Archive for the ‘Sicily’ Category

Native Uprising

January 17, 2013

My book-writing days are probably behind me, but if I were to write a new wine book, I know what I’d call it – Native Uprising – and it would focus on the ascent of indigenous Italian grape varieties. Italian winemaking has made fantastic progress in the past 50 years (yes, my memory goes back that far, more’s the pity), and, while that progress may have been turbocharged by the phenomenon of the so-called supertuscans and the brief prominence of “international” (meaning grown in France and California and Australia) grape varieties, the real motor that has propelled it all along has been the native grapes of the many Italian wine regions.



It’s probably a clear indication of the deeply ingrained chauvinism of the wine world that we continue to speak of “indigenous” or “native” Italian grapes, with often enough an implication of quaintness and lesser standing and quality, while no one – myself included – ever speaks of Cabernet and Merlot and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, or even Syrah or Sauvignon, as indigenous French grapes – which, of course, they are. The fact that Nebbiolo and Sangiovese – not to mention Barbera – are now grown around the world hasn’t made them “international” varieties: they remain humble, indigenous – to Italy – grapes.



So a good part of my reason for once again taking pen (keyboard?) in hand would be counter that notion of inferiority. It shouldn’t be too difficult. The strides that Piemontese and Tuscan winemakers in particular have made, and especially their success in drawing publicity, have certainly raised the visibility and the status of Nebbiolo and Sangiovese for any wine drinker who has gotten beyond an introductory level of wine knowledge. Other noble Italian red wines lag that level of recognition, but Aglianico and Amarone (not a grape variety, I know, but bear with me) are not far behind.

White wines may be a little trickier, because so many of the fine whites of northern Italy are vinified from “international” varieties that have been cultivated in Friuli and Alto Adige for almost two centuries. (Which raises the interesting question, how long must a variety be grown in an area before it becomes native? And where did the ancestors of those “indigenous” French varieties originate?) The excellence of many other Italian white varieties is only beginning to be discerned. The process is slow because so many of them are in the south, which for many wine lovers, and even for many Italians, is terra incognita.

Which brings me to what would be the second purpose of the book I’ll probably never write: to call attention to the cornucopia of interesting-to-distinguished varieties awaiting their moment in the south of Italy. In a rather haphazard way, I’ve spent a lot of time in the past two or three years in southern Italy, and every visit has been a revelation. Maybe a learning experience is a better way to put it: not only have I been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wines, but I have each time encountered grape varieties previously unknown to me. Even more important, these varieties have not been simply quaint survivors of another age, but grapes with real wine-making interest and potential.



For example, let’s consider Puglia, which I’ve written about recently both here and in Decanter. Almost everybody knows about Primitivo, the cousin of Zinfandel. There are some excellent ones, but in my opinion Primitivo is far less interesting than either Negroamaro or Uva di Troia, or even Susumaniello. These are red grapes of distinctive character, and in the hands of careful producers they are already capable of making long-lived, high-quality wines. With more clonal research and more attention from more producers, their future is wide open.

z-bombino bianco

Bombino bianco

Puglia shows less impressively with white grapes, but even there some bright spots appear: Bombino Bianco, Verdeca, and local clones of Greco have promise. And of course, throughout the rest of the south, white grapes shine: In Campania, Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino lead the way, but those two varieties do quite well on volcanic soils all through the south. (The Soave zone in the Veneto is the northernmost of Italy’s volcanic regions, and its prized Garganega, which makes Soave Classico, is probably a descendant of, if not the same as, Greco.)

Nerello mascalese

Nerello mascalese

And in Sicily, the hyper-volcanic slopes of Etna already yield world-class wines, whites from the native Carricante and reds from Nerello mascalese, which also forms a major portion of what is probably Sicily’s most distinguished red wine, Palari, from the nearby Faro DOC.

That’s far from the whole story even for the south: The white Falanghina is fine and getting better all the time, and the red Piedirosso, a long-time blending companion of Aglianico, is undergoing a significant revival. Even the once lightly regarded Coda di Volpe is rewarding serious attention from winemakers.



Nor is the north of Italy exempt from this growing wave of attention to each region’s viticultural heritage. In Piedmont, Rucché and Timorasso – red and white respectively – lead the contingent of reviving varieties, with the whites Favorita and Nascetta getting more attention every year.



