THE SICILIAN RENAISSANCE. Sicily and its capital city Palermo are enjoying something of a renaissance. Lucio Tasca d’Almerita, “the Last Leopard”, is a Sicilian winemaker who is madly in love with Sicily, and he is doing everything that he can to protect its heritage. His internationally renowned Tasca d’Almerita wine estate was the first Italian agricultural company to obtain dual sustainability certifications, VIVA and SOStain.
Lucio, in your youth were you a great equestrian, an Olympic champion?
I started riding horses at age thirteen, and I won first place in a team juniors competition among all of the riding schools in Italy. In 1955 I participated in the European juniors championship in Bilbao, and in 1957 the European juniors championship in London. I still have a photo with the Duke of Edinburgh giving me the cup. Then I competed in horse races throughout Italy, and was on the team for the 1960 Rome Olympics. The walk from the Olympic village to the stadium was the most amazing thing, with people cheering us on and the thrilling applause as we entered the Olympic stadium.
Since when did your family bottle wine at the family estate in Regaleali, Sicily?
My father first had the idea of bottling the wine in the early 1960s. It wasn’t actually the first time, because even back at the end of the 19th century wine was bottled at Villa Tasca, which is what the Duke of Salaparuta did as well in bottling ‘Corvo’. This all finished with World War I. In the 1960s my father started with a Regaleali white that went on to have enormous success. In the first four years we produced 600,000 bottles. I worked with my father, and I started selling the wine with my mother, first in Palermo, then throughout Sicily and Italy, in wine bars, in restaurants, and by letting people taste it.
When did wine production take off as a business for your family?
In 1970, when we produced the first ‘Riserva del Conte’ (‘The Count’s Reserve’), a red invented by my father that we still make today. My father was a great connoisseur but was not an oenologist. In the 1980s we produced a few million bottles. We sold a lot abroad and in Italy, especially in Rome. The north was more difficult because southerners were not looked upon kindly.
“Sicily is not Italy. We have a crazy mix in our blood.”
A family home since 1830, Regaleali is the symbol of a blood bond between nature and Tasca d’Almerita.
How did you learn the trade?
When you travel around selling wine, you understand which wines are more successful. In this line of work, the more you taste, the more you learn. At the end of the 1980s and early 1990s I travelled with Ignazio Miceli, our sales agent who opened the global markets for our wines. We had white, rosé, and the ‘Regaleali’ red and the ‘Rosso del Conte’ red.
Do you now sell more white or red wines?
More or less the same.
Who is responsible for selling your wines?
We have 120 agents in Italy, and about 100 importers in seventy different countries.
In which countries are your wines most successful?
Germany, the United States, Switzerland, and Russia, as well as Hong Kong, Japan, and Canada.
How large is the Regaleali estate?
There are 500 hectares. The funny thing is that in 1983 we began to plant four international grapes: ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’ red, ‘Pinot Noir’, ‘Sauvignon Blanc’, and ‘Chardonnay’. Our land is high up in the middle of Sicily, ranging from 450 metres to 850 metres, between Palermo and Catania.
How did the experiment go with those foreign grapes that you planted at Regaleali?
My ‘Chardonnay’ and ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’ were a smashing success under the Tasca D’Almerita name. This was sensational and made a name for us throughout the world. Nobody could have imagined that they would be so successful, and it was an absolute first for Sicily.
Did you employ an oenologist?
We took on someone who had trained under Ezio Rivella, one of the top people in the world in terms of oenology and viticulture. This apprentice was Renzo Peira, who became responsible for the technical oversight of the wine production, and he worked with a great deal of passion. He was the oenologist, and I had the ideas.
Have you visited a lot of vineyards?
What were your favourite wines?
For Italy, ‘Sassicaia’ was the best, and it is still one of the best Italian wines.
Do you now have other vineyards?
In 2001 I bought a vineyard in Salina where we have five hectares of vineyards, and where we make ‘Malvasia’. We also have a resort with twenty-seven rooms, and that is going really well. Then we made an agreement with the Whitaker Foundation on the island of Mozia. We make the ‘Grillo’ wine there, which is unique because Mozia has an extraordinary microclimate. The third step was to take on a vineyard called Sallier de La Tour, near Monreale, about a thirty-minute drive from Palermo. Sallier de La Tour is the name of my sister Costanza’s husband. There are fifty hectares with a very charming cellar where we make ‘Grillo’, ‘Nero d’Avola’ and ‘Syrah’, and have an eighteen-year contract.
“In this line of work, the more you taste, the more you learn.”
Wine from Mount Etna has become very fashionable. When did you start producing yours?
