy, some feel there might be differences. At the southern end of Lake Garda, it’s quite a small appellation with calcareous clay soils, with the lake creating a mild microclimate.

Le Morette was founded 60 years ago and it’s still family owned and operated. This wine is mostly made in stainless steel, though a small proportion is fermented in small oak, though the latter is sensitively handled.

A Tre Bicchiere winner from Gambero Rosso, it was nuttier and rounder than the previous wine with a little textural grip from the skins.

Our tasters found almonds, jasmine flowers and a hint of peach compote, with Gordon Ramsay’s Emanuel Pesqueira suggesting it was not unlike Pinot Gris in the richness of its mouthfeel.

‘I love that textural peach note,’ said Eden Locke Hotel’s Isobel Salamon. ‘This would be lovely with curried flavours.’ Other tasters agreed, suggesting a coconut shrimp curry.

Lake Garda. Not a bad spot, all things considered. And the wine isn’t bad either.

Assuli Donna Angelica Lucido DOC Sicilia 2017

£11.51 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

From the western end of Sicily, this wine is made from Lucido, which used to be known as Catarrato and is related to Garganega, Soave’s variety. Grown all over Sicily, it’s the most widely planted variety on the island.

This variety is usually citrus and herbal, with a mineral aftertaste and some tasters have noted a resemblance to Viognier. This wine was deep yellow and very rich and stone-fruity.

Our tasters could see where the Viognier parallel might come from but felt it had lost more freshness than it ought to have given it was four years old – possibly a bottling issue.

Jon Carson of Carson & Carnivale said that recent examples have been popular with Michelin-starred restaurants, so it might be worth calling in a different sample bottle.

Plenty of sun in Sicily, tempered by sea breezes and a bit of altitude

Tenuta Sant’Antonio Vecchie Vigne Soave DOC 2017

£12.19 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

Back up in the north-east of the country, this came from a small vineyard to the west of the town of Soave from vineyards that are mostly loam over limestone, a terroir which typically gives honey and yellow fruit plus an acidic kick from the limestone.

Founded by four brothers in 1989 the business is still family run today.

‘Soave has a bit of a bad rep with the older guests,’ said Max Manning. ‘It was so mass-produced for so long it’s taking a while to get people willing to try the newer styles.’

The younger generation, though, seem more open to it. ‘If you list any Italian whites, you should have Soave,’ said Wiltons’ Monica Bachiocchi.

From 30 year-old vines, this was still remarkably fresh with tasters finding nuts citrus, mature white stone fruit and refreshing green almond.

Matches included squid ink linguini and onion tart.

The four brothers, who founded the winery over 30 years ago

Kellerei St Pauls Sanctissimus Pinot Bianco Riserva 2016

£47.97 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

Surprisingly, the most expensive wine of the tasting a) came from a co-operative – albeit one which was founded in 1907, and b) was a Pinot Blanc.

From the south side of Alps this is a region that gets lots of sun, but also a chilly downdraft from the mountains, giving big diurnal temperature shifts, which help with acidity. This vineyard, planted in 1899, is one of the oldest in the Alto Adige.

The wine is fermented with skins in large amphorae, then matured in large wooden barrels. There’s no evident oak expression at all.

With flavours of toffee apple, herbs and spice, our tasters adored this wine, commenting on its balance, complexity, juicy, creamy texture and persistence.

‘It’s complex with real minerality,’ said Emanuel Pesqueira, while Spry Wines’ Arthur Ng felt it ‘drinks like a Pessac with a few years’.

‘So much texture,’ said Elly Owen from The Old Garage. ‘The finish is so good!’

Matches suggested included turbot Veronique and champagne caviar velouté, cheese, and a high quality burger in a brioche bun.

‘It’s not an everyday drink,’ said Monica Bachiocchi. ‘But I love it!’

Be honest, would you have guessed this was Italy if we hadn’t told you?

Marchese Raggio, “Old Année” Gavi del Commune di Gavi DOCG 2015

£13.50 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

A staple of Italian restaurant lists for years Gavi maybe has a reputation like a more upmarket Pinot Grigio. But this wine, from a 500-year-old estate has more ambition than that.

From their best grapes, hand-harvested and softly pressed the wine has no malo (to preserve acidity), and a little batonnage to build in weight. It’s aged for three years in old oak barrels.

