Wines from Sicily, Island in the Sun
Head south to the drowsy, holiday region that is the island of Sicily and you will note that it has awakened, at least in the domain of wine. Sicilian bulk wines had always anonymously ended up in blends further north, including Tuscany. But recently, the producers took a long hard look at their vineyards. The outcome – the Sicilian terroir of dry hot summers with hillside and maritime locations, is especially suited to the production of high quality bottled wines.
Alessio Planeta, whose wines have charmed New World wine drinkers is convinced that Sicily will live up to its new reputation as the ‘new frontier’ of Italian winemaking, alluding to Sicily as the ‘Australia of Europe’.
Indeed, the Sicilian terroir is a winemaker’s dream, enabling the easy production of ripe, sound grapes. But that can be a two edged sword. On the one hand, producing in volume, intensely coloured, high alcohol wine with not much character is easy. Conversely, if Sicily was to break from its mold, and head for the boutique end of the market, producers had to put on hold future streams of income from bulk wine in order to transform their operations. This they did with varietals such as Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot, indicating to the wine world that Sicilian wines have a place on the connoisseurs table.
Some of the oldest companies like Corvo and Tasca d’Amerita continue traditions but have updated approaches. Corvo in the last few years has become a leader in the value for money stakes with its generic and worldwide ubiquitous bianco (white) and rosso (red) wines. Tasca d’Almerita has achieved the transition to modernity. The techniques go beyond new vineyard work or cellar techniques. The production philosophy extends to alternating grapevines plantings with that of other crops and using natural means of cultivation with an awareness of the ecological environment.
As Sicily’s northern regional wine producers looked on with surprise at how quickly Sicilian wine gained acceptance in the world marketplace, Sicilian producers raised the ante further. Alongside the internationational varietals, they have begun producing outstanding versions of their indigeneous varietals such as Inzolia and Nero d’Avola, to name a white and a red.
Amongst the ambassadors of unique traditional varietals are Benanti and Palari, both offering incredibly tasty wines made from unheard of grapes such as Nerello, Cappuccio, Carricante and Galatena. If, you are not totally convinced, try a glass of something less esoteric sounding; say a Nero d’Avola, by Morgante or from any Sicilian producer. The wine will seduce you with its juicy, cherry fruited but classy nature with its nuances of mint and eucalyptus, spice, vanilla and more.
Then go on to taste unabashed blends such as Nero D’Avola with Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet (Santa Anastasia) or that of Nero d’Avola with Pinot Noir (Rapitala). You will begin to understand the Sicilian red grape’s accommodating nature and the enthusiasm of producers, attempting to bridge traditions and modernity.
Cottanera, whose un-irrigated vineyards are located on the slopes of Mount Etna has begun showcasing top end wines made from grapes, ‘foreign’ to Sicily such as Mondeuse and Syrah. Sole di Sesta ‘Syrah’ shows incredible mastery of the French Rhone varietal.
And if market forces are an indication, Donnafugata’s Mille e una Notte, hardly into its 20th vintage, already boasts a price that reflects the super Sicilian status of the wine, yet the wine, a 100% DOC Nero d’Avola, is French oak aged.
Undoubtedly, Sicily has undergone its own wine revolution – her wines are now dazzling critics and winning the hearts and minds of restaurateurs and connoisseurs.
Sicily, lying south of the mainland of Italy, is an island set in antiquity. Fought over by countless invaders, its culture and heritage owes something to them all. Lovers of history, art and architecture will be swayed by the monuments of each of her historical epochs – from Greek temples, Roman Piazzas and Arabian buildings to Swabian palaces and churches overlaid with the baroque stamp of the Spanish.
Today, the adventurous might wish to scale or ski down the slopes of Mt. Etna, one of the world’s largest active volcanoes. Alternatively the drowsy, holiday region of Sicily offers lots of sun and sea, making for a perfect holiday with the bonus of good wine and food.
There are people who go to Sicily just for breakfast where they serve ice cream with morning coffee. Throughout the day, you can delight your tastebuds with crispy and sweet ricotta cheese turnovers, chewy pistachio cookies, honey rice fritters, chocolate, cannoli, cassata and more.
Sicily is notable also for its seafood – mussels, tuna, sardines and swordfish are main and starter dishes. Pastas in fish sauce and eggplant dishes are aplenty. Caponata is a sweet and sour speciality made from chillis, capers, olives, peppers and brinjals/eggplant.
As for wine, Sicily boasts hosts of good wines. Thousands of years ago, the Greeks brought their know-how, vines and wines to Sicily. For the last few decades Sicily has been known for her bulk wines. But of late, world wine drinkers have demanded something else – boutique and higher quality wines. Thanks to the island’s diverse topography – from valleys to hillsides to maritime locations, diverse grape growing conditions exist. Thrown in are potassium rich volcanic ash soils and you get a range of ideal high quality bottled wines.
Thus we’re seeing firstly, wines made from familiar varietals such as Chardonnay and Shiraz but also Sicilian indigeneous varietal wines such as Inzolia (white) and Nero d’Avola (red). The Nero d’Avola, if you haven’t tried it, is a seductive grape which entices with its fragrance of blueberry and wild strawberries in the wine. Furthermore the wine will have soft smooth tannins and delight you with its lightly smoky bitter chocolate undertones.
