Eating Sicily: The Planeta Family and the Terre Sicane

For a few days before I wandered into the tundra of snow in Asti last month, I participated in Sicilia en Primeur, an annual presentation of new releases by just under 40 top-line Sicilian estates. Not to be outdone in late-winter dreariness, Sicily offered rain for most of my stay – but in contrast to the downside surprises that Asti had in wait, Sicilian producers had mostly very welcome news in store.

For my first night in the three-cornered isle, I and several other lucky journalists were billeted at La Foresteria, the Planeta family’s new, up-scale agriturismo, cooking school, resort, and what-have-you. It’s a handsome place, the buildings and décor looking very American-Southwest – except that from my very comfortable bedroom’s windows I looked out over, first, a manicured herb garden, then a phalanx of vines marching almost to the horizon, where they melted into low hills, beyond which lay the Mediterranean.

A guy could get used to this, I thought – an idea that repeated itself often in the happy recesses of my brain during that evening’s elegant and delicious dinner.

The Planeta family — father Diego, daughter and son Francesca and Santi and their cousin Alessio — have played major roles in Sicilian wine for some time now.  Diego has been for decades the head of Settesoli, Sicily’s largest cooperative, an enterprise that he has guided to a level of winemaking and quality of production that is rivalled only by the Produttori di Barbaresco in Piedmont and one or two coops in Alto Adige.  The three representatives of the younger generation — with copious advice from Diego — have made the Planeta winery a pace-setter for Sicily as a whole and certainly the dominant force in their home area, the Terre Sicane in the province of Agrigento.  

FRANCESCA PLANETA. Photo by Charles Scicolone

Francesca Planeta presided over what was simultaneously a welcome to Sicily and an introduction to that territory, a swatch of southwest Sicily seeking to establish its own identity as a wine region as distinctive as the already well-known Etna region. Several of the area’s key producers were present, and each course of the dinner featured one of their wines, which turned out to be a pleasant way indeed to imbibe one’s geography lesson. Note: all the producers mentioned here have American importers.

The dinner itself was loosely modeled on the famous banquet in de Lampedusa’s The Leopard, and indeed included a version of the famous timballo. If you haven’t read the book, you’ve probably seen the movie, or at least know of the timballo from another movie, The Big Night. But I’m getting ahead of myself: canapés first. These were various tasty little crostini – I remember a vegetable one with a purée of pecorino and another with superb fresh anchovies – accompanied by a wine from each of the five producers present: A Rosato from Barbera (Nero d’Avola), a Rosé from Planeta (Syrah!), Polena from Donnafugata (Catarratto and Viognier), Grillo from Feudo Arancia, and Mandrarossa Grecanico from Settesoli. I managed small tastes of all five and liked them all – fully dry, light-bodied, fresh (even the Syrah): ideal sipping wines, perfect aperitivi.

The first seated course was some of the freshest, tenderest calamari I have ever eaten, sautéed and served with fresh young fava beans. Food doesn’t get any simpler or better than this, and Barbera’s Dietro Le Case Inzolia 2008 matched beautifully with it: medium-bodied and bracing, with wonderful Inzolia character and intensity.

Then came a slice of roasted mackerel on a bed of chickpea purée: again, the freshest, best quality ingredients prepared with great respect (I cannot say enough for the seafood in Sicily: it is amazing everywhere you go). This was accompanied by Planeta’s 2008 Chardonnay, a wine that surprised me by its elegance and character. I say “surprised” because I used to think of Planeta’s wines as heavily oaky. If that was true once, it certainly is no more: I later tasted through most of the line, and I found the same elegance and restraint in evidence throughout.

The next course was the moment of the timballo, which was first shown in its gleaming brown crust before being cut into and served, its filling of pasta and brown sauce and various unnamable parts of animals (sweetbreads and cockscombs are the most honorable) filling the room with savory aromas. There were no squeamish diners in sight, and forks were wielded with almost scary speed. This was a great dish, and a privilege to have eaten. With it we drank Settesoli’s 2006 Benedicò (Nero d’Avola/Merlot 60/40), which showed itself very soft and accommodating to the restrained richness of the timballo.

We all thought we had eaten enough already, but the subsequent roasted leg of lamb, surrounded by sautéed artichokes and verdure selvatiche changed everybody’s minds. The meat was tender and moist, the vegetables at once soft and assertive. Nobody could really tell what sort of green our wild green was: best guess was some sort of escarole. This dish partnered with Donnafugata’s 2003 Tancredi (Nero d’Avola and Cabernet Sauvignon), which I found a touch too assertive for the delicacy of the young lamb: This is a wine that needs to be paired with stronger flavors.

The cheese course, accompanied by a sauce made from dried figs and a confit of cherry tomatoes, presented quite a challenge for any wine. Feudo Arancio’s 2006 Hedonis (Nero d’Avola/Syrah, 70/30) almost handled it: the spiciness of the Syrah complemented the condiments nicely, and the Nero d’Avola component responded well to the cheese, but it all never quite completely meshed. I love Nero d’Avola: it’s a great grape in itself and lends itself well to blends, but sometimes I think Sicilians ask too much of it.

At the dinner table

Finally, dessert: Minni di Virgini and Granita d’arancia – the latter self-explanatory, the former a one-time specialty of the convents, a filled pastry modeled on the Virgin’s breasts. Titillating, you might say. With it we had our choice of Donnafugata’s superb Ben Ryé, a standard-setting 2005 passito from the island of Pantelleria; or Feudo Arancia’s 2007 passito Hekate; or Planeta’s 2008 Passito di Noto; or Barbera’s 2008 passito Albamarina (made from Catarratto rather than Moscato: different and very pleasing).

After all that, we just managed to stagger off to bed, theoretically to rise early and start “seriously” tasting some wines. And what had we just been doing? Playing tiddlywinks?

The saga continues next post.

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