Last night I opened 12-year-old bottle of Palari, one of the best, if not the best wine made in Sicily. Many wine lovers have never heard of it, and I’d bet that most of those who recognize its name couldn’t tell you its DOC. Stop guessing: It’s Faro, a zone around Messina. The DOC appellation comes from Messina’s lighthouse, faro in Italian, and there aren’t many wines that bear it.
I didn’t buy that wine as a 12-year-old: I got it years ago as a new release, and held it. Some people think I hold wines too long, but by the evidence of this bottle I don’t keep them long enough. Drinking this Palari was an exercise in highly pleasurable infanticide. It had a very velvety, Burgundian mouth feel, but it was much bigger than most Burgundies and utterly unlike Burgundy in its flavor spectrum – this despite Luigi Veronelli’s hailing it, many years ago, as the Clos de Vougeot of Italy.
Try to taste on your mind’s palate a big, balanced red wine, with dark, dark flavors sustained by an exciting but totally unobtrusive acidity. It went beyond blackberry into meat-sweetness (like excellent sirloin) and positively anthracite minerality, finishing with black walnut, almost liqueur-like in texture at that point. And with all that, the wine still evidently had years of life and development ahead of it, because at its huge and generous heart there lay still a little core of knotted flavors that wanted more time to mature (don’t we all?).
The story of Palari is both highly unusual and typically Italian. Back in the 90s, the Faro DOC was on the verge of being wiped from the charts, for the very good reason that no one was making any wine within its prescript. (How such a wine was ever awarded the DOC in the first place is one of those mysteries wrapped in bureaucratic mumbo jumbo that we mere mortals will never be able to penetrate.) The wine would soon have become extinct, and hardly anyone would have noticed. But one person did. Luigi Veronelli, the pioneering Italian wine and food critic, noticed and cared. Caring was Veronelli’s greatest virtue. Food mattered to him. His guide books gave not just numerical ratings, but suns and stars and hearts to restaurants that affected him. Wine mattered to him too, and the passing away of an ages-old wine mattered to him very deeply.
So he got in touch with Salvatore Geraci, a Sicilian-born architect resident in Reggio Calabria who had inherited an estate in the heart of the Faro zone, and persuaded him that he must revive his grandfather’s vineyards and save the DOC.
Geraci listened and in turn persuaded the Piedmontese enologist Donato Lanati to direct the project.
From the outset, everybody concerned agreed that the wine had to be top quality, or there was no point doing it at all. And – most crucially to my mind – they agreed that it had to be made with native grapes exclusively. If it wasn’t quintessentially Sicilian, there was no point doing it.
And so it began. Working with Geraci’s agronomist brother Giampiero, they tended 7 hectares – a little more than 17 acres – of primarily Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappucchio, with small percentages of such internationally famous varieties as Acitana, Cor’e Palumba, Galatena, Nocera, and Tignolino.
1994 was the first commercial vintage, and it began the series of critical successes that have distinguished Palari ever since. I have no idea how many times Palari has won Tre Bicchieri awards since then, but I do know that the wine has gotten one for every release between 2000 and 2009, the most recent. That’s a track record approached only by some of the greatest Piedmontese wines, and – whatever one thinks of wine awards – it speaks volumes for the perceived quality of Palari.
Palari now has a sibling, Rosso del Soprano, vinified from exactly the same grapes in an almost identical manner (it’s an IGT wine rather a DOC, but this makes no difference to its quality). Total production of both wines runs about 50,000 bottles a year – not large, by any yardstick of quantity, but enormous in terms of quality.
And enormous in its implications for Italian wine. Until Geraci made a success of it and growers on Etna began taking it seriously, Nerello Mascalese languished, just another old-fashioned grape that the benighted contadini liked. Now connoisseurs speak of it respectfully as one of the bright lights of Sicilian viniculture.
Italy is a treasure house of such unknown and unesteemed varieties. The just-beginning-to-be-appreciated Susumaniello in Puglia, Rucché in Piedmont, Pugnitello in Tuscany are just examples of the riches yet to be explored. And not just red grapes: Twenty years ago, who had heard of Falanghina? Who knows how many more varieties are out there, just waiting for the winemaker who cares enough to put in the time and effort to coax them to show what they’ve got?
That’s why I still get excited about Italian wine, and why I’ll continue to do so for the foreseeable future. I suspect I’ll give out before Italy’s surprises do.