.In Tuscany, Merlot is losing ground to Colorino and Mammolo as the blending grapes of choice in Chianti, with several experimental bottlings of monovarietal wines – especially of Colorino – already available.



In the Veneto, the once-scorned local clone of Trebbiano is achieving real importance in the Soave zone. And Friuli is a minestrone of local varieties, especially of red grapes: Schiopettino, Tazzelenghe, and Pignolo, to name only the currently most important. This is by no means exhaustive: there are many, many more potentially noble varieties out there.

So there is definitely a book to be written, and a lot of fascinating – and delicious – research to be done. I’m not feeling overly ambitious these days – grey winter weather always has that effect on me – but maybe I’ll do it yet.

Why I Get Excited About Italian Wine

August 23, 2012

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.

Salvatore Geraci

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.

Steep slopes and head-trained vines in the Palari vineyards

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.

The aging cellar at Palari. This is about half of it.

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.

Ancient Grapes, Recent Tastings

June 6, 2011

That Italy is one vast vineyard holding hundreds of ancient, nearly lost grape varieties – that has become a truism. No surprises there – not until you taste wines made from some of those varieties and find yourself brought up short by how good they are: How could they ever have gotten lost?!

I had that experience twice recently, first with a wine that has managed to re-establish itself, and then with one struggling for a renewed toehold (roothold?) in that vast Italian vineyard.

First stop: Sicily

My bella moglie Diane has one major addiction beyond good food and wine: mystery stories. She devours detective novels. One of her current favorites is Andrea Camilleri’s series about the Sicilian Inspector Montalbano. Montalbano stands in the grand tradition of Nero Wolfe and Inspector Maigret – that is, his work never interferes with his dinners, and they are lovingly described in the books. So it was inevitable that, when Diane found a cookbook of the Montalbano recipes, she would announce that she wanted to do a whole Montalbano dinner party, and my job was to match the wines to it.

Now, if it had merely been wines made in Sicily that I was looking for, that wouldn’t have been a problem – but for truly Sicilian food, I wanted truly Sicilian wines, top-quality wines vinified from indigenous Sicilian grapes. That narrowed my search considerably. My first thought was Benanti and his great reds and whites from Etna – but a quick check showed I had no Benanti wines on hand. (I will correct that!)  So I turned to some of the best Nero d’Avola around and to Salvatore Geraci’s brilliant Palari, the wine that saved the Faro DOC from extinction.

Palari may still be the only example of Faro; it’s certainly the only one available in the US. No matter: It has executed the rescue brilliantly. Geraci was urged by Italian wine critic Luigi Veronelli to plant grapes on his family’s lands in the Faro zone (on steep hillsides near Messina, in eastern Sicily) lest the Faro DOC slip from sight. So Geraci began cultivating the basket of indigenous varieties that compose the wine: Nerello mascalese, Nerello cappucci, Nocera, Tignolino, Cor’e palumba, Acitana, Galetena – none of them household names, though because of the recent explosion of winemaking on Etna, Nerello mascalese at least is becoming better known.

From its earliest vintages, Palari has been steadily winning praise in Italy. By now it sports close to a dozen Tre Bicchieri, and has been joined by a second but by no means secondary wine, Rosso del Soprano, with an almost identical grape mixture. We started our Sicilian dinner with that, and went on to two vintages of Palari, 2005 and 2000. All three wines were perfect with the food, handling its rusticities and elegances, its simplicities and complexities, with equal aplomb. Velvety, deep, with complex dark fruit and leather flavors, they all showed an almost Burgundian combination of seeming weight and suppleness. Just lovely wines.

We finished with a 1998 Nero d’Avola Riserva, Don Antonio, from the top-notch producer Morgante. Nero d’Avola is pretty well known these days, but that is quite recent history for this ancient Sicilian variety, which as little as 20 years ago was being abandoned in favor of international grapes. Happily, the soft, almost-Pomerol-like wine has made a strong comeback. Morgante’s barrique-aged Riserva is bigger and more austere than its regular bottling, and at 13 years old had completely integrated its oak into a mouth-filling and very complex mature wine, ideal with the cheeses it accompanied.

(For an account of the whole delicious dinner, take a look at Diane’s blog, which contains every carbohydrate-rich detail.) 

