Continuing my story from last week’s post, when I arrived in Sicily for the Sicilia en Primeur event, I was taken first to the Planeta family’s new spa, La Foresteria, where I joined a group of journalists for a dinner based on the banquet in Il Gattopardo. After that Lampedusan feast, pretty much non-stop wine visits and tastings filled the next 48 hours.
As a narrative, it’s not exciting – we went here, we tasted, we went there, we tasted, then we went someplace else and tasted – though there was ample excitement in what we tasted. So I’ll spare you the travel diary and give you the producers and the wines that impressed me most.
This is a small, high-quality family winery, headed by energetic Marilena Barbera. The wines were impressive throughout the line, but the Dietra Le Case Inzolia really stood out among the whites, with its complex mineral, pear, and almond aroma and palate, while among the reds, I was – to my great surprise – bowled over by Azimuth, a 100% Merlot from completely acclimatized, 15-year-old vines. It led with an intriguing licorice-and-mineral nose and followed with a mouthful of soft dark, mulberryish fruit – a really lovely wine (and I am generally no fan of Merlot outside of Bordeaux).
To say Benanti is to say Etna. The family has championed its special terroir and grape varieties for decades, and its whole line of wines always shows that distinctive Etna minerality. All are good, but the cru wines shine brightest. Among the whites, that means Pietramarina, a single-vineyard Catarratto from old vines that is one of the most distinguished white wines in Italy. Among the reds, Rovittello and Serra della Contessa stand out. Both are Etna Rosso DOC, both 80/20 Nerello Mascalese/Nerello Cappuccio, both lovely medium-bodied and dark-fruited, and both are capable of long development in bottle. The Serra della Contessa comes from the highest, oldest vineyard on Benanti’s property, and it has an intensity, depth, and structure that mark it as a wine that plentifully rewards cellaring.
José Rallo, daughter of the long-established Marsala family, heads this dynamic winery, working with, and often blending, both traditional Sicilian and international grape varieties. Most of the wines bear fanciful, some quite lovely, names. The standard bearer is the red Mille E Una Notte (Thousand and One Nights), always about 90% Nero d’Avola, a formidable wine that wants as much aging as you can give it. Donnafugata’s dessert wine from the wind-swept island of Pantelleria, Ben Ryé, is deservedly legendary. The firm also makes a beautiful aged grappa from its pomace: I only wish it was available here.
Etna Rocca d’Api
This family-owned winery produces a line of basic Etna wines – Le Moire – which are quite nice, and a more distinguished line called – for reasons I just couldn’t grasp – Zero Uno. Be that as it may, the Etna Bianco (Carricante and Catarratto, 60/40) and Etna Rosso (Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, 80/20) are both fine, with excellent varietal character and that distinguishing Etna minerality.
Owner Salvatore Geraci’s day job is architect, which you could argue is reflected in the impressive structure of his two wines, Faro DOC Palari and Sicilia IGT Rosso del Soprano. They rank at the very top of Sicilian reds and among the best red wines of Italy. Palari is a perennial Tre Bicchieri winner, a big, rich wine with an aroma and palate of underbrush, earth, and mushroom under dark, dark fruit. Rosso del Soprano is very similar, and some people argue that in some vintages it is even a touch more elegant. The grapes in both are a compendium of indigenous Sicilian varieties: nerello, nocera, cappuccio tignolino, core ‘e palumba, acitana, galatena, calabrese, ed altri ancora – in effect, an old Sicilian field mix. Cabernet snobs may sneer, but just taste it and you’ll see why, years ago, Luigi Veronelli called it “the Clos de Vougeot of Italy.”
Tasting through most of the Planeta line confirmed my impression (from the preceding night’s dinner wine) that the family’s emphasis in the vineyards was shifting towards greater interest in Sicilian grape varieties and in the cellar towards less use of new oak. The result for me was a group of wines that had much more the character and taste of Sicily than what I had remembered (from a now several-years’-old visit), and that in turn meant wines that I found really interesting and very enjoyable. The stand-outs for me among their whites were Cometa, a 100% Fiano that showed wonderful varietal character, and a 100% Carricante from their new vineyards on Etna, a glorious wine, especially from such young vines (first release will be this June: you heard it here first). Among the reds, I really liked Planeta’s Cerasuolo di Vittoria (a pale red, to be sure, but a lovely wine) and the Santa Cecilia, a very fine cru Nero d’Avola with great structure and a nice touch of elegance.
One of the world’s largest co-ops maintains very high standards, and almost everything in its extensive Mandrarossa line of wines offers excellent value. I particularly liked the 100% Grecanico and the 50/50 Grecanico and Chardonnay blend called Feudo dei Fiori, as well as the 100% Nero d’Avola Cartagho. I also tasted a brand new blend, which I think will be released later this year: Grecanico and Chenin blanc, 85/15 – a lovely combination of aromatic grapes that enhances the white fruit and mineral character of both and combines their structures in a way that promises very interesting bottle development.
This is another high-standards co-op with an extensive production of Sicilian and international varieties. For my palate, its wines vinified from native grapes were genuinely pleasing, especially the white Zagra (mostly Grillo, combined with other indigenous varieties) and the red Il Moro (100% Nero d’Avola). And – while I can and do doubt that summer will ever arrive in New York – I don’t doubt that Il Frappato, a lovely, fresh, strawberry-finishing light red vinified entirely from the grape of its name, is one of the best warm-weather wines anywhere.