We began buying land in 2007, and our first wine is from 2010. The grapes are ‘Rosso Mascalese’, ‘Nerello Mascalese’ and ‘Nero Cappuccio’, and the wine is called TASCANTƎ. This year, we will work on various parcels of land on Etna called ‘contradas’, all of which have the DOC appellation, but Etna is so strange because each plot yields different results and different wines so we will make different wines with the name of each ‘contrada’.
Mount Etna is an active volcano that continues to erupt. Does this cause damage?
For the moment, no.
Is your wine organic?
I am very proud of an initiative begun by my sons Giuseppe and Alberto. It is a methodology for environmental sustainability, meant to create a better company that consumes very little, leaving our grandchildren with better land than was given to us. We are proud that the Agricultural Ministry and the Environmental Ministry have signed off on this project, which is called SOStain.
What is working in Sicily like?
The bureaucracy doesn’t help in a lot of cases, but fortunately there are intelligent people here. I don’t think the politics are the absolute best. Let’s just say that in Sicily people in the small towns don’t die of hunger because everyone has some land and the cost of living is low. In cities like Palermo and Catania those on the poor outskirts don’t have a good quality of life because there is no work and perhaps not much desire to work, but in the last two years there has been a big increase in tourism to Palermo and Sicily in general. I have to say that Mayor Orlando of Palermo has done a great job with public relations throughout the world, and he’s even won some awards. Tourism is changing. You can see it with Rocco Forte, who just purchased the Villa Igiea Hotel and plans to renovate it. The Algebris fund bought the Hotel Le Palme, and, getting back to Rocco Forte, he also bought a hotel and golf resort in Verdura, where there is a Google Camp every summer as well as an international golf tournament.
Regaleali is a unique territory with its own microclimate where the soil has a surprising mosaic of geological compositions.
Count Lucio Tasca d’Almerita competing at the Rome 1960 Olympic Games.
Mozia is a unique production site with a marine ecosystem that has always been tied to the vineyard.
Sallier de La Tour is located in the DOC Monreale area of the Jato valley, in a territory ideal for viticulture and with the optimal soil conditions for growing Syrah.
The first Tascante wine is from 2010. The grapes are ‘Rosso Mascalese’, ‘Nerello Mascalese’ and ‘Nero Cappuccio’, and the wine is called TASCANTƎ.
‘Riserva del Conte 2010’ -‘The Count’s Reserve 2010’.
“I’m a Sicilian who is madly in love with Sicily, but less so with Sicilians.”
Is producing wine very much connected to individual families?
Yes, in Italy and France. Looking to the future, I’ve already left one of my sons the vineyard property and the other son will get Villa Tasca, a historic villa with a historic garden, where many illustrious guests have stayed. The villa is rented out and is very profitable.
How many children do you have?
I have two boys and two girls, Franca and Alessandra. Franca is a full-time mother and Alessandra works in our restaurant ‘Le Cattive’, located in Palazzo Butera. It is family-style cuisine like you’d find in a Sicilian home but with some French influences. I also have three grandsons, and one granddaughter that is like having six.
Do you mainly live in Palermo?
Yes, I’m happy in Palermo, but I spend a lot of time in the countryside as well.
We could say that you are the last “gattopardo,” (a reference to The Leopard, a novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa), but you prefer not to be called by your Sicilian title of Count, is that correct?
I prefer to be called a farmer. I’m a Sicilian who is madly in love with Sicily, but less so with Sicilians (51% of Sicilians are bad and 49% are good). Though Sicilians are intelligent, we have our bad qualities, such as being presumptuous and jealous.
In your opinion, is Sicily Italy?
Sicily is not Italy. We have a crazy mix in our blood. The whole world has come through here, and this is perhaps why Sicilians are intelligent, but there are serious problems. The average salary in Milan is 36,000 euros per year, while the average in Palermo is 17,500 euros. We are sitting on an “oil field” of historic beauty and extraordinary archaeology. 72% of the historic heritage in the world is in Italy, and Sicily has 49% of Italy’s historic heritage, but we don’t know how to make the most of it.
Has Palermo changed a lot over the years?
This year, there was a 13-14% increase in quality tourism, thanks to Palermo being the 2018 host city of the migratory European art biennale Manifesta 12. Then with the arrival of Massimo Valsecchi, who purchased and restored the Palazzo Butera to make a museum of modern and contemporary art, a wonderful project, you could say that this is the beginning of a renaissance for Palermo which may even expand throughout Sicily.
ENJOY THIS INTERVIEW? SHARE IT WITH A FRIEND.