The Heart of Sicily
As you can guess, waking up in the heart of Sicily is one word: delightful. But visiting this imposing and stunningly beautiful island in March is not quite the same as doing so in high summer. This part of the Mediterranean can be quite cool, rainy and windy at this time of year, as the first few days bore out. The country — and one quickly begins to think of Sicily as a land unto itself — also boasts widely different climatic conditions, from very high elevations in wild mountain ranges to fertile plains and valleys and beautiful beaches on many outlying islands.
My focus was on Sicily’s new-wave wines, especially those made from indigenous and often very ancient grape varietals. To give some perspective, Sicilian viticulture is about the same size as Australia’s, and roughly the same as Tuscany and Piedmont combined. At one time it was even larger, but with the spotlight now on quality, lesser quality bulk wines are going out of production. The emergence of Sicily as a modern wine culture is very recent. This revolution really gathered steam around the 1980s, led by a core group of inspired winemakers. Among them was a dynamic but as yet little-known operation run by the Planeta family.
At the time, Sicily was still generally viewed as backward, known principally for producing the fortified wines of Marsala, by then in serious decline. Planeta was a leading force in laying out a dramatic new direction for Sicilian winemaking. In 1985, the Planeta family started experimenting with both indigenous and international grape varieties at their Ulmo vineyard on the shores of Lake Arancio in western Sicily. Using modern methods of viticulture and vinification, they were soon achieving spectacular results.
While in Sicily, I had the pleasure of spending time as a dinner guest of Alessio Planeta, chief winemaker and visionary leader of Planeta’s younger generation. Reflecting back on the successful Planeta strategy, Alessio made it clear that the essential first step was to demonstrate that Sicily could excel at producing well-known international varieties. Without doing this, he stated, it would have been impossible to gain attention for Sicily’s own indigenous grapes. Planeta quickly gained accolades for producing fine Chardonnay, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, varieties by which the best winemakers around the world are judged. Perhaps more important for the long term, blends of traditional Sicilian and international varieties were also immediate hits. Since then Planeta has never looked back. Increasingly, like other leading Sicilian producers, they are now making more wines exclusively from fine indigenous grapes. Today, the operation boasts 371 hectares of vineyards and five wineries throughout Sicily, soon to be joined by a sixth on the slopes of Mount Etna, possibly Sicily’s most exciting wine region.
Sicily’s new reputation has been built mostly on its outstanding reds, most notably Nero d’Avola. The island’s surprisingly fine dry whites deserve to be better known. Here is a sampling of the best I tasted.
One of Sicily’s most successful resurgent classic white varieties is Insolia (aka Inzolia or Ansonica, as it is also known in Tuscany where a small amount is planted). In Sicily it is most heavily planted in Agrigento, Palermo and Caltanissetta regions. Insolia works brilliantly when blended, but shows star qualities as a single grape. While it can thrive in several regions, the most vibrant examples I tasted were from Palermo province.
89 Donnafugata Vigna di Gabri 2009, Contessa Entellina DOC
70% Ansonica (Insolia), 25% Chardonnay and 5% other varieties. This oak-aged wine from the celebrated Contessa Entellina DOC in the province of Palermo offers mellow buttery, lightly floral, citrus and tropical fruit notes wrapped in creamy smoothness. Contrasting brisk acidity and excellent minerality permit graceful aging up to a decade.
93 Donnafugata Chiarandà 2008, Contessa Entellina DOC
Donnafugata’s star dry white is a 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Ansonica showing delightful mellow honeysuckle, hazelnut and citrus aromatics that also deliver on the palate. Supple flavours harmonize with excellent natural acidity, mineral grip and a subtle lick of creamy butter on the finish.
87 Valle dell’Acate Case Ibidini Insolia 2010, Sicilia IGT
From the southwestern Ragusa province, this example shows a striking initial resemblance to an oaked Chardonnay, with buttery citrus and vanilla on the nose. Secondary scents of melon and creamy texture, contrasted with gritty bite and gently assertive acidity, are more typical of Insolia.
88 Avide Riflessi di Sole Insolia 2008, Vittoria DOC
The Vittorio DOC in Ragusa is generally warmer, with the vineyards situated at lower altitudes. This one has aromatic melon and citrus character which carry through faithfully on the palate, together with attractive gravelly mineral, creamy texture and well-behaved acidity. Finishes with citrusy and mineral freshness.