‘Gavi is the kind of wine where people tend to think they should have the latest vintage, but if you’ve got a bit of ambition that extra age is interesting,’ said Peter McCombie MW. ‘With time it does pick up a hint of liquorice or fennel – a bit of herbal spice.’

Our tasters found it crisp and clean with good primary flavours backed up by a singing acidity, and a slight austerity that made it perfect for food. The suggested match was crab linguini with a notch of chilli.


Drinking slightly older Italian whites made for a really interesting and unusual range of wines. As Emanuel pointed out, guests might be hesitant about this, but would be OK with it once the sommelier had ‘connected the wine to the vineyard’.

However, Valeriya Toteva from the Conrad Hilton was excited by the possibilities.  ‘As a sommelier, I’m looking for something new and unusual,’ she said. ‘It’s a plus to tell a story to our guests.’

The Marchese’s original document of ownership from 500 years ago

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Planeta

Discovery Tasting: Planeta and Etna

Volcanic wines are – no pun intended – hot at the moment. So the chance to taste Planeta’s range from Etna with winemaker Patricia Toth was a treat not to be missed.

Advertorial DISCOVERY TASTING: PLANETA AND ETNA – rif ocm

Old terraces and new vineyards high up on Etna. The ‘clouds’ in the background are from the volcano

Grapes have been grown, and wine made on Etna for hundreds of years – until recently, most of it of no great distinction. But there has been a big quality shift over the last 20 years, and it’s arguably one of the most talked-about regions in Europe now.

Commentators have described it, variously, as ‘Italy’s Burgundy’ and ‘the Barolo of the South’.

Planeta planted its first vineyard on Etna in 2009, buying a dozen ancient terraces in Sciaranuova. At over 800 metres, it’s one of the highest vineyards on the mountain, which might explain the winery’s decision to major mostly on white wines, made largely from the native Carricante grape.

There has been much talk in Etna about the ‘contradas’ – the various sub-regions the area is divided into. But Patricia Toth warns against viewing them as an equivalent to Burgundy crus or village appellations.

The Contradas are more administrative than terroir driven – and some, such as Feudo di Mezzo are BIG!

‘Contradas are bigger units – more bureaucratic, defined in the last century,’ she tells the Sommelier Collective. But, unlike Burgundy, they aren’t driven by the nature of the terroir.

‘One contrada can contain five or six different lava flows, and it is this that gives a character to the soil.’

Patricia Toth
Winemaker, Patricia Toth

Etna, of course, is still very much active – making it a truly unique place to make wine. But even once you get past the volcano throwing out plumes of smoke and grumbling to itself just 15km away (albeit 2,500m higher) this is a highly unusual terroir.

Patricia describes it as ‘mountain viticulture’. Not only are the vineyards from 500-900m above sea level, but there are three mountain ranges nearby of around 2000m. Weather patterns here are distinct and vary significantly from one place to the next.

‘We have vineyards in Montelaguardia and Sciaranuova,’ says Patricia. ‘They’re only five minutes drive apart, but they’re 200m different in altitude and, crucially, are based on two different eruptions.’

The soil, too, is extraordinary. ‘It’s really a collection of different volcanic ash,’ says Patricia. ‘It has twice the average of organic material you’ll find in Europe, but there’s no clay at all.’

Although Etna is quite a high rainfall area, the vineyards drain like sand.

Soil types on Etna. Mostly ash, and with no clay at all, drainage is like sand

The Whites

Planeta’s Etna whites are based on the local grape Carricante. Its profile is not yet that well known – perhaps because in the past it used to be blended in with red grapes – a once common practice across Europe.

Until recently, older growers used to pick it religiously on October 6th, which might explain the lack of interest in making it as a single varietal.

Etna terraces, made of lava – looking down into the bottom of the valley

‘People thought Carricante was a simple grape,’ says Patricia. ‘But it’s a bit like Furmint or Riesling. It gets aromatic maturity in the last few weeks of the vegetative cycle, so to get real flavour you have to risk it a bit.

‘It’s not a light aromatic compound – more like Riesling. It has a low pH and can age well.’

Patricia describes it as a ‘linear variety’.

The Etna Bianco 2019 comes from the lower vineyards in Montelaguardia, which are slightly warmer and more sheltered. The result is a rounder, softer, more ready-to-drink wine.

