The Red Wines of Sicily
Sicily’s nine major wine regions cover just about every part of the island, and good wine is made in all of them. Conditions vary quite dramatically, though; they range from the mountainous and somewhat cooler Palermo region in the northwest to the warmer, lower-lying environs of Ragusa and Syracusa in the southeast. Diverse soils, topography and rainfall often help to produce quite different expressions from the same grape varieties.
Many international grapes thrive in Sicily’s benign conditions, and it was Sicily’s success with well-known classic varieties that put modern Sicilian winemaking on the map. Latterly, a growing number of fine indigenous varieties are restoring themselves to their rightful place. Sicily’s new wave winemakers are enjoying remarkable success with a dazzling array of blends, using both local and international varieties — and there is no shortage of fine single-grape wines.
let’s talk indigenous
The best-known Sicilian red, Nero d’Avola, is named after the town of Avola in the warmer Syracusa region. In nearby Vittorio, Ragusa Province, Nero d’Avola provides the backbone for Sicily’s only DOCG thus far, Cerasuolo di Vittorio. The grape has good body and aging potential. It can also be made in an undemanding, easy-drinking style, and has adapted well when planted in many parts of Sicily.
Nero d’Avola’s success with international consumers is paving the way for other stellar local grapes, such as Nerello Mascalese — which, together with Nerello Cappucio in support, provides the complexity and structure behind Mount Etna’s stunning reds. Frapatto, which is blended with Nero d’Avola in Cerasuolo di Vittorio DOCG, is showing that it can also shine as a single grape. So can Perricone, which has enough fine red fruit and structure to stand alone effectively.
shadow of the volcano
Amongst Sicily’s exciting regions, Etna is particularly compelling. Awe-inspiring Mount Etna, the largest mountain in Italy south of the Alps, is Europe’s most active volcano. Its fearsomely unpredictable eruptions have been recorded since 1500 BC. The worst was in 1669, destroying villages, burying part of the city of Catania and killing 15,000 people. As recently as January of this year, eruptions forced the closing of Catania airport, Sicily’s busiest. Why, one asks, would anyone live anywhere near the place? Astonishingly, locals carry on almost as though the ever-present danger is negligible.
Etna is currently Sicily’s most vibrant wine region, producing red wines of startling finesse as well as some quite impressive whites. Today, all eyes are on the region, and many wine producers are scrambling for a piece of the action. I visited Etna on a cool day in March, which became significantly cooler as the altitude increased. Swirling mists largely obscured the snow-capped peak, punctuated by periodic bursts of sunlight.
Traversing the mountain slopes, one frequently comes across wide patches of solidified lava, sometimes frighteningly close to occupied farmhouses. The hazards of living in close proximity to the volcano are all too clear. Etna’s danger, however, also provides a rich compensation. The volcanic soils are incredibly fertile.
Tenuta Terre Nere is one of the acknowledged stars of the region. Terre Nere is the brainchild of American-born Marco de Grazia, who has spent much of his time in Italy. De Grazia became extraordinarily successful as a wine broker, introducing numerous selections of fine Italian wines to the American market. He has been greatly influenced by Burgundy, and has brought Burgundian concepts to this Etna venture, which was initiated in 2002.
As Calogero Statella, Terre Nere’s able young winemaker explained, the winery has several estate vineyards at different elevations, with correspondingly different soils and microclimates. The best grapes from each are produced as single vineyard selections, which de Grazia compares to Burgundian Crus. While the soils are all volcanic, they result from separate eruptions that have broken down differently over time. While there, we tasted barrel samples from two vintages from the Guardiola and Santo Spirito vineyards. Even though vinification and handling were the same, stylistic differences imparted by the terroir were clearly apparent. The outstanding Guardiolo 2009 was aristocratically austere, and did indeed show Burgundian-style finesse, quite unlike anything else I tasted in Sicily. Terre Nere’s two other top red wine vineyards are Fuedo di Mezzo and Calderara Soltana. Terre Nere’s Etna Rosso DOC is equivalent to a Burgundian “Village” appellation.
Statella stated emphatically, “Etna is not Sicily.” Without detracting in any way from the amazing qualities of other Sicilian wine regions, once you have experienced the uniqueness of Etna, it is impossible to misunderstand what he means.
89 Tenuta delle Terre Nere 2009, Etna Rosso DOC ($29.99)
Etna’s star red grape is Nerello Mascalese ,with Nerello Cappuccio playing a small supporting role. This example is quite refined and harmoniously developed on the nose, revealing fine red fruit and spicy cinnamon notes. Not as forward on the palate, with firm tannins and fairly brisk acidity, cherry-like fruit, restrained oak and a subtle splash of white chocolate on the dry finish.
92 Tenuta delle Terre Nere Calderare Sottana 2009, Etna Rosso DOC ($59.99)
Very elegant bouquet shows nuanced cherry, red currant and plum notes, with subtle hints of clove, cinnamon and a whiff of oak. Lusciously refined cherry fruit on the palate is partially masked by rather dense tannins, gradually evolving towards more velvety smoothness. Fruit and discreet supporting oak integrate well, but need more time to achieve optimum harmony. This complex, understated wine gives plenty of evidence for Etna’s potential as a great wine region.
89 Cottanera 2008, Etna Rosso DOC Nerello Mascalese & Nerello Cappucio ($15)
Considerable complexity on the nose reveals tobacco, coffee, vanilla and clove over fragrant red fruit. Characteristic dark cherry comes to the fore on the palate with dark chocolate and striking gravelly mineral on the well-integrated finish. Better with 3 to 6 years in the cellar.