Next stop: Tuscany

Thanks to an old acquaintance in Florence, Ursula Thurner, I found out that the well-known Chianti Classico estate San Felice had undertaken a long-term project with the University of Florence involving the planting of an experimental vineyard with some 270 disappearing Tuscan varieties. Out of that welter of grapes, one variety has stood out so much that San Felipe has propagated and begun commercializing it. It’s called Pugnitello, from the fist-like (pugna) shape of its clusters.

It’s imported to the US by Premium Brands, and I recently tasted bottles of the 2007 and 2006 vintages, first by themselves and then alongside a grilled steak and morels (the last fruiting of our too-short spring, alas). I agree completely with San Felice’s judgment:  This is a variety worth saving, a wine well worth knowing, and one I’m looking forward to learning more about in the future.

Here are my first impressions of the very young (still almost purple) 2007: a slightly brambly, underbrushy aroma, almost but not quite reminiscent of top-flight, claret-style Zinfandel.  The palate delivers a package of earth, spice, and berry, again vaguely recalling Zinfandel, but with more breed and elegance – soft berrylike fruit, a sort of Merlot with black pepper. (I’m trying to compare Pugnitello to more familiar wines to give some perspective on it, not to posit any kind of identity between them.)

The 2006 showed a maturing color, shifting from purple to garnet, and a slightly fuller, darker, more peppery and intense aroma and flavor. Whether that is due to the one year greater age or to the difference of the vintages, I don’t know enough about the wine to say. But I found both examples intriguing and enjoyable as they are now and promising interesting development in the future. Both vintages seem to have the acid/tannin/alcohol/fruit combination that promises at least several years of bottle development. It will be interesting to see what they become: their potential seems to me very great indeed.

I greatly honor growers like San Felice for undertaking a project like this. (I believe La Porta di Vertine, a small Chianti Classico grower, is also working with Pugnitello and blending some in its Chianti.) It shows real devotion to one’s land, traditions, and craft to put in the time and effort and money that a project like this demands. That’s especially true when the prospect of financial return at any point in the near future is very slight indeed. For me, people like this are Italy’s true Cavalieri del Lavoro.

New York all’italiana

May 14, 2010

No lengthy disquisition this time, just notes on two recent New York happenings, the Wine Media Guild Taurasi luncheon and Ed McCarthy’s unveiling of his five favorite Italian white wines to the Gang of Six.

Happening #1

The WMG event was the regular May meeting, upstairs at Felidia Ristorante, with the usual rugby scrum to taste all the wines and take notes before lunch (actually better, now that there’s room for an additional tasting table). The guest speaker and principal organizer of the event was Maurizio De Rosa, a Naples-born one-time NY restaurateur now back in Italy and working for Feudi di San Gregorio.

Maurizio De Rosa

Feudi has quickly grown to be the largest (and best capitalized?) winery in Campania, and Maurizio is one of the most knowledgeable people around on the wines of his native region. His focus was Taurasi, Campania’s red DOCG wine, and he managed to round up for the occasion 19 examples of Taurasi from 19 different producers – no mean feat, since several are very small and in quite limited supply. They were Boccella, Caggiano, Cantina Crogliano, Cantina dei Monaci, D’Antiche Terre, Di Meo, Di Prisco, Feudi di San Gregorio, La Molara, Lonardo, Mastroberardino, Molettieri, Perillo, Romano Clelia, Terradora di Paolo, Urciolo, Villa Matilde, Villa Raiano, and Vinosia.

All were interesting, though many marred their fine Aglianico fruit (Taurasi is usually 100% Aglianico, though a small percentage of Piedirosso is permitted) with too much new oak – the bane of every expanding wine region all around the world.

For me, the outstanding wines were the more familiar ones: Mastroberardino, Terradora (the other half of the Mastroberardino clan, after a horrendous family break-up in the mid-90s), Feudi, Di Meo. The Villa Matilde, which I’m normally very fond of, showed a bit tight and unready, perhaps going into eclipse (it was vintage 2004). The 2004 from D’Antiche Terre was also fine, but its price is about twice that of the other wines shown: perhaps a Gaja del Sud in the making here.

