Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Gems from Sicily

Vineyards at Avide Estate, Vittoria

This week I conducted a seminar on the wines of Sicily for the VinItalyUSA tour in Chicago. I’ve had the pleasure of conducting a seminar for the past five years for this event and several times it’s been about Sicily.

This is a region that has exploded in terms of quality over the past few decades. Long known as a producer of bulk wines as well as being the largest wine-producing region in the country – these two factors are tied in – the image of Sicilian wines has changed to one of a greater number of small and mid-size estates being established in growing zones around the island. Particularly important is the emphasis of vintners working with red grapes on the eastern part of the island – in fact, more than 90% of the red grapes in Sicily are planted in the four eastern provinces of Catania, Messina, Siracusa and Ragusa. Arguably the most important plantings are of Nero d’Avola in the Cerasuolo di Vittoria zone and in the far southeastern reaches of the island, near the towns of Avola (where the grape’s name originates), Gela and Noto.

We sampled eight wines during the seminar as well as dozens more in the walk around tasting held later in the day. I’d like to focus on a few of my favorites. Avide, a producer in the Cerasuolo di Vittoria district in the province of Ragusa, offered a well made bottling of Frappato under its Herea label. Frappato is one of the two varieties used in Cerasuolo di Vittoria and is not seen as a monovarietal that often. This 2008 bottling has tasty red cherry fruit, soft tannins and tart acidity. It’s a charming red meant for consumption over the next 2-3 years and would pair beautifully with chicken with a red wine sauce or arancini (rice balls); this would even be enjoyable with a slight chill.

Their 2007 Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG is a 50/50 blend of the two grapes necessary for this wine, Nero d’Avola and Frappato. When this was a DOC wine, the blend from virtually every producer was 60% Nero d’Avola and 40% Frappato, but when the wine was elevated to its DOCG status beginning with the 2005 vintage, more blending freedom was allowed. Today many producers who create a DOCG bottling (producers are allowed to produce a DOC, a DOCG or both) often go with a greater percentage of Nero d’Avola (as much as 70%) to give the wine a little more power, but I actually prefer this bottling, as it is more to the subdued, softer, less tannic style I prefer. This has aromas of fresh red cherry and red roses with an intriguing hint of china bark and there is plenty of perfectly ripe fruit along with an long, elegant finish. This is as well-crafted a Cerasuolo as I’ve had for some time. It’s absolutely delicious and I’d love to pair it with any number of dishes from couscous with vegetables, to swordfish to pasta with tuna.

Abraxas Winery, Pantelleria

From the island of Pantelleria, south of Sicily, Abraxas is a typical small estate that makes the world famous dessert wine Passito di Pantelleria. More on the later, as I want to focus on two reds this producer also bottles. The 2007 Kuddia di Moro is a 100% Nero d’Avola that has the signature marascino cherry flavors of this grape and is quite rich, yet there is a restrained quality about the wine. A few too many bottlings of Nero d’Avola focus merely on ripeness, so it is nice to see this subtle style with a distinct earthiness in the finish.

The second red, Kuddia di Ze from the 2006 vintage, was like finding a treasure map. A blend of Syrah, Grenache and Carignane, this is an old-fashioned Sicilian red with a wonderful rustic quality, very good acidity and a beautiful spiciness. I generally prefer traditional reds over the modern reds that show off oak and ripness, so this was a real treat for me and I heard so many positive comments on this wine from those who sampled it at the seminar or later at the tasting. This is a wine that screams out for food – pair it with dishes such as eggplant parmigiana, grilled sausage or pasta with fennel. How nice that a producer from Pantelleria has chosen to produce a red as wonderful and as singular as this. We need more producers who are willing to make wines that tells the story of their land instead of bottlings that are market driven.

As for the 2006 Passito di Pantelleria from Abraxas, well, the word outstanding may not do justice to this bottling! Displaying a light orange color and gorgeous aromas of dried apricot, orange peel and subtle notes of dried honey and graham crackers (!), this has terrific depth of fruit and an ultralong, lightly sweet finish with cleansing acidity and notes of orange peel. This is a classic and as rich as it is, it is quite restrained and beautifully balanced. What great complexity – this has everything you would look for in a dessert wine!

The Mille e una Notte from Donnafugata has become one of the most prestigious bottlings of Nero d’Avola from Sicily. Sporting a deep ruby red color with hints of purple, this is quite rich with sumptuous black cherry and blackberry fruit backed by very good acidity and elegant tannins. This has been one of the most consistent bottlings of this variety in Sicily and the 2005 continues that track record. The firm’s pleasant 2008 Anthilia, a dry white blended from Ansonica and Cataratto, has fresh pear fruit, good richness, a dry, tasty finish and is quite a fine value for around $16.

A few other Sicilian wines that caught my attention included three lovely bottlings of Grillo from the 2008 vintage; the Tonnino with a lovely copper color and aromas of pear and canteloupe, the Aquilae with pretty aromas of pear and creamed corn along with the Fina, which displayed interesting aromatics feauturing kiwi and lemon. These medium-bodied whites also had good texture (especially the Aquilae and Fina) and are evidence that Grillo is becoming one of Sicily’s best aromatic whites.

There’s never an end to discovering new Italian wines and producers and the vintners of Sicily are certainly doing their part to make this journey a fascinating and enjoyable one!

One last note: I would like to thank Marina Nedic and Ina Majcen of I.E.M., the management company that organizes this event as well as Paul Wagner of Balzac Communications of Napa for their help and for showing their faith in me for all these years. I couldn’t lead one of these seminars without their help, so thank you Marina, Ina and Paul and I look forward to doing this again next year!

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