The latest from Sicily

I returned to Sicily in mid-March for the first time in two years; the visit was part of the Sicilia en Premeur event, where journalists from around the globe are invited to taste the latest wines from more than 40 producers from all areas of the island. I was excited about getting there, looking forward to trying wines from new producers as well as old friends, but I was also hopeful that I would see a shift in style of Sicily’s wines away from simple fruit-forward offerings in an international style to bottlings offering greater complexity and ageworthiness. After assessing the wines, I’m happy to report that the island’s vintners are definitely on the right track. I’ll touch upon a few highlights in this article.

Think of Sicilian wines and chances are that one of the first producers that will come to mind is Planeta. There are several reasons for that, from aggressive marketing to beautiful labels, but ultimately it’s because the wines are excellent. I tasted the soon to be released 2008 vintage of the winery’s renowned Cometa bottling, a 100% Fiano. 2008 was a lovely vintage around the island, with far less rain than normal and a long growing season. This wine shows the appeal of this vintage, as there is great depth of ripe lemon, quince and pear fruit and beautiful texture on the palate. I can see pairing this wine with a variety of rich foods, from risotto with asparagus to grilled shrimp to roasted quail. The winery’s Chardonnay is more famous, but I believe the Cometa is their best white wine.

The Planeta 2007 Cerasuolo di Vittoria offers very good ripeness and is quite delicious, although there is a bit more oak this year, which takes away just a bit of the pleasure of this wine. Their top red is their Santa Cecilia, a 100% Nero d’Avola from estate vines near Noto in the far southeastern reaches of the island. The 2006 is the current release and is among the best the winery has ever made, as it offers beautiful black cherry and marmalade flavors with subtle tannins and oak. Drink this over the next 12-15 years- it’s that ageworthy! (Planeta wines are nationally imported by Palm Bay.)

  COS Estate
COS Estate. Photos © 2009 by Tom Hyland

One of Sicily’s most individualistic producers is COS, located near the town of Vittoria. Two of the three original partners are still here – Giambattista Cilia and Giusto Occhipinti (the first letter of their last names forms two thirds of COS) – and they continue making wines in a traditional manner. But this isn’t just any traditional method; no, most of the wines here are fermented in amphorae and a few are aged in terra cotta vessels. As winemaker, Occhipinti believes in focusing on terroir and varietal character, so he uses these containers as they are inert, adding little outside flavors. His primary wines, Cerasuolo di Vittoria and Nero d’Avola are varietally pure with silky tannins and exquisite balance. The 2007 Nero d’Avola “Nero di Lupo” is a delight, offering beautiful red cherry and strawberry fruit without the toasty spice from small oak barrels. The Cerasulo is another gem; during a visit to the winery, our group was treated to a vertical tasting of this wine. The 1995 was in great shape with seductive dried strawberry fruit and a long, elegant finish. Most examples of this wine drink well at 2-3 years of age, but here was a 14 years old bottling in great condition! (Domaine Select of New York City is the U.S. importer.)

Benanti is arguable the finest estate in the Etna district in eastern Sicily. Red wines here are made from a blend of two indigenous varieties: Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio. Many vines planted in the area are quite old (70-80 years and older) and offer beautiful black fruit, moderate tannins and plenty of intriguing spice. The winery’s 2004 “Serra della Contessa” bottling is a beauty, with wild cherry and strawberry fruit, lovely floral aromas and a spicy, elegant finish. This is a classic Etna red that you need to try! (Vino Bravo of California imports these wines.)

A brand new Etna producer called Tenuta di Fessina showed their initial releases, including two Etna reds and a Chardonnay from western Sicily. The Chardonnay from the 2007 vintage is called “Nakone” and it has excellent depth of fruit and was aged solely in stainless steel. It’s not what you’d think of as a typical Sicilian Chardonnay; rather the wine more closely resembles a Premier Cru Chablis. I say that not only regarding its style, but also its quality- its that good. Their two Etna reds – one non-oak aged and the other a more robust wine are excellent and display beautiful terroir. These wines are literally just being shown by the owners now – this is the brainchild of Silvia Maestrelli of Villa Petriolo in Chianti – so there is no wine available yet, but if you see these wines later in the fall or winter, you should give them a try.

I also saw my old friend Mario Schwenn, formerly of Dievole in Chianti Classico. Mario’s quite a showman as well as a hell of a vintner; you know whatever he’s involved with is going to be quite special. He has formed a company called Winemarks and previewed his new Sicilian Chardonnay at these events. The wine known as “Laudari” from the 2007 vintage is from the Baglio del Cristo del Campobello estate in the province of Agrigento. The wine has ripe golden apple fruit with rich oak, which is a bit strong in the nose, but otherwise nicely integrated. There is a light nuttiness and very good acidity, leaving a nicely balaned Chardonnay with plenty of fruit on the palate - it’s definitely a promising start!

  Paolo Marzotto
Count Paolo Marzotto of Baglio di Pianetto

An estate that has been around for some time now and is really reaching a stride is Baglio di Pianetto, located a bit south of Palermo, in the northwest part of Sicily. Count Paolo Marzotto is the owner; he had made his fame as charman of the Santa Margherita winery in Alto Adige (you know them, they made Pinot Grigio a household name in America). Marzotto, an outgoing personality with a wicked sense of humor (I took his picture and upon seeing it, asked me for 1000 copies!), purchased land in Sicily in 1997 and today owns 400 acres and produces several beautifully styled wines.

There are three wines from Baglio di Pianetto I’ll discuss. First is the Viognier “Ginolfo”, one of the few bottlings of this variety in Sicily. I tasted both the 2007 and 2008 versions, which are excellent with bright pear and grapefruit notes and a dry finish with just a hint of bitterness. This is so well balanced that it’s pleasure to drink on its own, though it tastes even better when paired with clams or shrimp. The second is the “Carduni”, a 100% Petit Verdot; the 2005 has a deep purple color with very good concentration of black plum fruit as well as enticing aromas of violets and tar. There’s good spice and acidity, balancing this wine out and making it a fine partner for most game or red meat. Finally there’s the Nero d’Avola labeled as “Cembali”. The 2005 I tasted is really a gorgeous wine with excellent concentration, very fine, subtle tannins and minimal oak. Best of all, this wine has distinct black spice as well as finely tuned acidity; it’s nice to taste a Nero d’Avola that is different in its approach. Pair this with duck or veal for maximum effect. Count Marzotto’s vision has certainly paid off here, rather than simply making wines to please the current market, he has focused on producing distinct offerings that reflect the local terroir; you can certainly appreciate his decision when you sample these bottlings. (Baglio di Pianetto Wines are nationally imported by the Terlato Wine Group of Lake Bluff, IL).

Sicily has a lot going for it and the wines are becoming more refined with less of the overripe, baked quality to them one found even less than a decade ago. Now even the white wines are becoming more complex, so I’m becoming more and more positive about the wines of this island. A big thank you to the vintners of Sicily and three individuals that were extremely helpful along the way, Giuseppe Longo, Francesca Impasto and Giovanna Cimò, who made a long, busy journey relaxing and quite enjoyable.

May, 2009

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