89 Duca di Salaparuta Colomba Platino Insolia 2009, Sicilia IGT
Inviting scent of ripe melon with floral notes and a whiff of honey open the way for deliciously ripe yellow fruit flavours balanced by invigorating acidity and a light touch of mineral. Finishes with an ethereal trace of tropical fruit.
89 Baglio di Pianetto Ficiligno Viognier/Insolia 2010, Sicilia IGT
From an excellent producer in Palermo region, this exhibits signature Viognier stone fruit, especially apricot in the foreground shows. Very fresh citrus notes, lively acidity and zesty minerality reflect Insolia varietal style on the finish. This harmonious blend brings out the best in both grapes.
91 Baglio di Pianetto Insolia 2010, Sicilia IGT
The refined bouquet reveals gentle floral fragrance with mineral and fine citrus notes. Generous, limpid yellow fruit in the mouth comes in a lovely creamy package with gritty minerality, almond and lingering floral and fruit sensations on the finish. A deftly balanced wine that really conveys the virtues of this excellent native grape.
85 Feudo Principi di Butera Insolia 2010, Sicilia IGT
This example, from a respected producer in the Caltanissetta region of south central Sicily, displays characteristic varietal aromatic grapefruit and mineral, though evolving on the palate to somewhat sweetish apple and citrus with banana and gritty mineral on the finish.
This ancient and noble grape originated in nearby Campania, separated from Sicily by the Straits of Messina. It can rival classic international varieties in complexity and age-worthiness.
92 Planeta Cometa 2009, Sicilia IGT
One of Planeta’s most successful white wines, Cometa is made from 100% Fiano, grown in the Menfi region. Complex nose has floral, citrusy, herbal and mineral notes transitioning to grapefruit and tropical fruits on the palate. Vibrant natural acidity gives a cleansing fresh lift on the finish. Drink now or hold for 3 to 4 years.
86 Planeta La Segreta Bianco 2009, Sicilia IGT
Very drinkable, well-balanced blend of 50% Grecanico, 30% Chardonnay, 10% Viognier and 10% Fiano. It shows stone fruit with tropical and citrus notes and is full-flavoured yet refreshingly light on the palate. Serve as an aperitif or with Mediterranean-style seafood.
Mount Etna’s ancient historical white variety is grown at high altitudes, primarily on the south and east slopes. Although somewhat in the shadow of Etna’s spectacular new reds, it is capable of producing complex, long-aging wines and is experiencing a quiet rebirth.
92 Tenuta delle Terre Nere Carricante 2010, Etna IGT (Barrel Sample)
The Terre Nere version undergoes malolactic fermentation and subsequent aging for an extended period on the lees. It is mellow-flavoured ripe melon with a creamy, almost buttery leesy character but lively acidity, and with a solid core of minerality, conducive to graceful development over time.
90 Benanti Bianco di Caselle 2009, Etna DOC
Another really interesting Carricante showing a complex bouquet with pungent burnt notes, suggesting impact of volcanic soil together with bright lemony and mineral notes. Attractive, soft, lemony fruit in the mouth, with creaminess and earthy minerality giving additional texture. Finishes very dry.
A major indigenous variety native to the western province of Trapani. It is designated DOC in several western regions. Formerly used mostly in the production of Marsala, it is now showing excellent qualities as a single grape as well as useful for blending.
Also native to western Sicily, this grape is soft on the palate with moderate acidity and a sensation of fruity sweetness. It is a pleasant aperitif and pairs well with lighter Mediterranean dishes.
86 Tenuta Rapitalà 2010, Alcamo DOC
100% Catarratto Lucido. Melon, citrus and honeyed scent with clean, fresh yellow fruit, pleasantly fresh acidity, a lick of mineral and a lightly buttery sensation on the finish. Great value in Italy.
87 Tenuta Rapitalà Piano Maltese Bianco 2009, Sicilia IGT
A blend of native Grillo and Catarratto with small components of international varieties, all grown at 400 metres elevation in the Rapitalà estate in Palermo province. This is a generously fruity Mediterranean-style wine with plenty of stone fruit and moderate acidity. Easy to drink and to pair with flavourful fish and shellfish dishes.
88 Tenuta Rapitalà Casalj Catarratto-Chardonnay 2009, IGT Sicilia
Ripe citrus, mineral and floral overtones with a suggestion of buttery spiciness on the nose. Ripe lemon citrus flavour is more dominant in the mouth, backed up by well-calibrated acidity and good mineral grip.