Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Bottle and label photos courtesy of the wineries featured
Exceptional Sicilian Wines
Sicily is Italy’s equivalent of Andalusia, a region on the edge of Europe, looking south to Africa as much as north, physically and culturally detached from the rest of the country. It has been mostly known for cheap wines, but many wine aficionados know that Sicily is also home to a number of outstanding wineries that produce great wines from both indigenous and international grapes. The island is blessed with a combination of abundant sunshine, varied terroirs and very good indigenous grape varieties.
The Sicilian climate is Mediterranean and pairs of the most important towns are located on the north part of the island, Messina and Palermo; there are also Catania and Syracuse on the east and Trapani and Marsala on the west. Marsala is the source of famous, since the ancient times, mostly sweet fortified wines. The cooking-wine version of Marsala is what is known better in the United States and, very unfortunately, it reinforces the notion that Sicily produces cheap, indifferent wines.
But when it comes to wine quality, I beg to differ!
There are excellent white wines and a number of good reds produced in Sicily. The reasons for the high quality are the volcanic soil and Mediterranean climate.
I would like to acquaint you with three Sicilian wineries that create, from their own vineyards, exceptional wines. White or red, dry or sweet, the wines produced by these long lived family owned wineries can handily compete with some of the best wines produced in other parts of Italy; or many other parts of the world.
I will start with Donnafugata (www.donnafugata.it). The name, which means “woman in flight”, goes back to Queen Maria Carolina of Bourbon fleeing from Napoleon to where the winery’s vineyards are now located. It was Sicilian author Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in his novel “Il Gattopardo”, who gave the name Donnafugata to this country estate, and many of the wine names and labels, refer to names and places in the story.
José and Antonio Rallo produce some of my favorite Italian white wines. And, parenthetically, José Rallo is also an exceptional jazz singer that, when she is in New York City, jams at the Blue Note in The Village to enthusiastic applause.
The volcanic island of Pantelleria is located just south of Sicily and about 37 miles east of Tunis; it is famous for producing exceptional wines. Donnafugata owns there a number of acres and there is where the produce Lighea, made from Zibbibo -- a local clone of Moscato d’ Alexandria -- a considerably dry, crisp and very aromatic white wine that is fantastic with raw seafood and grilled or fried fish. José is very proud of this wine that smells like a summer Mediterranean garden full of honeysuckle, orange blossoms, white peaches and jasmine with a hint of thyme. It paired beautifully with my Thanksgiving turkey.
Another exceptional wine also made on Pantelleria from Zibbibo grapes by José is Ben Ryé (in Arabic, means “Son of the Wind”). It is sweet, clear amber colored; a passito wine. I consider it one of the top dessert wines made in Italy and is definitely a meditation wine for those pensive moments when silence is the best state of mind. The grapes are air-dried to concentrate the juice (must) and it's thickly extracted, almost syrupy, with very intense aromas of apricot, honey, candied orange, candied ginger and dried figs. There is a vein of fresh acidity towards the finish though, that stops this wine from being cloyingly sweet. It can definitely be drunk solo; but if you have to pair it with food, try it with a farmhouse Stilton or, even better, foie gras. For dessert, it’s excellent with a fresh fruit tart, Tiramisu or Zabaglione. The wine is known locally as “the drink of the gods” and I can understand why it was named that way.
From Donnafugata’s vineyards on mainland Sicily, there is Anthilia, a blend of Catarratto and Ansonica. The predominant Catarratto grape is a cousin of Garganega, a grape that is the 6th most widely planted white grape in Northern Italy as the basis for Veneto’s Soave. Ansonica is a white grape planted primarily in western Sicily where it is mostly used in blends to produce Marsala; it is noted for its nutty aroma.
I tasted the 2014 Anthilia vintage, which came as a tasting sample from Folio Fine Wine Partners, and was surprised by the fruitiness of the wine and the rather floral nose with notes of granny smith apples, white peaches and grapefruit. The palate is crisp, nicely tart, with hints of lime zest, grapefruit, green apple and pear; the finish has good acidity and an excellent underlying minerality.
SurSur 2014 was a rather surprising single variety white wine made also in mainland Sicily. Made from Grillo, the other indigenous grape used to make Marsala, this wine sees no oak; it is fermented and aged in stainless steel, then aged in bottle prior to the release. It is pale yellow colored with green highlights. The nose is reminiscent of honeysuckle, pear and white peaches with herbal undertones. It is rather light bodied. The palate is dry, gentle, with hints of white peach, pears and, surprise… surprise… pineapple. The finish is rather short and quite herbal but well balanced. This is another perfect example of a wine to have with grilled fish and seafood, would probably also pair well with white meat from a charcoal grilled chicken.
