Friday, December 27, 2013

Bonu Natali

Madonna and Child by Antonello da Messina (1473)

Christmas greetings to all.  It has been an honor to share The World of Sicilian Wine with you this year.  We wish you a joyous and peaceful 2014.

To learn about this magnificent painting and its creator, Antonello da Messina, we invite you to explore "The Garden-Vineyard" on Mount Etna in Chapter 14 of our book.   

Monday, December 2, 2013

In Search of Nerbo

Giovanni La Fauci has another dream besides making great grappa at his distillery Giovi in Messina.  From grapes grown high on Mount Etna, he has started making red wine, endowed with, he says, “nerbo”. Nerbo, in English, means backbone. I learned from tasting wines with him that red wines with nerbo are high in acidity and have a fine, but firm and lingering, astringency. In early October 2010, Giovanni took Fran and me to a vineyard named Prezzemolo in contrada Pirao above the town of Randazzo. At 870 meters in elevation, Prezzemolo faces north, in a tiny amphitheater, ribbed by rings of black lava terraces. The vines, about 75 years old, in alberello, all Nerello Mascalese, stood in stone balconies poised to watch the drama of the harvest soon to come.

Giovanni spoke. “See how few grape bunches each vine carries.  Some carry two. Some carry three; some, four.  I have already cut away and discarded some 500 kilos of grapes.  This is about 30% of the final harvest.”  This green harvest will allow the grapes to ripen more fully. Giovanni pointed to stone stairways which made the terraces accessible. “The terraces, and particularly those stairs, show the hard work, attention, and care of generations of vine growers.  I hunted for this vineyard a long time, girando (turning, spinning), cercando (looking), and cercando (looking some more).  I had a good feeling when I saw it. Prezzemolo (meaning parsley in English) grows all over the vineyard. An old farmer told me that it grows only where chemical treatments have not entered the soil. The soil here is pristine. The owner will let me buy this vineyard when I want.” 

Turning aside, Fran, Giovanni and I strode up a dirt road.  Gigantic cows paraded ahead of us.  We walked to another vineyard, higher up at 900 meters in elevation. It was now almost evening. Fog had started to roll in.  This vineyard was on flat land surrounded by lava-stone walls.  

The vines here, mostly Nerello, were attached to wires. There was also enough Carricante planted here for Giovanni to make one barrique of white wine.  “I came here a week ago with Uncle Francesco and a worker.  We cleaned up the foliage. In this vineyard, the vines are stronger than in Prezzemolo. They want to carry more. So we cut away less, some 600 kilos of the 2,400 kilos on the vine. I buy the harvest here too. Wine producers usually pay for grapes in stages, 30% at the harvest and the balance within a year.  In order to get what I want, I give the owner a better deal. I reserve the grapes by paying 50% of the price upfront and pay the other 50% when I harvest them.   I have an agreement to rent that house over there. (He pointed to a low-lying stone building.) I will begin to vinify my own grapes there.  Until now, I have rented space at Valcerasa.”

I tasted the 2010 Giovi Pirao at Vinitaly 2013. It smelled too ripe and was very astringent. In search of nerbo, had Giovanni waited too long to make the harvest? I look forward to tasting future vintages of Pirao. He makes a second Etna Rosso, “Akraton”, from a blend of unidentified vineyards. Akraton is the ancient Greek term for pure (undiluted and unadulterated) wine. The 2010 Giovi “Akraton” Etna Rosso, now tastes that way: pure, delicious, fresh and lively. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Etna Harvest

Last week as we read about the harvests taking place on Mount Etna, we were reminded of a special vendemmia which we shared on Etna in the autumn of 2010.  It was late September/early October.   One morning we drove to a small vineyard in the contrada (hamlet) of Feudo di Mezzo near the towns of Passopisciaro and Castiglione di Sicilia, on the northern slope of the volcano.  The day was bright and the morning air, slightly cool.  Puffy white clouds hung over the brownish Nebrodi and Peloritani Mountains due north beyond the Alcantara River.  The cone of Mount Etna was to the south shrouded in the steam billowing from its summit.  We were brought to this small vineyard of ½ hectare (about 1.2 acres) by Salvo Foti and his band of vineyard workers known as I Vigneri.  Salvo is a well-known Etna winegrower and writer, but we were not there to hear his story.  Salvo told us that he brought us there to experience something more important.  As he joined his workers in the vineyard, Salvo called to his vineyard manager, Maurizio Pagano, to coordinate the morning’s work.  All the harvesters were wearing the maroon colored T-shirt bearing the I Vigneri logo, the bush-like vine known as alberello and the year 1435 – the founding year of a historic guild of vineyard workers from Catania.

