Sicily: hot stuff

  • Thursday 2 February 2006

Sicily’s heat once meant its wines were big, ripe and alcoholic, but no longer.
As CARLA CAPALBO discovers, the best Sicilian reds are now highly drinkable

The time is 4pm, it’s 40?C, and there’s no shade in sight – the nearest palm tree is two fields away. The July heat is blinding as it rebounds from the bright white soil, and the sea is so close I can smell the salt. This is the southernmost tip of Sicily, but I might as well be in Africa: the nearby town of Pachino is on the same latitude as the island of Pantelleria, and that’s south of Tunis. The red wines from these almost flat, sun-baked lands, are potent, ripe and alcoholic. That’s what made them so popular, and so useful – until recently wines were spirited away to silently enrich the thinner wines of northern Europe.

Only a particular grape can thrive in this kind of terrain and soak in the light and heat without over-maturing. ‘Back then, these red grapes were called Pachino, not Nero d’Avola,’ says Sicilian oenologist Salvo Foti, who more than anyone has studied and worked with eastern Sicily’s native varieties, making wine for Benanti, Gulfi and others dedicated to traditional grapes. ‘And the only way to grow them was the alberello method.’ We’re in a low forest of vines whose average age is 80 years, with each plant trained up a single cane pole. The gnarled wood is pruned low to three stems, with two buds per stem. These historic vineyards require experienced workers, often as old as the vines.

‘When you talk about Sicilian wine, you have to start with its territori,’ Foti says. ‘Grape types come second. Down here, Nero d’Avola works best; but plant it in wetter zones and you’ve got problems, as its skin is prone to rot.’

New-look sicily

Nero d’Avola has become a symbol of new Sicilian viticulture: it satisfies the need for a deep fruity red linked to the island’s history. Certainly, when well made, Nero d’Avola is rich in immediate fruit, in sweet blackberries and plums, warm and lightly spicy on the palate, with long acidity and soft, round tannins. It’s easy to like – and to blend with other varieties like Frappato, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The pioneer Nero d’Avola wine since 1970 has been Regaleali’s Rosso del Conte, from the high noble hills of central Sicily. Recently there has been a shift at Regaleali with new Tuscan winemaker Carlo Ferrini: some of the old alberello vineyards have been replaced by rows of Guyot-trained vines, offering more consistent results and requiring fewer man-hours; chestnut barrels are giving way to oak barriques. Duca di Salaparuta’s Duca Enrico was another early example of fine Nero d’Avola; the two wines set a standard for the Nero d’Avola planted throughout the island.

Despite this popularity, Nero d’Avola has its limits. To make a great wine for ageing, you need alcohol, acidity and tannins. Nero d’Avola is high in the first two but practically lacking in the third, requiring long macerations to extract tannins from the pips, with the risk of loss of balance.

‘The Nero d’Avola grape shouldn’t be overestimated,’ says Gianpaolo Gravina, one of Italy’s most senior wine tasters and an expert on southern wines. ‘It can give interesting results when vinified with a light hand that respects its wild side – young and fruity, with notes of capers, as in the wines of Masseria del Feudo Grottarossa and Cantina Mozia, or Ariana Occhipinti.’ To take it up a notch, however – to give it complexity and ageing power – requires planting on the best sites. ‘Primarily, this means on the flat hills of Pachino: the most character and authority are found in Gulfi’s crus (all alberello), but these need intelligent handling.’ Guyot plantings at Pachino require irrigation, as used by Planeta (with Santa Cecilia), Zonin and Marzotto among others who have invested heavily there recently; they produce well-made, modern wines with less emphasis on the extremes of the terroir.

‘Many Nero d’Avolas are being made in the winery specifically for the US market,’ explains Gravina. ‘They are all oak, colour, fruit… pleasant enough, but with no real future or territorial identity.’ And the international varieties? ‘The world market is saturated with these wines. Here, with few exceptions – such as Planeta’s Chardonnay, or Spadafora’s Syrah, which are good wines – they have no raison d’être, and can’t compete with their New World equivalents.’

Sicily has long been Italy’s largest grape-growing region, with 110,000ha (hectares) of vineyards. To me, the most revealing statistic is that, of the six million hectolitres of wine produced there, currently only 16% is bottled – a figure that is nonetheless up from 6% a decade ago. The vast vineyards one sees in provinces like Trapani clearly point to Sicily’s role as supplier of bulk wines – for blending or distilling in northern Italy and France. Only recently have yields been dropped to improve quality.

Sixty-five percent of Sicily’s vineyard area is planted to white grapes: Cataratto, a native white, is the most prevalent. ‘Ongoing research has turned up over 500 native Sicilian grape varieties, both red and white,’ says Lucio Tasca, head of Regaleali winery and president of Assovini, a Sicilian wine association. ‘The consensus among experts is that Sicily’s future is with its reds. There has been a shift: I think consumers now want wines that are less extracted.’

There is no doubt that much of the island’s future lies in its native grapes. Here, colour matters less than terroir: Marco De Bartoli’s dry white Grillo at Marsala and Zibibbo Moscato on Pantelleria clearly demonstrate that, in their native habitats, these grapes can produce beautiful wines, sweet and dry.

