Sicily: The Wine and Tourist Island
As I entered the large shower at La Foresteria the hotel/resort owned by the Planeta winery I saw not one but three shower heads. One large one, which cascaded the water from above and two hand held ones in a slim cylinder shape, not to mention the very large tub and plenty of bubble bath-- there was enough water pressure and the water was always hot. I was in heaven. This is a very comfortable first rate resort and I wish we could have stayed longer. Sicily has become a tourist’s paradise.
Sicilian has also become a wine lovers paradise. I tasted wines made from Fiano, Carricante, Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese gapes that reflected the terroir of Sicily and could have held their own against any wines in the world. Sicily is no longer the California of Italy making only oaky, jammy, international style wines!
I visited Sicily in March for the “Sicilia En Primeur”, a preview of the current releases and much more. The event is held annually in different parts of Sicily. This year it was in the Province of Agrigento at the Rocco Forte Verdura Golf & Spa Resort of Sciacca. Once again, I could not believe my eyes. I had never seen a resort of this size in Sicily! It could have been a resort in Las Vegas or Arizona.
The event was organized by Assovini Sicilia, an association of Sicilian grape grows and producers. The president of the organization is Diego Planeta of the Planeta winery.
The first night we stayed at La Foresteria, the new Planeta resort. That night we had a dinner based on the novel Gattopardo (the Leopard) by Lampedusa. The dinner was prepared by the resident chef, Angelo Pumilia. The food was great and the highlight was a Timballo in Crosta del Gattopardo, which was delicious. Representatives from the wineries that we would visit the next day were there and they matched one of their wines with each course.
The journalists were divided into eight groups to visit different wineries on different parts of the Island. I was in the Terre Sicane group of wineries and since Planeta was one of the wineries, I spent the first night at La Foresteria.
The next day our first visit was to Cantina Barbera. This is a family run winery and we were given a tour and tasting by the very interesting and knowledgeable Marilena Barbera. Ms Barbera was very proud of the fact that their wines had the very specific D.O.C. of Menfi. This she said “was our identity; we wanted to strengthen the special relationship between our vines and their place of origin”.
My grandfather on my mother’s side was born in Menfi, so I was especially interested in the wines. We sat in the tasting room overlooking the vineyards and the beautiful Sicilian landscape. She mentioned that some of the producers wanted to change from I.G.T. Sicily to D.O.C. Sicily designation. She wanted to stay with the I.G.T Sicily and not go to the D.O.C. Ms. Barbera felt that this gave her more freedom in the wine making. They export wine to Japan, China, Europe, and the United States.
Among the wines we tasted were the 2009 Inzolia D.O.C. Menfi “Dietro Le Case” 100% Insolia. This white grape is common in the Menfi area. The wine is fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks. The vines for this wine are 40 years old and come from an original clone planted in 1920. There was new grafting in the vineyard ten years ago.
The bouquet was rich and complex with hints of peach and melon and good acidity. In the finish and after taste there was citrus and a touch of herbs. There was a mineral quality and it was bigger, fuller and rounder then most wines from this grape I have tasted.
2009 Nero D’Avola Sicilia I.G.T. This wine, made from 100% Nero D’Avola is fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks. It is a very aromatic wine with red and black fruit aromas and flavors. On the palate, it is soft and fruity with a soft and fruity finish and aftertaste.
2007 “Azimut” Menfi D.O.C.2006 100% Merlot. This wine was a pleasant surprise!. Ms. Barbera said that “Merlot grapes have adapted perfectly to the Sicilian territory and climate”. Maceration on the skins lasts for two weeks and the wine is fermented in stainless steel. Now here comes the best part: The wine is aged for 12 months, 50% in stainless steel and 50% in big 26 hl casks of Slovenian oak. “We love it because it is not international style,” said Ms. Barbera. The wine was balanced with intense red and black fruit aromas and flavors. It was the best Sicilian merlot I have ever tasted and one of the best outside of France.
I also tasted a Cabernet Sauvignon La Volta Menfi D.O.C. which is aged in French tonneaux and in one 30hl cask of Slovenian oak and a wine made of 40% Nero d’Avola, 40% Petit Verdot, and 20% Merlot called Coda Della Foce Menfi 2006 D.O.C. Both were very good. Ms. Barbera was very proud of her Menfi D.O.C. wines and I enjoyed all of them.
