Sicily has been an important wine region for thousands of years. Much like Apulia, Sicily was a cultural cross-roads throughout most of European history, and has been controlled by the Greeks, the Romans the Byzantines, the Arabs, and the Catalans from Spain. And, amazingly, the land has been under vine throughout the majority of that history. Perhaps this is why Sicily is now Italy’s largest wine producing region.
What I found particularly interesting when doing research for this post was the discovery that Sicily has very similar climate and soil conditions to Napa Valley. Nonetheless, Sicily hasn’t really had much of a reputation for good dry red wine, instead being much more famous for the dessert wine known as Marsala. I chose not to write about Marsala, however, because what is now exciting about Sicily is its increasing presence in the world of quality dry red wines. Particularly, critics’ eyes and praise have turned towards wines made from the nero d’avola grape over the last several years. While there are many versions of the grape that are pretty simple wines, there are also some very complex renditions of the grape available. And, even so the cheaper nero d’avolas usually offer good value for the money and make good house table wines. Plantings of modern international varieties such as chardonnay, merlot, and syrah are also beginning to populate the island, but in my mind it is what is going on with indigenous grapes that is most interesting. There are 19 DOCs in Sicily, and quite a few indigenous grapes beyond nero. If I have time in a future post I may discuss one of the DOCs that produces wine from pretty obscure grapes in more detail. For now, nero d’avola is king.
Modern wine making techniques have now engulfed Sicily. While not all producers use modern techniques, machine harvesting and commercial yeasts, etc. are becomming more and more common. The best producers, of course, will avoid such practices, but as a consumer one should be aware that they exist. However, there are still two distinct lines of attack when it comes to Sicilian nero d’avola: the traditional and the modern. Even wines made with modern techniques can be traditional in their approach to flavour and structure. Some of the big hot shot wineries, such as Planeta, which I review below, are pumping up the oak treatment and reducing yields considerably to produce more modern styled wines.
The first nero d’avola I tried was the Donnafugata Sedara Nero d’Avola IGT 2007, a wine made in a pretty traditional style (even with obvious modern techniques and cleanliness) by one of Sicily’s oldest producers (going on 150 years). The nose is classic for this variety with meat, black pepper, char, and blackberry. The palate is bright and soft up front with blackberry and red plum. The mid-palate is pretty simple and serves up a peppery side of game. The finish is soft and short and the wine has a very soft and sweet tannin structure. This is a pretty simple wine – it’s not going to wow anyone. And there are certainly much better nero d’avolas around for a bit more money. However, this still beats out a lot of $20 wines for drinkability and overall quality and it is made well, with all the components in balance. Grab this for the traditional pairings of a red meat pasta, pizza or side of game and you will probably be very happy.
$20 at BCLDB
The second nero d’avola I tried was the modern styled Planeta Santa Cecilia IGT Nero d’Avola 2006. Planeta is a modern dynamo winery in Sicily, founded in the 1990’s by cousins Alessio, and Santi Planeta and their uncle Diego Planeta, who was already famous in Sicily’s wine scene. The story behind this particular wine is that the company founders and the wine maker wanted to find the best possible site in Sicily for nero d’avola and produce the highest quality wine from this variety possible. After years of searching they found a vineyard in the very southeasterly Noto region of Sicily that they felt was perfect for the grape. This wine is 100% nero d’avola, is fermented in steel tanks and is aged for 12 months in 2-3 year old French oak. The vines for this nero d’avola are pretty low (although not miniscule) yielding, offering 8.5 tons per hectare.
This is a modern wine. But, it is also a very very good wine. With a nose that introduces many layers and types of earthy flavour, game, smoke, meat, and dark black fruits, this had great expressivity already. The palate was sparkling and incredibly unique – a plush dark fruit layer washes over the palate up front and then cascades into plums, a tangy blackcurrant, wildflowers, and manuka honey. There is greaty body and length to this absolutely killer bottle from Sicily. A hint of mocha tickles the palate on the finish as the smokey charred game fat rumbles forward to complete the wine, but the oak treatment, while noticeable, is very thoughtful and adds to rather than disrupts the fruit. This is nothing like Planeta’s wines made from the international varieties like syrah and chardonnay. This is very distinctive and very Sicilian even while being modern and unlike classic nero d’avola. One of the most exciting wines I’ve tasted in the last year or so and completely worth the pennies.
$49 at BCLDB
Nero d’avola is clearly producing wines of great merit in Sicily and I would look out for both the simple bottles for a weekday meal and the slightly pricier and more interesting creations for a special occasion. Both are well priced for what you get. Southern Italy really is on a roll with the quality for value moniker that us wine geeks love to hate. I say, so far the wines of Southern Italy are hitting all the right places.