Another area that promises ever more superlative wines in the future is Mount Etna, the volcano that dominates eastern Sicily. Here the native red grape is Nerello Mascalese, along with Nerello Cappuccio and other minor varieties. And here the far-sighted Benanti, with Salvo Foti as winemaker, has inspired a new group of young wineries to revive the 2,000-year-old alberello vineyards on the volcano, by vinifying and bottling each variety separately. It’s an exciting landscape that goes from the incredibly steep volcanic cones of the eastern sea side to the gentle northern black slopes which overlook the spectacular Nebrodi mountains.

‘A good analogy for Nerello Mascalese can be found in Piedmont,’ says Marc de Grazia, an importer of Italian crus who has recently bought an estate on Etna’s northern side, Tenuta delle Terre Nere. ‘Like Nebbiolo, Nerello Mascalese only gives great results in a small area, like Le Langhe. It is sensitive to climate and exposition, and does best at 500–900m. It has good tannins, is rich in polyphenols, and produces elegant, complex wines with great ageing potential.’

It’s early days yet in Sicily, as Lucio Tasca confirms: ‘We have a very big, expressive voice to discover, and that takes time. With only 20–25 years’ experience of bottling our wines, we’re still kids at this game.’

A taste of new Sicily:

Benanti, Serra della Contessa 2001 *****

Compelling fruit to the nose, with notes of spice, capers and liquorice; good grip and development into a long, fascinating finish. Up to 2009. Nov

Gulfi, NeroBufaleffj 2002 *****

A deep, complex Nero d’Avola cru with spiced notes over its red berries, lively tannins, and a natural, powerful finale. 8–12 years. Nov

Palari, Faro 2002 *****

Its elegant, seductive nose has floral and red berry notes. Long finish. 5–15 years. £27.50; Wtd

Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Vigneto Guardiola 2003 *****

Elegance and complexity from this Etna wine that resembles Burgundy more than Sicily.

Up to 15 years. £15; J&B

Baglio di Pianetto, Ramione 2003 ****

A red-meat wine: well balanced, potent and full bodied, and reflects the sun. Nero d’Avola and Merlot. Up to 2011. N/A UK; +39 091 857 0002

Cantina Sociale di Trapani, Cabernet Sauvignon, Forti Terre di Sicilia 2003 ****

A consistent performer, this shows good varietal character. 3–5 years. N/A UK; +39 0923 539 349

COS, Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2003 ****

A terroir wine: ripe strawberries, nice length and lively character. Up to 8 years. £10.68; Ali

Cottanera, l’Ardenza Mondeuse 2003 ****

Spiciness for this House of Savoy varietal, with fine tannins. Up to 10 years. £22.91; Ast

Donnafugata, Contessa Entellina Milleunanotte 2002

Tobacco, leather and spiciness of new wood, with potent structure. Up to 10 years. Vin

Duca di Salaparuta, Duca Enrico 2002 ****

Balanced Nero d’Avola fruit, with morello cherries, graphite and woody spiciness. 8–12 years. £31; Mon

Feudo Principi di Butera – Zonin, Deliella 2003 ****

Direct, incisive nose leads into a muscular Nero d’Avola with earthy tannins. 2–10 years. £30.55; Zon

Franchetti, Passopisciaro 2003 ****

A volcanic, concentrated wine, with ripe fruit. Up to 10 years. C&B (2004)

Morgante, Nero d’Avola 2003 ****

Lots of tobacco, spice and toasted oak: a well-balanced designer wine. Up to 6 years. N/A UK; +39 0922 945 579

Tasca d’Almerita Regaleali, Rosso del Conte 2001 ****

Ripe cherry fruit with notes of black pepper and tobacco. Gentle tannins. 5–8 years. £16.69; BWC

Zenner, Terra delle Sirene 2002 ****

Wild plums, herbs and broom, with toasted hazelnuts. Up to 2010. +39 095 530 560

Baroni di San Lorenzo, Blu dei Baroni Eloro 2003 ***

This Nero d’Avola is fruity, elegant and delicate. Up to 6 years. N/A UK; +39 0931 591 056

Biondi, Outis 2002 ***

Vanilla notes and minerality – a producer to keep an eye on. Up to 2008. N/A UK; +39 392 819 1538

Ceuso, Scurati 2004 ***

Pleasantly drinkable Nero d’Avola, with good rich fruit and soft tannins. Up to 2 years. £17.60; CPy

Masseria del Feudo Grottarossa. Nero d’Avola 2004 ***

Very drinkable, fruity, fresh wine with elegant style. Up to 3 years. N/A UK; +39 0934 560 027

Planeta, Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2004 ***

Lively and fresh. A summer wine of Nero d’Avola and Frappato. Up to 1.5 years. £11.99; EnW

Spadafora, Monreale DOC Syrah 2004 ***

Juicy sweet fruit with well-balanced wood; spicy notes and nice length. N/A UK; +39 091 514 952

Carla Capalbo is based in Italy.

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