Old Nerello Mascalese Alberello Staked Vine
The vineyard was bordered by low stone walls built of dry lava rocks.  A row of olive trees and sprawling prickly pear plants known as fichi di india lined the left wall of the vineyard.  One venerable walnut tree stood guard amidst the vines.  Herbs and tall grass covered the vineyard floor.  Each single twisted old vine was tied around a wooden stake (as in the Rhone Valley in southern France).  Here though, the dark sandy soil was volcanic in origin.  All of the harvesters brandished a forbice (cutting shears) in one hand and a cylindrical plastic bucket in the other.  The workers bantered in Sicilian with each other as they entered the vineyard and began harvesting the plump conical bunches of Nerello Mascalese.  Maurizio would call out a command – much like a caller at a traditional  square dance – with the harvesters then lifting their filled buckets atop their shoulders and walking through the vineyard single-file to bring the grape bunches (grappoli) to the crates waiting to be filled at the vineyard’s edge.

I Vigneri Bringing in the Harvest

In the vineyard we then saw another I Vigneri worker who had just arrived.  Maurizio greeted him exuberantly, “Ciao, Federico, come andiamo?” (Hi Federico, how are you doing?).  The two men embraced.  We soon learned that Federico had come from Milan that morning.  He had purchased this land in 2008, but this year was his first harvest.  Maurizio chimed in, “Federico, do you remember when you bought this vineyard – it was drugged and almost dead?”  Maurizio explained to us that the prior owner, like so many modern grape growers, had used chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation to manage his vineyard.  Some of the other harvesters came over to describe how they use only traditional and natural methods to care for these vines.  Federico, with all the humility and awe of an expectant papà, gazed at Maurizio and his men as they tended to these now-healthy vines.  Salvo came over to put his arm around Federico, observing how moving it was that they were now harvesting the fruit of a winegrower who had planted and nurtured these vines more than a hundred years ago.

Federico told us that he lived in Milan where he worked as the sommelier at the Michelin-starred restaurant called Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia.  Salvo had telephoned Federico the night before to tell him that his grapes were ready to be harvested the next day.  Federico had taken a flight from Milan at 7:00 a.m. to be on Etna in time for the vendemmia.  He plucked a plump bunch of the Nerelli grapes and savored them as we conversed.  Federico told us that he was a custodian of this vineyard and that he would never have bought it without first entrusting it to the care of Salvo Foti and his masterful vineyard workers who know this land and climate.  Joining Salvo, Maurizio, and the other harvesters among the vines, Federico picked up a forbice and began to harvest his own grapes.

Federico Graziani and his Nerello Mascalese Grappolo
Federico informed us of his plans to work with Salvo to make a wine that he will call Profumo di Vulcano (Perfume of the Volcano).  He hoped to sell his wine to friends, sommeliers and restaurant owners around the world.  The bottle would be the same bottle used for all I Vigneri wines, proudly bearing the stem of the historic guild of vineyard workers.  According to Federico, the red wines of Mount Etna share the potential of the celebrated nebbiolo-based wines of the towns of Barolo and Barbaresco in the Piedmont region of northern Italy.

After the harvest and a celebratory lunch at a trattoria called San Giorgio e il Drago (Saint George and the Dragon) in a former monastery in the nearby town of Randazzo, we drove Federico back to his rental car.  Federico had lovingly carried two bunches of Nerello Mascalese with him from his vineyard.  He gently placed the grappoli in his backpack for the flight back to Milan that afternoon.  Federico smiled as he told us how he planned to share his beautiful Sicilian fruit with the husband and wife owners and guests of Aimo e Nadia that evening.

At this year’s Vinitaly, there was a horizontal tasting of the red wines of Mount Etna.  Sixteen producers presented their Etna Rosso wine from the 2010 vintage to a packed hall of wine journalists, buyers, and fellow winemakers from around the globe.  It represented the formal coming-of-age of Etna red wine on the world stage.  Each Etna Rosso was made from the two indigenous red vine varieties of Mount Etna, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio. While we had previously visited almost all of the estates represented on the stage that day, we were there to witness (and taste!) the debut of Federico Graziani’s Profumo di Vulcano. Federico, who is also a well-respected wine writer in Italy, introduced his wine by expressing his appreciation for the opportunity to be a custodian of this special land.  His wine showed the pure ripe expression of a high elevation Nerello Mascalese.  One by one, the other fifteen wines each also expressed the elegance and vibrancy of Etna’s fruit.

