A Postcard from Sicily


The Sicilians say, that Sicily is a great place to live but a terrible place to work. The have the sun, the sea, the wine and the women, but they don't have the money and therefore, work is not priority. What can be done today should most definitely be done tomorrow.

This post comes from the Island of Sicily. Actually from an airplane, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. I am returning to the States from the Mediterranean for the first time in two years. Having lived in Sicily for twelve months I can say I have a fair knowledge of the culture and the people. Having worked with a family that owns a vineyard for a greater part of my residence, I can say that I have a fair amount knowledge and appreciation for the wines.
I won't bore you with the oft repeated story of Sicilian wines - from bulk blending wines to a potential powerhouse in the New World market. And it is not my bias that believes the latter. James Suckling on Wine Spectator's Italy beat, had this to say”I still believe that Sicily has a long way to go to produce a solid core of high-quality reds - particularly with local grape types.”

However, Suckling goes on to compare some Sicilian reds to Premier Cru vineyards in Burgundy, a concept he either cribbed from the “purple pages” of Jancis Robinson earlier this year, or directly from the label of a bottle of Tenuta delle Terre Nere, a project of Marc de Grazia, that states it simply enough: [The wine growing region around Mt. Etna can easily be seen as] the Burgundy of the Mediterranean.

De Grazia a Northern Italian, whose export business is mouth watering Piemonte heavy, has some Sicilian tendencies when it comes to twisting the story for the benefit of your ears but more importantly their belief. In an interview with Robinson, de Grazia waxed about the same indigenous, red wine grapes of Mt. Etna (Nerello Cappuccio and Nerello Mascalese) that he markets as very Burgundian on the label of the bottle as very Bordeaux-like in the mouth: “Nerello Cappuccio, [is] much fleshier and more obviously charming, the Merlot to Nerello Mascalese's Cabernet.”

The most charming thing about Italy is the attitude of its people. Below are a couple of other funny tidbits regarding the “marketing” of Sicilian wines and some tasting notes from a short-week of long drinking.

Fact: The production of Nero d'Avola, the “black grape from the city of Avola” was brought to prominence in 1600 when the city of Vittoria was staked on the map by Vittoria Colonna who promised two hectares (five acres) of land to the first 75 settlers with the stipulation that each settler plant a vineyard.

Fiction: Sicilians say that the indigenous Nero d'Avola grape is the grandfather of Syrah; the varietal and the name evolved from the city of Siracusa that sits on the eastern sea, first farmed for grapes by the Greeks over two thousand years ago.

One would not think twice if told this story while sitting under a waxing moon drinking Nero d'Avola at a friend's wedding celebration. Valle dell'Acate's Tane 2004 is a Nero d'Avola/Syrah (80%/20%) blend. The wine is rich, deep and dark. Scents of woodland blackberries and raspberries with a touch of liquorice and spice. On the palate, the wine is velvety and warm, like melted, bitter chocolate in the mouth. Sicilian Syrahs can be aromatic and powerful due to the stressful, heat driven growing seasons, but they somehow do not come off overly aggressive. They smell erotic, but taste sensual, which makes for a recipe of success. Sicilians, like all Italians, are sensual.

There is no mystery or lack of swooning over the sensuality of the Italian (men). For example: the rare white, Sicilian grape Minnella. The name (”Minnedda janca”), was given by the vine growers of Mt. Etna because of the shape of the grape, similar to a “minna” which in Sicilian means (woman's) breast. Minnella produces a soft wine with golden texture, at its core a sweet and supple Intensity that complements the wine's full bodied nature.

One evening during the golden hour of dusk, I had the good fortune of sharing a bottle of white wine with friends as we were sitting on chaise lounges atop ceramic tiles and staring out over the Ionian Sea. The wine was from the prominent red producer, Calabretta. It was the Carricante Bianco 2005 (Mt. Etna) with Minnella blended in. The wine was refreshingly intense. The Carricante provides wonderfully rich orange and lemon peel fruit and anise spiciness; the Minnella filled the middle with a touch of golden, almond creaminess.

Calbretta's neighboring Mt. Etna producer, Benanti creates probably the most famous Sicilian wine, Pietramarina which is 100% Caricante. They also produce a 100% Minnella bottling (a rarity which is probably not available in the States). Pietramarina is equally hard to come by, even in Sicily. A few Sicilian restaurants were ahead of the curve, when Gambero Rosso was giving the wine Three Glasses starting in the late 90's, and got on the distribution list early. At the final night dinner of my trip (an odd selection, a Japanese restaurant serving sushi from Sicilian specialty fish like Pesce Spada - Sword Fish), we drank the 2003 Pietramarina. The wine was showing early oxidized stages of honeyed earthiness, soft citrus fruit center and elegant minerality and acidity. The wine was complete - equal parts intensity and finesse.


Here are some other tasting notes from the trip:

Firriato Santagostino bianco Baglio Soria 2007 IGT (Cataratto 70%, Chardonnay 30%). Catarratto is the second most widely planted white grape in Italy (or so the Sicilians tell me). Primarily used in the production of Marsala, it has been transformed to table wine in the present days. Once again Sicilian whites appear to be coming off as one big lemon peel wrapped around apple and almond creaminess. The wine had the underpinnings of wonderful refreshment. However, the wine makers in Sicily seem to be a little behind the times, playing to yesterday's New World approach to Chardonnay - viscous, creamy and oaky. Those latter characteristics in this wine, made the wine a little off-putting, but enjoyable with our breadcrumb encrusted Spigola (Sea Bass) swimming in olive oil.

Maurigi Terre di Sophia Chardonnay 2005. Similar to the Firriato above, the Chardonnay was over-treated with wood and a little less appealing as the other wines consumed that night at the Japanese restaurant - the Benanti Pietramarina and Maurigi's other white a 100% Viognier which had all the aromatic character of a Condrieu but in a much lower gear; however the wine put the pedal to the metal in the acid department, just ripping around the corners and through the straight-aways of the mouth. I need to look into this producer, Maurigi, other wines on the restaurant list included a Sicilian Pinot Noir and a Sauvignon Blanc!

Valle dell Acate Frappato 2007. A summer red. It should be served a little chilled and goes well with appetizers, cheeses, cured meats and pates and won't overpower the occasional fish dish. A bright red color with hints of rose petals and strawberries. This wine is light and wildly aromatic.

Villagrande ETNA Bianco 2006: Another Carricante based white wine that was soft and supple and showing finesse around the wines flashy minerality due to the region's volcanic soil and pumic stone character.

Barone di Villagrande Malvasia delle Lipari. A dessert wine (Passito) from the Aeolian island of Lipari. One of my all-time favorite wines. I could live intravenously on the stuff. Unlike the harsh Marsala that Sicily is famous for, this wine is pure elegance wrapped in floral beauty and seductive sweetness.

Larkmead Vineyards in Napa Valley. Dan has an MBA from New York University and worked as an Ad Exec in New York for several years, before switching it up and trading his suit for a move out west.

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