Patricia – who likes to taste in colours – sees it as a ‘yellow’ wine – peachy and approachable.

She has added to this character by putting 15% of the wines into tonneaux, though there is no evident wood character.

Map showing the altitudes of the Planeta vineyards. And yes, that’s an active volcano at the bottom.

The Eruzione 2016 and 2018 are a step up in quality and ambition. When Planeta took over these vineyards they had been abandoned for 50 years. Somewhat counter-intuitively, they cannot be labelled Etna DOC because the Sciaranuova vineyard is too high to be included in the boundaries of an appellation that was drawn up a long time ago, when people thought it was too hard to get grapes ripe at this altitude.

Naming the wine after one of the volcano’s most famous eruptions, however, is a neat way of making it obvious where it comes from, without breaking any rules!

You can see the location of Sciaranuova on the ‘contrada’ map above – it’s a green block on the bottom edge.

The wine is 90% Carricante, with 10% Riesling. That’s because while Carricante can be complex on the nose, it is still often slimline on the palate; adding Riesling – ‘more like Claire Valley than German style,’ says Patricia – helps to add weight to the mid-palate. Still, though, she says this is a ‘white, linear wine.’

‘2018 is wilder and more open,’ explained Patricia. ‘The 2016 is more organised. It was one of the most relaxed years I’ve had since I worked here.’

Members of the Sommelier Collective had some interesting food matches for these, including ‘anything with squid ink’, swordfish and a Brazilian fish stew, moqueca.

‘These wines are quite salty and mineral, so umami-driven fish dishes can be great,’ said Patricia.

The wine, the vineyards – and a chunk of lava. Etna in a nutshell

The Reds

Nerello Mascalese is the reason that some have likened Etna to Burgundy or Barolo – but making premium wines here is, as alluded to earlier, quite a recent phenomenon.

‘We have to remember that premium wines from here have only existed for 20 years,’ says Patricia. ‘It’s exciting to see all the different styles of Nerello Mascalese that exist now.’

The variety’s name means ‘little black from the village of Mascale’. So called because it isn’t as dark as, say, Nero d’Avola. But what’s it typically like?

‘Stylistically, it has some distance between the nose and the mouth,’ explains Patricia. ‘The nose is floral, gentle, flexible – then in the mouth there’s quite an intense tannic compound which is a lot less delicate than the nose.’

Note the ‘less black’ nature of the bunches that give Nerello its name

For this reason, while it can have similar colour to Pinot Noir, Patricia thinks the Barolo parallel is more appropriate.

Etna Rosso 2019

From the lower vineyards at 5-600m above sea level, the soils are richer and deeper. And this combination gives a wine that is softer and slightly fruitier. ‘It’s a great match with local cold cuts, like salami,’ says Patricia.

Planeta have developed a shorter skin maceration for Nerello Mascalese – 14-18 days. ‘There’s a kind of greenness in the seeds, so we don’t like to move the solids much,’ explains Patricia. ‘It’s more like a static extraction.’

This gentler, softer expression is becoming more popular on the island.

‘A lot of southern varieties need to have the courage to have less structure and colour – to enjoy their softness and elegance,’ she says.

Eruzione 2016 and 2018

As with the Eruzione Carricante, these wines were from the higher Sciaranuova vineyard, outside the appellation, so are classed as a DOC Sicilia. Yet they are evidently more ambitious: blacker and ‘inkier’ on the nose, with more elegant tannins.

‘I always find finer tannins here,’ says Patricia. ‘And I can keep the wine on the skins way longer.’

The team use a ‘Piemontese method’ which involves leaving the wine for a spontaneous fermentation, then sinking the caps, and filling the tanks up with wine without working the skins.

‘I close it and we don’t touch it for the net 25-30 days,’ says Patricia. ‘That gives a very fine extraction.’

Top vintages from Etna are 2011, 2014 and 2016. The Sommelier Collective’s members concurred, rating the latter Eruziones (both red and white) their favourite wines.

If you’re looking for a blind-tasting pointer for Nerello, Patricia suggests ‘modelling clay – it has a very linear and mineral note’. And in terms of matching, the higher-altitude Eruzione, she says, requires major protein.

Maria Boumpa agreed, suggesting it would work well with duck ravioli.

Spectacular night sky and a building made of lava. Etna has a genuinely unique terroir

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