If you have tasted Sicilian food, you might wonder if there are some similarities to Asian food. They have salted fish, sweet and sour flavours are found in many dishes and chilli is liberally used to spice things up. As such, Sicilian wines that go with Sicilian food could go well with certain Asian dishes.
Here is a shortlist of producers to look out for. Enjoy!
Corvo/Duca di Salaparuta offers economically priced wines. The value for money generic Corvo Bianco is crisp and delicate whilst the Corvo Rosso is well balanced and smooth.
Planeta, who specialise in New World styled wines put Sicily on the wine map. These days, they produce traditional wines as well.
If you thought Marsala was wine made for cooking with, try drinking the Superiore fine dry marsala of Florio with Thai stir fried vegetables. The wine’s dried fruit and soy flavours and lightly sweet finish will make the food-wine marriage heavenly.
Tasca D’Almerita makes splendid traditional varietal red and white wines at various price points as well as a delicious but higher priced Chardonnay with well integrated fruit and wood flavours.
Baglio Hopps offers a beautifully textured Chardonnay blend (Briaco delle Gazzere), a Nero d’Avola with forest fruit flavours and a plummy Merlot-Cabernet blend (Incantari). Any of the three wines will go with grilled vegetables, salted fish, tuna or steak.
Lovers of Australian Shiraz and Southern Rhones will be impressed by Cottanera’s Sole di Sesta ‘Shiraz’ which is peppery, not jammy but leaves a warm glow in the mouth. Donnafugata is a leading producer who has managed to place Sicily on the world wine map with the majestic red wine named 1001 Nights (Mille e un Notta). The producer’s sweet white wine called Ben Rye should goes well with nasi lemak. Try it also with chicken rice.
Benanti is a pharmacist who wanted to revive old Sicilian wine traditions so began producing Nero d’Avola and other wines. Benanti’s white Pietramarina Etna Bianco Superiore has soft fruit flavours and a honeyed texture. It is ideal for accompanying peppery or sweet-sour dishes.
Palari makes a wine from indigenous grapes too and it is called “Faro” (which means lighthouse) although it is also a DOC. The wine, blend of Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio and Nocera, elevaged in French oak, is complex, elegant, with savoury notes of spice and earth combined with that of fruit.
Juicy, cherry fruited, classy Nero d’Avola is the offering from Morgante. With nuances of mint and eucalyptus, spice, vanilla, the wine drinks like a red Burgundy and is perfect for Peking Duck.
OTHER NAMES TO CONSIDER
Calatrasi, Rapitalà, Spadafora, Santa Anastasia, Valle dell’Acate.
2006 Vignali Roccamora, Cataratto Bianco Sicilia IGT, $55
The “Vignali Roccamora” estate is situated in Contrada Montoni, at Agrigento, near the south west coast of Sicily. The wine project came about as the result of a collaboration between producers Gian Andrea Tinazzi (from Verona) and Gaetano Alfano (from Agrigento).
Taste: Pale straw yellow in colour, herbaceous with basil, lime and sour plums, pine and peppermint and a sustaining elegant finish. ***
2005 Vignali Roccamora “Cratey’s” Nero Avola Merlot IGT $35
The Cratey’s is a 70% Nero d’Avola with 30% Merlot blend, intended to combine the exuberant bright fruit of Nero d’Avola with the velvety texture of Merlot. This wine is matured for 12 months in American oak.
Taste: Beautiful, warm spicy, red fruit, morello cherries, plums, medium weight with round and plumy finish, solid, yet not overbearing, with good length. ***
2005 Etna Rosso, Feudo Di Mezzo, Etna DOC, $56
Terre Nere is located on Sicily’s Mount Etna, and vineyards are planted with late-ripening indigenous Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capuccio — many of these vines were planted pre-phylloxera. The soils are mostly volcanic ash speckled by black pumice and peppered with abundant volcanic rock. Marco and Iano de Grazia are the proprietors here. The first vintage was in 2002.
The Feudo di Mezzo vines average 80–100 years old. The 1.35-hectare vineyard is terraced, although not as steeply as the Guardiola vineyard. The soil here is a blend of volcanic ash and volcanic sand, quite unusual in this area. Feudi di Mezzo is located at high altitudes, ranging from 650–700 meters above sea level. The wine is a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio.
Taste: Perfumed with cherries, coconut, blueberry and almonds; well-balanced, and with nice acidity and longish finish. ***
2005 Etna Rosso, Guardiola, Etna DOC, $56
The Guardiola is comprised of two vineyards planted to 100 per cent Nerello Mascalese for a total of 2.1 hectares. Vines are 50–150 years old. At 800–900 meters above sea level on the north side of Mount Etna, the Guardiola vineyard is the highest red-wine producing vineyard in all of Europe. Days are hot and tempered by breezes while it gets very cool in the evenings. The vineyard is organically farmed and vinification includes 10–15 days of maceration and 18 months in 25 per cent new French oak barriques.
Taste: Raspberries, vanilla, cherries, nutmeg, cinnamon, coconut and multi-layered; well-knitted with a stone fruit-bitter aftertaste. ***1/2
2005 Etna Rosso, Sottana Calderara , Etna DOC, $42