Another of my favorite Sicilian producers is Tasca d’ Almerita (http://tascadalmerita.it/en/). It’s another family firm with an over 200 year history of producing exceptional wines. They produce numerous good red wines and are also the producer of one of my favorite whites, Malvasia Capofaro.
Malvasia Capofaro is made from 100% Malvasia di Salina. Salina is a very fertile volcanic island; one of seven Aeolian Islands located a few leagues north of mainland Sicily and east from the Stromboli volcano, which on clear nights can be seen from the Salina’s cliffs erupting glowing lava chunks every 20 minutes or so. The Malvasia was brought here first by Phoenician and then Greek traders and has thrived on the island. Actually, most of the better wines produced on the Aeolian Islands are from Malvasia.
Capofaro is an estate and 5-star luxury resort, owned by the family of Count Giuseppe Tasca, and is surrounded by the Malvasia vineyard. It is named thus because there is a lighthouse (faro in Italian) at the edge of the estate. When I visited, a few years back, I was enthusiastically told “Yes, we have a wonderful faro, but unfortunately it doesn’t work” (sic).
Another terrific white wine, this one produced by Tasca d’Almerita near Palermo is Leone d’Almerita.
Leone is an aromatic blend of Catarratto (47%), Pinot Bianco (22%), Sauvignon (20%) and Traminer (11%) that impresses with aromas of lychee, orange blossom, white peach, and pineapple. On the palate, it is fruit-forward and rich with good acidity and a very pleasant finish. It is the wine to have with charcoal grilled fresh fish and/or seafood or charcoal grilled chicken. The wine sees no oak, as it is aged on the lees in stainless steel tanks without malolactic fermentation, therefore retaining aromas, freshness and acidity.
One of the best Sicilian reds is also produced by Tasca d’ Almerita in Tenuta Regaleali, its Sicilian vineyard near Palermo, from Nero d’Avola grapes. Called Rosso del Conte, it’s a blend of Nero d’Avola and a small addition of Perricone, another local red varietal. The wine is full-bodied, earthy and spicy. Following numerous production technique changes since its first vintage in the early 1970s, it is now aged in French oak tonneau barrels.
Depending on which of it five vineyards the grapes come from, Tasca d’Almerita employs both traditional and contemporary winemaking techniques to extract from the grapes the best possible quality with terrific balance and character.
Diego Planeta set up his own winery, while continuing to work as chairman of Settesoli, a huge co-operative whose 2,300 members own 5% of Sicily’s vineyards. Diego was already famous in Sicily for his trail-blazing role in persuading many of these growers to plant new grape varieties, both from Italy and France, to show that “there was a world beyond Catarrato and Ansonica”.
The Planeta family’s first winery, Ulmo, is situated on the banks of the Arancio Lake in Sambuca di Sicilia. The area’s deep chalky soil has proven ideal for the cultivation of some of Planeta’s great white wines.
The most notable white wine from this winery is Alastro, named after a wild flower that grows around the cellar. Alastro is a blend of 70% Grecanico with two other distinctly aromatic varieties, 15% Grillo and 15% Sauvignon Blanc. But the food-friendly wine is only slightly aromatic, with scents of white melon, fresh citrus and white flowers.
The other white this winery is famous for is their Chardonnay. Planeta’s Chardonnay has become an icon for the entire wine industry of Sicily. This powerful but also graceful wine is ready to drink immediately and has a possible life of 5 to 8 years.
Another Planeta winery is located in Menfi, in the Agrigento region of Sicily. Various types of soil, all rich in lime and clay are ideal for the grape varieties made into wine at La Dispensa winery.
Most noted of the Menfi wines are: Cometa made from 100% Fiano grapes, an ancient wine grape mostly cultivated in Campania. This noble wine has a flowery aroma and great structure; with considerable minerality showing at the medium-length finish. Another award winner is Burdese. In the local dialect Burdese means “from Bordeaux” and refers to the classic grapes Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grown at the estate. This is a red wine of great density, structure and balance, produced in limited quantity. Burdese is an impressive wine, suitable for aging. This full bodied wine has complex aromas of wild berries and macerated black cherries, leather, cigar box, cacao and considerable mineral notes. The palate has a remarkably deep and dense tannic structure, yet it is elegant; the aromas carry through to the palate with the addition of spicy and balsamic notes.
The Planeta farmhouse at Dorilli, is where Sicily’s most unmistakable wine, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, is created. Vittoria in the southeastern part of the island is currently the only D.O.C.G in Sicily. This wine is named for its remarkable color; cerasuolo that means "cherry red" in Italian. It is made from a blend of two local grapes: Nero d'Avola (60%) that lends richness and intensity and Frappato (40%) which imparts ripe berry flavors and freshness.
And it’s not only wine that Planeta is famous for. In fact, the brand has become almost as famous for their olive oils -- made with the Nocellara del Belice and Biancolilla olives -- as for their wines.
© January 2016 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.