Next was something completely different: Feudo Arancio Stemmari which is owned by Nosio S.p.A.- Gruppo Mezzacorona from Nothern Italy. This was a new state-of-the-art winery using all of the natural resources of the Agrigento area of Sicily to produce their wines. We were taken to a hilltop high above the winery where we could view the vineyards and view the reservoirs, water a rare commodity in this part of Sicily! They are trying to be as true to the Sicilian terrain as possible. They were very proud of the fact that they were only the second winery in Italy to receive the EMAS 2 (EcoManagement and Audit System) certificate, a voluntary certificate of environmental quality. They use reservoirs, rain water and precision irrigation systems to put less stress on local water supplies. We were very high up and the wind was going through all of us! The use of “sexual confusion” and “positive insects” drastically reduces the use of chemicals. Two solar panel installations produce most of the energy to run the winery and they maintain native plants in the vineyards to prevent erosion. They place different kinds of plants in the rows between the vines depending upon the type of grape.
Among the wines we tasted was a 2009 Grillo Sicilia I.G.T 100% Grillo. This white varietal is typical of the Marsala area where it was used as the principal grape to for Marsala fortified wine. The Grillo grape should not be harvested too early. This wine was a blend of grapes from different estates.
2008 Nero d’Avola 2008 Sicilia I.G.T. 100% Nero d’.Avola (Black grape from Avola). This red varietal, first cultivated in the area of Siracusa within the village of Avola, is now grown all over Sicily. The wine is fermented and aged in stainless steel. It was very aromatic with a fruity character and aromas and flavors of cherry and blackberry.
Hedonis 70% Nero d’Avola and 30% Syrah 2006 I.G.T. Sicily The winemaker felt that Syrah, like the native Sicilian grapes, can take the warm dry Sicilian climate. Many producers in Sicily make wines with this combination. I think Nero d’Avola can stand alone and does not need Syrah. This wine is aged for 16 months in new French barriques. The oak was there but is not overdone.
The barriques are kept for seven years and a wine may find itself in many different barrels depending on the vintage and what style the winemaker wanted to make.
Hekate 2007 Sicily I.G.T is named for the Greek goddess who bestowed kindness and wealth. This dessert wine is made mostly from Moscato and other white aromatic grapes. It is a passito wine. After ripening, the grapes hang for a month and a half then they undergo a natural withering process of about 4-6 weeks. At the end of September/ beginning of October, the grapes are completely dried out and raisin- like. They are soft pressed and the must extracted is rich in sugar and very aromatic. It is fermented in stainless steel tanks for 7-8 months. The wine had aromas and flavors of peach, pineapple, honey and other dried fruits. What surprised me was the good acidity. It was a very enjoyable wine.
Then we went to Donnafugata. I have been here a few times before but only to the winery in Marsala. This is what they refer to as the “family’s ancient winery” built in 1851. The wines come together here from the cellars of the winery at Contessa Entellina and the one on the island of Pantelleria, for aging and bottling. This time I went to Contessa Entellina and it was very interesting.
The tasting and lunch was in the hands of Jose Rallo whose family owns the winey. The very personable Ms. Rallo is a jazz singer and along with her husband, percussionist Vincenzo Favara, has made a number of CD’s, the proceeds of which are donated to charity. A few years ago, I saw Ms. Rallo and her husband perform at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village. Ms Rallo sang in Italian and Portuguese. We had an excellent lunch, served in the garden. It was the only sunny day of my stay. Sicilian specialties such as caponata and pasta con le sarde were served in little plastic cups!
Among the wines we tasted were:
Anthilia Sicily IGT 2009 Catarrato and Ansonica (Insolia) and other grapes according to the vintage. The wine was fruity with hints of peaches and floral sensations.
Lighea Sicilia I.G.T.2009 Zibibbo Moscato d’Alessandria and Catarrato. (This was a very interesting wine that is very difficult to describe but I liked it!)
Sedara Sicily I.G.T.2008. Mostly Nero d’Avola with other local varieties. It is aged for nine months in cement tanks. It is an aromatic wine with good fruit aromas and flavors of blackberry and cherry with a spicy note.
Mille e una Notte Contessa Entellina D.O.C. We tasted the ‘06, ‘03 and 1999. The geapes are vinified in stainless steel with skin contact for about 12 days. The wine is aged in mostly French barriques for 14-16 months and another 12 months in bottle before release.
They make two wines from the Zibibbo grape that are naturally sweet and were the highlight of the tasting: Kabir Moscato di Pantelleria D.O.C. and the Ben Rye Passito di Pantelleria D.O.C.