Just as interesting as the wines were Maurizio’s remarks. According to current research, Aglianico doesn’t derive from the word for Hellenic, i.e., Greek, as has long been thought, and the grape wasn’t introduced to Campania by the early Greek colonists of the region. It seems in fact to be an Italian native, probably established in the Naples area by the Etruscans, who had pushed that far south centuries before the Greeks arrived. That may make Aglianico the longest-cultivated variety on record.

Maurizio also explained that the Aglianico growing area, traditionally centered on the town of Taurasi in the province of Avellino (which name may, in passing through the mouths of the successive French and Spanish masters of the Kingdom of Naples, have metamorphosed into Aglianico) is really divisible into at least four distinctive zones, which differ by soil type, elevation, and the character of the Aglianico they produce. All this information and more will be contained in the book about Taurasi that he is working on. By the way, should you meet Maurizio, never refer to Taurasi as “the Barolo of the south.” Barolo, he insists, is the Taurasi of the north.

Happening #2

The Gang of Six is, first of all, a collection of pizza freaks, whose devotion to real Neapolitan pizza has led them to gather as frequently as they can at Keste or Pizza Fresca for massive intake of carbohydrates and as much fine wine as the members can manage to bring with them. This time, exceptionally, we convened at Donnatella Arpaia’s Mia Dona – no pizza! – so Ed McCarthy could challenge us with a blind tasting of his selection of Italy’s five best white wines.

Those who know Ed’s and his wife Mary Ewing Mulligan’s books know that Ed has a massive store of information about wine. Those who know Ed also know that he has a pretty good fund of opinions based on it, so this was a fun lunch – despite the absence of pizza! – and an interesting tasting, as well as a substantial challenge.

Ed lurking behind a wall of his favorites

These are Ed’s nominees for Italy’s best white wines:

  • Abbazia di Novacella’s Kerner – a hybrid of Riesling and a lesser variety that does reasonably well in Germany and spectacularly in one of Italy’s northernmost vineyards, in Alto Adige.
  • Benanti’s Pietramarina – Carricante from the Etna region of Sicily. (Not Catarratto, as I first said; see Ed’s comment below.)
  • Jermann’s Vintage Tunina – a blend of several white varieties, including indigenous Tocai (now Friulano) and Picolit, from Friuli. 
  • Tiefenbrunner’s Feldmarschall – Müller Thurgau from high-altitude vineyards in Alto Adige.
  • Valentini’s Trebbiano – a highly selected vinification from meticulously tended vineyards in Abruzzo.

Though they are quite diverse, both geographically and stylistically, all – and this tells you a lot about Ed’s taste – are whites that are all the better for a few years of aging.

I can think of a few wines I’d like to add to his list, but I’m interested in what others may think of Ed’s selections and omissions. Please comment, if you feel so moved.

Sipping Sicily

April 8, 2010

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.

MARILENA BARBERA. Photo by Charles Scicolone

Cantine Barbera
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.

JOSE RALLO. Photo by Charles Scicolone

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.

Diego Planeta, President of Settesoli

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.

Valle dell’Acate
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.

Eating Sicily: The Planeta Family and the Terre Sicane

March 30, 2010

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.

With My Mouth Wide Open

December 4, 2009

One of the banes of reading wine journalism, I have always thought, is the glowing, multi-adjectived report on extraordinary meals that the writer has consumed and that you, poor underprivileged reader, have not – often with an implied “nor will you ever, you miserable peasant.” So, with considerable ambivalence, I am about to inflict not one but two such on you – not to glory in my caloric excess, but because in both cases what really impressed me was the interplay of the food and the wine. That for me is what wine is really all about. To sip a wine by itself as an aperitif or by itself as a dessert can be lovely, but fundamentally wine is a food and belongs with food, and that is where it shows itself best.

Event 1 – A Dinner in Palermo

The Wildman/GIV trip that I wrote about on November 27 included a dinner at the palazzo of Laurent Bernard de la Gatenais in Palermo. The palazzo and most of the vineyards that make up the Rapitalà estate have been in de la Gatenais’s family for generations, and he had himself taken the dinner preparations in hand, so this was probably as authentic an expression of Sicilian cucina di monzù as I am ever likely to experience. What struck me most about it was its seeming simplicity: If the highest art is to conceal art, this dinner was high art indeed.