88 Cottanera L’Ardenza Mondeuse 2009, IGT Sicily ($25)
Ripely perfumed dark fruit with notes of cinnamon, dried herb and tobacco backed up by very firm, but not quite brutal tannins with a splash of mocha that lingers on the otherwise puckery-dry finish.
91 Cos 2006, Cerasuolo di Vittorio Classico DOCG ($20)
Made from the requisite blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato, this is an excellent example of Sicily’s only DOCG wine showing quite developed berry fruit, a whiff of animal, light dusting of spice on the nose and a mixture of berry and red cherry fruit in the mouth. Tannins show some softening, with a splash of milk chocolate and light bitter cherry on the finish.
90 Cos Lyre Nero d’Avola 2005, IGT Sicilia ($20)
Bouquet shows subtle vinosity, with a light dusting of fine spice and a refined dried fruit overtone. Harmoniously integrated fruit, spice and oak, and lightly dry tannins make for pleasant drinking now, but this wine will develop gracefully for 5-plus years.
89 Firriato Ribeca 2007, IGT Sicilia ($45)
100% indigenous Perricone with developed fine fruit, cinnamon and nutmeg aromatics and luscious red cherry flavour, firm dry tannins, milk chocolate. Astringently dry grip on the finish. Proves that this variety can do quite well on its own.
89 Alessandro di Camporeale Kaid Syrah 2008, IGT Sicilia ($18)
A good example of the distinctiveness that Sicily brings to this grape. Retains Syrah’s peppery spiciness and red fruit varietal character, but with unusual terroir-driven dark fruit and mineral notes that set it apart. Worth seeking out.
87 Planeta La Segreta Rosso, IGT Sicilia ($19.19)
A blend of Nero d’Avola with smaller amounts of international varieties, this agreeable red shows plum and blackberry flavours delivered in a ripe, forward style with a touch of spice, soft tannins and harmonious acid balance.
90 Planeta Syrah 2007, IGT Sicilia ($30)
Sourced entirely from two estate vineyards in the Agrigento region, this is a dark, brooding wine showing raspberry, blackberry, peppery spice and a pinch of herb. Full bodied, with great depth of fruit and firm tannic backbone, it finishes dry, with coffee, mocha and spicy notes. Ageworthy.
88 Planeta Plumbago Nero d’Avola 2009, IGT Sicilia ($15)
This 100% Nero d’Avola grown in Planeta’s old Ulmo vineyard in Sambuca di Sicilia, Agrigento region, was a pioneering effort to produce Sicily’s best-known variety on the western side of the island. This, just the second vintage, is aged in stainless steel and neutral oak, making for pleasant early drinking. It shows notes of dark berry, plum and clove with cherry-like fruit and lightly firm tannins on the palate.
91 Planeta Burdese 2007, IGT Sicilia ($30)
An outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon Cabernet Franc blend that spends 14 months in barriques and another year in bottle before release. Elegant fleshy fruit, cinnamon, clove and a dusting of nutmeg on the nose moves to clearly varietal Cabernet black currant, green herbal and firm tannin in the mouth. Developing harmoniously towards velvet texture with a splash of dark chocolate on the finish.
89 Donnafugata Sedara 2008, IGT Sicilia Rosso ($19)
Mostly Nero d’Avola, this moderately complex wines displays Mediterranean ripeness on the nose, with developed berry fruit, fig and a lick of spice. Smoothly rich dark fruit, supple tannins and some earthy minerality on mid-palate lead into well-integrated fruit, spice, and dark chocolate shavings on the finish.
90 Baglio di Pianetto Carduni Petit Verdot 2007, IGT Sicilia ($50)
This is an extraordinarily powerful, concentrated and very tannic wine that was matured in Alliers oak for 14 months. It has all the fruit and structure to reward long aging. Offers convincing evidence that Petit Verdot is yet another variety that can excel in Sicily.
85 Montalto Nero d’Avola Cabernet Sauvignon Sicily, IGT 2009 ($12)
Restrained dark fruit on the nose with dark plum and berry flavours delivered in an attractively velvet texture with supple tannins and good natural acidity. Surprisingly polished style offering fine value for the money.
84 Serenata Nero d’Avola 2009, Sicilia IGT ($9.99)
Attractively spicy and dark berry scents with generously ripe blackberry flavour in the mouth. Supple tannins and well-balanced acidity lead into the well integrated spicy and fruity finish.
the fine sweet wines of pantelleria
No discussion of Sicilian wines would be complete without touching on the celebrated sweet wines. Once just about Sicily’s only claim to fame, Marsala’s fortified wines are now somewhat out of fashion, though certainly due for a comeback. Of the 23 DOC zones in Sicily, several are exclusively designated for sweet wines, mostly Moscato. Very good examples are Moscato di Noto, and Moscato di Siracusa in the southeast, but the most distinctive come from the small satellite island of Pantelleria, just off the coast of Tunisia.
In Pantelleria’s constantly windswept volcanic terroir, Muscat of Alexandria, known locally as Zibibbo, produces the very fine Moscato di Pantelleria and Passito di Pantelleria. Nowhere else does this grape achieve the same degree of richness and complexity.
89 Donnafugata Kabir 2009, Moscato di Pantelleria IGP ($40)
Delicate scents of rose petal, honeyed citrus and a suggestion of lychee open the way for equally delicate honeyed citrus fruit freshness on the palate with just a touch of muskiness.
93 Donnafugata Ben Ryé 2008, Passito di Pantelleria DOC ($40/375 ml)
Made using both dried and fresh grapes harvested from south-facing vineyards close to sea level, and one month later, from cooler easterly-facing vineyards at higher elevations. Very complex floral, orange, lemon honey and subtle spice on the nose, and lightly syrupy, raisiny richness balanced by zesty acidity in the mouth. Great length on the intriguingly nutty finish.