The grapes for the Kabir are harvested at the end of September when they are very mature. They are fermented and aged in stainless steel. This wine was very elegant and balanced with aromas and flavors of orange peel and honey. It is moderately sweet, not too alcoholic with a very pleasant finish and after taste.
The Ben Rye. The harvest takes place in 11 different areas depending on the ripening. After August 15 the grapes are picked and left to dry naturally by the sun and wind between 20 - -30 days. In September other vineyards are harvested. During maceration the dried grapes are de–stemmed by hand and added to the fresh must. The wine is aged in stainless steel tanks for 4 and 6 months in bottle before release. There are aromas of apricots and peaches, with hints of dried figs and honey on the palate. It has a very long finish and wonderful aftertaste. We tasted the 2008, 2003 and the 2000.
For the 2008, the 20th harvest of the wine, they have a new label for the “Son of the Wind”.
Then it was off to Cantina Settesoli , the largest cooperative in Sicily with 1841 members. It was founded in Menfi in 1958 and has grown to its present size under the chairmanship of Diego Planeta . They control 120,000 hectares of vineyards. To give you some perspective, all of Australia has only 30.000 more hectares. Settesoli is very important for the economic well being of the area. I had been to Settesoli a number of times before and think they produce good wines for the money. We tasted a wine made from 85% Grecanico and 15% chenin blanc that was very nice.
The last stop was Planeta and I could not have been more pleased with their wines. They now have five wineries in different parts of Sicily. The whole Planeta family is involved in the winery but it is Alessio, Santi and Francesca who are the face and soul of the winery. Francesca was our host both at La Foresteria and for the tastings the following day. We tasted two new wines which I believe are very successful:
The 2008 Plumbago 100% Nero d’Avola this is an aromatic, easy drinking wine with aromas and flavors of red fruit and hints of pomegranate with a wonderful finish and aftertaste.
2009 Carricante I.G.T. Sicily 100% Carricante. The grapes are soft pressed intact, not destemmed, the must is racked and inoculated with yeast and fermented at 15 degrees C for 20 days. The wine remains on the lees until February with continuous agitation
The wine had aromas and flavors of green apple, hints of minerals and mint and a very pleasing finish and aftertaste. This is a white wine that will age. It is one of the two best Carricantes made in Sicily.
The white wine that I could not believe was the Cometa 2009 .I.G.T. Sicily 100% Fiano. The current vintage of this wine is one of the best white wines made in Italy. They did away with the barriques and the wine is fermented for 20 days in stainless steel tanks and aged in stainless steel. It is aromatic with citrus overtones and hints of tangerine and mint with a touch of chamomile. The acidity is very good and there are mineral notes. One could taste the grape and the terroir in this wine. I drank the wine whenever I could find it.
Cerasuolo di Vittoria D.O.C.G. 60% Nero d’Avola and 40% Frappato. Eight days maceration on the skins in stainless steel tanks. It is an aromatic, juicy wine with red fruit and hints of strawberry and cherry.
Then it was back to Verdura Spa for a day of tasting. In room #1 there was a tasting of wines on the market with the producers. Room #2 had a tasting of wines in the market with sommelier service and in Room #3 there was a vinem primeur ( wine preview). I prefer to taste with the producers, so I stayed in room #1. Overall, I was very impressed with the wines. Here is a list of some of the wines that stood out by producer:
Benanti, Bianco di Caselle, 100% Carricante Etna Bianco Doc 2008
Castellucci Miano, La Massa 100% Inzolia 2008 I.G.T. Sicily
Cusumano, Benuara 2008 I.G.T.Sicilia & 70% Nero d’Avola and 30% Syrah
Etna Rocca d’Api Le Moire Enta Rosso D.O.C. 2007 80% Nerello Mascalese and 10% Nerello Cappuccio.
Palari Faro – Faro D.O.C. 2007 and Rosso del Soprano 2007 I.G.T. Sicilia Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, Nocera and others.
Tasca d’Almerita, Nozze D’Oro Inzolia and Sauvignon Tasca 2008 Bianco Contea di Sclafani D.O.C.
Valle dell’Acate Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2007 D.O.C.G. Classico 70% Nero d’Avola and 30 % Frappato; Il Frappato 2009 100% Frappato, Vittoria Frappato D.O.C.
The event ended in the town of Sciacca with a “debate” on “Sicily and the Global Market”. Some interesting comments were made by both the participating producers and the wine press. It was moderated by the President of Assovini, Diego Planeta. One of the questions raised was should there be a D.O.C. Sicily. There were pros and cons on both side and the issue remained in dispute.