Etna smoking © 2012 . All rights reserved.

The Magic of Sicily

Sicily was my first love. It was my first encounter with the heady, exotic mix of southern Mediterranean culture, landscape and food. Sicily bewitched me and left its mark upon my memory. I remember the drama of the landscape and its colours: the blood-red sunsets, the widows in black silhouetted against the dazzling white Baroque churches, the deep blue embrace of the surrounding seas and the bright magenta-coloured bougainvilleas that seemed to tumble from every garden wall.

There was the local Sicilian dialect with its strong Arabic influence, the guttural utterances of a fiercely proud and ancient culture that impose upon the memory.

Then there were the smells and the flavours! Freshly cooked swordfish, gilt-head bream, sea bass and red mullet cooked in garlic, lemon, olive oil and sea salt; the sun-ripened tomatoes and intensely perfumed fresh basil and the scent of wild herbs and lemon trees on warm summer nights.

And to go with the clean, pure flavours of the food there were some intensely flavoured, characterful wines. Ever individual, Sicily’s native grape varieties, such as the white Grillo, Insolia, Catarratto and Carricante and the red Nero d’Avola, Frappato, Perricone, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio capture the imagination with a distinctly Sicilian feel.

Going back for the first time in many years recently on a visit to all of the main wine regions with a Masters of Wine group, I was again impressed by the diversity and character of Sicily and her wines.

The Sicilians speak of Sicily as a continent, not just an island and they mean it! For although the island definitely has a warm, Southern Mediterranean climate, it has its cool spots too. The slopes of Mount Etna, Sicily’s active volcano, provide the coolness of altitude. It has become a very fashionable place to grow grapes, producing some cutting edge wines. Similarly, the high altitude of parts of central and western Sicily where some of Sicily’s historically famous producers are based, gives a breath of coolness to the vines.

Yet other parts of Sicily provide the exact opposite. The hot, sun-drenched islands of Pantelleria and Favignana produce deep, honey-coloured sweet wines that are made from concentrated, sun-dried grapes.

Western Sicily is also home to one of the world’s most historically famous wines, Marsala, from the eponymously named town and port. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, Sicily has a reputation in the UK off-trade for modern, stylish, good value wines, made from a variety of indigenous and international grape varieties.

The recent Wines of Sicily tasting in London (2nd October 2012) showcased some of Sicily’s amazing diversity of wines and styles. Below is a small selection of some of the most exciting wines I found.  

Ottoventi Zibibbo 2011 IGT Sicilia 12.5%, Producer Agricola Ottoventi.100% Zibibbo. Zibibbo is the local name for the Muscat grape, often used for sweet wines around the world as well as some dry wines. It has distinctive, grapey, summer flowers and rose petal-like aromas and flavours. 

This is a simple but attractive wine with a delicately perfumed nose of rose petals and fresh grapes dusted in icing sugar. In the mouth it is dry, in contrast to the nose with savoury flavours and just a hint of exotic fruit and grapes. It has a gentle acidity giving a soft finish. Quite versatile as either a quaffing wine or paired with delicately spiced dishes.

Nozze D’Oro 2010 DOC Contea di Sclafani Tasca D’ Almerita 78% Inzolia, 22% Sauvignon Tasca 12.5%. Nozze D’Oro means golden wedding and this wine was created as a celebration of the owners’ grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary. One very interesting fact is that the Sauvignon Blanc used in this wine is their very own version of Sauvignon Blanc. It is a selection that has been made over the years of varieties that are grown on the Tasca estate in Sicily.

Pale white gold colour with a gently aromatic nose of white flowers and blossom. Very vivid acidity, lively and fresh with a little chalky, salty grip balancing the delicate impression of white flowers on the palate. A beautifully balanced wine that seems delicate, but can age too. I tasted a 1998 version of this wine in May at Conte Tasca D’Almerita’s beautiful estate in Sicily.

Pietramarina 2008, Etna Bianco Superiore DOC, 13%, producer Azienda Vinicola Benanti. This wine is 100% Carricante grown at an altitude of 950m on the slopes of Mount Etna. It is planted at a high vine density of 9000 vines per hectare which encourages the vines to compete with each other for nutrients. This tends to produce a low yield and more concentrated flavours.

Carricante is for me one of Sicily’s most characterful white grapes and having tasted several older vintages this year, I can confirm it has the ability to age well. The word ‘Pietramarina’ translates as marine stones and refers to the special soil in the vineyard.

Clear lemon-gold in colour, the nose is a combination of lemon oil, lemon zest and a gentle creaminess. Dry and steely on the palate with savoury, tangy sea salt flavours and some creamy minerality filling out the mid-palate and giving roundness. Wow!  Very pure with a laser-like focus, where steely minerality and nervy acidity build to a very long finish.  Sicily’s answer to Chablis!  Yet it also has something of Riesling’s laser-like clarity and focus but with its own particularly Sicilian twist of aromas and flavours.  

Vecchio Samperi Ventennale NV, Marco de Bartoli 100% Grillo 17.5%  Residual sugar 26 g/l, grown at sea level. Grillo is the native Sicilian grape used to make Marsala and has a history dating back to the Phoenicians. Marco de Bartoli are top level Marsala producers. 

Amber, with orange-gold flecks of colour. The nose is all caramel, toffee and sea salt. Sweet toffee flavours contrast with savoury, salty caramel notes and a tangy, juicy acidity. Very long finish and intriguing contrast of flavours. It suggests both the heat of Sicily’s sun-drenched beaches with its honeyed, dried fruit flavours and the cooling effect of the sea with its salty tang and mouth-watering acidity. Sicily in a glass!

Passito di Pantelleria  2008, Cantine Rallo, Pantelleria DOP. 100% Moscato di Alessandria, 14%. This is another wine made from the Moscato grape but a more typical sweet one this time, made from sun-dried grapes on the island of Pantelleria.

A dark amber, orange/gold-hued wine with a nose of honeycomb and dried apricots. In the mouth it is sweet with ripe apricot, honey and contrasting marmalade and bitter orange flavours.  Sweet, silky-textured with pure, clear flavours of ripe yellow and orange fruit and a long, long finish. 

Other producers that impressed at this tasting were:

Planeta, for their La Segreta Bianco and Rosso; Valle dell’Acate for their red wines from native grape varieties Frappato and Cerasuolo di Vittoria; Abraxas, for their sweet wine Passito di Pantelleria and Cantine Rallo also for their sweet Passito di Pantelleria 2008 and their whites Beleda 2011 DOP Alcamo and Bianco Maggiore 2011 IGP Sicilia.

Two excellent Sicilian producers who were not at this tasting but deserve an emphatic mention were Feudo Montoni for some exciting red wines from Nero D’Avola and Donnafugata for their incredible sweet wine, Ben Ryé, which is a Passito di Pantelleria DOC.

© 2012, Susan Hulme MW. All rights reserved.

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