Over Labor Day weekend, Diane contrived a Sicilian summer dinner out of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano novels – lots of fish to please the cranky detective’s exigent palate and a good meat dish followed by cheeses to satisfy us red wine lovers. Since I really enjoy matching ethnic dishes with the wines they grew up with, this presented me with an interesting challenge.
Sicily makes a lot of wine, but – truth must be told – a lot of it is very ordinary, and a lot of it is all the same, no matter where it’s grown on the Three-Cornered Isle. If one thing I didn’t want was “ordinary,” certainly another undesirable was “the same,” so I began searching for good quality Sicilian wines to match with Diane’s and Inspector Montalbano’s dishes. This turned out to be both simple and difficult: simple because I focused quickly on Etna and its environs, where some of the most interesting wines in Sicily are being made; and difficult because their distribution in this country is very spotty. I persevered, however, and came up with some lovely bottles. To wit: Benanti’s Biancodicaselle 2010 and Rossodiverzella 2010, Biondi’s Outis bianco 2009.
But let me begin at the beginning. I chose Etna because it amounts to quintessential Sicily, even geologically. The northeastern third of Sicily that constitutes the Etna region is, in a manner of speaking, the sole indigenous piece of Sicily: The western two-thirds are geologically and climatically very different. In fact, that western portion of what is now Sicily is a chunk of north Africa that eons ago broke off, drifted north, and bumped into Etna, where it has stayed ever since. A good choice, both for geography and for wine.
So, having said all that, I now have to admit that none of it applies to the first wine we tried that evening – my bad. For aperitivi, we drank Prosecco – not very Sicilian, but authorized (literally) by Camilleri’s treatment of the second course’s clams, which steamed them open in Prosecco, thereby opening the door for me to serve that delightfully light and pleasing sparkler to brace our palates for the meal to come. We tried two different ones: Nino Franco’s nv Rustico and Miotto’s nv Federa Extra Dry.
totally charming – perfect starts to a hot-weather dinner.
Both were light in body and alcohol and totally charming – perfect starts to a hot-weather dinner.
With the first course of fresh anchovies, we drank the 2010 Biancodicaselle. Since Etna’s reputation has skyrocketed in Italian wine circles, many new producers have been entering the scene. Benanti is an Etna old-timer that has been making top-flight wine there for decades from some long-established, high-altitude vineyards. They – it’s a family firm – have been proudly cultivating very indigenous grapes – the white Carricante, which grows nowhere else in Sicily or in Italy, and the reds Nerello mascalese and Nerello cappuccio, which are specialties of Etna and its surrounds. On the volcano’s mineral-rich soils, these grapes yield extraordinary wines, unlike any others. Benanti’s Pietramarina, a cru 100% Carricante from some of its oldest, highest vineyards, stands among the small handful of Italy’s finest white wines (unfortunately, I couldn’t lay my hands on any in time for this dinner: damn!). The parallel red wine, Serra della Contessa, ranks right up there with Palari in the topmost tier of Sicilian – or Italian – red wines.
For this dinner, because of that spotty distribution I mentioned above, I had to settle for a level below those two. Initially a disappointment, this turned out to be for my palate a blessing in disguise, in that the simpler wine matched better with the simplicity, directness, and freshness of the acidulated but uncooked anchovies. It still had the lovely, dry grapefruitiness of excellent Carricante grapes, and still those provocative Etna mineral tones that made it partner perfectly with the fleshy, oil-and-lemon-laced little fishes without either the dish or the drink dominating. For me, that’s the essence of a good pairing.
We tried a different white with the baked clams, Biondi’s Outis. The intriguing name is Greek and means no one or no man. It’s what Odysseus told the Cyclops his name was, so that later, when the Cyclops bellowed in pain after Odysseus blinded him, and his fellow Cyclopes called out, “Who is hurting you?” he answered “No one,” and they all told him to just shut up, if that was the case. What that has to do with the wine I’m not exactly sure, beyond the fact that one version of the legend has the Cyclops living on or near Etna, but it makes a good story and an intriguing wine name.
Whatever: this wine is made by Salvo Foti, who is chief enologist for Benanti and probably the most highly regarded wine maker in eastern Sicily. It differs from Benanti’s in incorporating a little (total 10%) Cataratto, Minella, Malvasia, and Muscatella dell’Etna into its Carricante. It also differs in style – a touch more rustic, perhaps, and definitely bigger, deeper, rounder in the mouth, showing both a little bit more Carricante and a little bit more Etna. The best way to put it is simply that it had more intensity, which was just fine for its place in the dinner. It was perfect with those succulent little morsels of clam, and even the deep-dyed red wine drinkers took an extra glass – for science, to be sure.
With the earthy flavors of a very Sicilian beef roll, we drank the 2010 Rossodiverzella. This was a wine I can only describe as mellow, in the most honorific sense. Round, soft, dark-fruited, tasting of that unmistakable Etna minerality, it was at the same time direct and undemanding. All it asked was that you enjoy it, which was an easy request to grant. The Nerello grapes that make up its blend are capable of lengthy cellaring, but for this particular dish an older wine might have been overkill. I like to keep the players in each course on a par with each other, so for me this match was just fine.
With the cheese course, I broke pattern completely. The cheeses were from northern Italy, and the wine was from The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies – that is to say, Naples – Mastroberardino’s Taurasi Riserva 1985. I had to get an older wine in there somewhere, and this proved to be the exact right spot for this elegant, deep, complex red – an absolute pleasure to drink. I do wish I had more of it, but that was my last, oldest bottle of Taurasi. Sigh. I do believe that even the seafood-loving Inspector Montalbano would have relished it, and forgiven my introduction of a “foreign” wine.