Photos: Odila Galer-Noel

First, little snacks of panella – tiny, salted chickpea-flour fritters, superb appetizers. Then a primo from the heart of Sicilian tradition: a timballo. This was a golden pastry crust, lightly flavored with orange rind, encasing a filling of pasta, chicken, peas, capers, and cheese – think “The Big Night” and you’re on the right track. For secondo, we had a whole, enormous dentice, a Mediterranean fish, poached and served with boiled potatoes, with excellent olive oil and freshly made mayonnaise to dress both. Dessert was semifreddo with almond praline and the most delicate imaginable cannoli.

We drank Rapitalà white wines throughout. Piano Maltese (Grillo and Catarratto, both indigenous Sicilian varieties) served as aperitif. Pleasing in itself, it was deepened and intensified by the slightly salted, slightly nutty panella, so that what on first sip had seemed somewhat one-dimensional showed itself as complex and very interesting indeed. With both the timballo and the fish we drank Casalj (Catarratto and Chardonnay, 70/30), a fuller-bodied white that played lean and muscular with the pasta, which highlighted its acidity, and rounder and softer with the dentice, which emphasized its fruit and balance. Neither of these wines had seen oak.

Laurent de la Gatinais enjoys his cannoli

By contrast, Cielo d’Alcamo (late-harvest Sauvignon and Catarratto), the dessert wine, had spent about 11 months in barrique. Drunk by itself, the wine showed primarily sweetness: I had to work hard to taste other elements in it. But with the semifreddo, it blossomed. Its acidity came up, its sugar subsided, and its delicacy, elegance, and complexity stepped to the fore, making it crystal clear why it has been taking prizes in Italy. Once again, the magic of food and wine matching.

Event 2 – A Lunch in New York

Also in November, the Wine Media Guild, which holds regular lunch meetings at Felidia Ristorante, invited owner Lidia Bastianich and her son Joe to present the wines of their Friuli estate. Those wines have been garnering awards in Italy almost since the estate’s inception 10 years ago, so that in itself was attractive. Moreover, the thought crossed several of our minds that, under those circumstances, we could hope for something quite exceptional from Felidia’s normally fine kitchen. We were happily right on both counts.

We tasted our way through the Bastianich line of Friulian varieties – Friulano (formerly Tocai, now because of EU bureaucracy renamed Friulano), Tocai Plus (a small vineyard, old-vine selection, bottled only in the very best years), Malvasia, and Sauvignon blanc. The last wine stood out for me because of its delightful coppery edge, which I think of as the distinctive gift of Friuli’s soils and microclimates.

Then we worked through a really interesting vertical of Bastianich Vespa Bianco (’01, ’02, ’04, ’06, and ’07). This blended wine represents the pre-WW II tradition of Friuli, when field mixes were the norm and monovarietal wines the exception. Vespa contains roughly 45% Chardonnay, 45% Sauvignon, and 10% of the very local and lovely Picolit, and the blend really blends – no single variety dominates. It leads with a pretty floral, white-fruit aroma and follows up on the palate with an elegant medium body, intriguingly inflected with mineral and flint notes.

When the lunch is served, WMG members get to choose from among the tasted wines to drink with the food. Because of its complexity, Vespa was my choice to companion the first two courses, one a gorgeous octopus salad (the tender tentacles thinly sliced and arranged like a Byzantine mosaic on the plate, topped with slices of warm potato and onion), the second fresh ravioli stuffed with pecorino cheese and pears and dressed only with butter and a little cheese.

The first dish brought up beautifully the underlying fruit of the Vespa, giving it the slightest suggestion of sweetness that worked perfectly with the fleshy sweetness of the octopus. The ravioli, which were wonders of delicacy, worked in the opposite direction, emphasizing Vespa’s minerality and creating a delicious counterpoint of fruit and earth. With these dishes, the Vespa showed not only better but more than it did by itself – and that for me is what it’s all about.

Picking a wine that will enhance and be enhanced by the food it’s served with requires some thought, some experience, some experimentation. There is no magic formula, until you learn your own palate and gain a little knowledge of the way different foods and different wines interact. It’s not a mystery, but it’s not a slam-dunk either. In The Right Wine I tried to suggest some principles for matching food and wine for their mutual enhancement. If you find the whole subject intimidating you might want to take a look at what I say there. But essentially, the best teacher is good old trial and error. It may take a while to get the hang of it, but the practice doesn’t hurt at all.