This summer Mount Etna was designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.  In awarding this designation, UNESCO recognized that Etna’s “exceptional volcanic activity has been documented for at least 2,700 years”.  The culture of wine in Sicily also reaches back at least 2,700 years.  From a land which for centuries shipped its wine to mainland Italy (and continental Europe) to be blended anonymously with the wines of the north, the wines of Mount Etna – with the help of Federico Graziani, Salvo Foti, and I Vigneri – are beginning to reveal the beauty and complexity of this ancient land.

Mount Etna from Randazzo

Monday, October 21, 2013

Radio Sicily

We were delighted to be interviewed recently by Lynn Krielow Chamberlain on her iTunes radio show, iWineRadio, about our book, The World of Sicilian Wine.  We described how we were inspired to tell the story of Sicily and its wine culture after our first trip together in June 2008 to this storied island.  We hope that you enjoy hearing us tell our story. You may listen by clicking on the following link:

Monday, September 23, 2013

Hope Springs

In our travels throughout Sicily during the last five years, we have seen and felt the vibrant spirit of Sicilians in every walk of life.  It is unmistakable.  They express the energy, dedication, and courage of an indomitable people.  Their intelligence and passion are evident.  But there is something new in the wind, water, and wine of Sicily.  There is hope – and pride.  A couple of years ago during one of our sojourns in Sicily we happened upon a glossy magazine called I Love Sicilia.  It is a monthly periodical that celebrates the style, trends, and tastes of modern Sicilians.  A stylish bi-monthly wine magazine called EnoS does the same for Sicily’s winegrowers and consumers.  The Mandra Magazine affiliated with the Mandrarossa line of wines (and olive oil) from Sicily’s flagship cooperative, Settesoli, is an exuberant expression of the pride that the grower-members of Settesoli have for their land surrounding the town of Menfi on the southwestern coast of Sicily. 

As any traveler who has driven around Sicily has observed (including Goethe in the late 18th century), there are certain apparent challenges still facing Sicily’s sanitation engineers.  And while not all of Sicily’s political and economic challenges have been met, Sicilians have a consciousness of their capacity to shape their own future.  It has not always been this way.

At the end of the 19th century following Sicily’s incorporation into a unified Italy, two Tuscan intellectuals, Sidney Sonnino and Leopoldo Franchetti, were commissioned by the Italian government to investigate the problems that plagued Sicily.  Their report is a two-volume work called Sicily in 1876.  Sonnino and Franchetti hoped that the light which they shined on Sicily would not alienate Sicilians from Italy.  They saw grave problems in need of fundamental reforms.  They believed that the North of Italy had a responsibility to help cure the ills of Sicily as part of a unified nation.  Franchetti’s volume began by using the archetypal description of the mythical garden paradise to describe the environs of Palermo.  According to Franchetti, the first-time visitor upon leaving the city of Palermo was immediately impressed by the perfection of the citrus orchards, the irrigation and tilling of the soil, the care of every tree (as if it were a rare plant in a botanical garden), and the rows of vines, fruit trees, olives and vegetables gardens.  The remaining 475 pages of Franchetti’s report revealed a much darker and sadder reality.  According to Franchetti, the two fundamental diseases which afflicted Sicily were the domination of the public good by private interests and pervasive violence.

By the mid-twentieth century, following the massive waves of emigration of landless peasants and two World Wars, life in Sicily was still in desperate need of reform.  There is one man who personifies the struggle of Sicilians to cure Sicily - the social reformer and writer, Danilo Dolci.   Referred to in the international media as the Sicilian Gandhi, Dolci came to Sicily in the mid-1950s as a young man and spent more than forty years as a champion of social justice for Sicily’s dispossessed peasants.  Dolci used non-violent techniques (such as hunger strikes and sit-down protests) to combat the endemic corruption and violence of western Sicily.  His poetry is as powerful as the riveting eye-witness reports in his books, The Outlaws of Partinico and Waste.  In a poem created over the course of eighteen years of listening to and speaking with countless peasants, Dolci gave voice to their unheard voices and words to their unspoken hopes.  More than that, Dolci’s poem was an anthem for the brave Sicilians who dared to fight for justice and for all Sicilians who reject the evils of fatalism.

“We dont want rivers wasted
barren mountains eroded
land-sliding with every squall.
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
We want milk from cows
that eat grass,
                clear lakes
and the sea still sea
with sparkling beaches.
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . .
We want Mafiosi put
in museums, as relics
of an incredible age."

Danilo Dolci, “The Moon Lemon,” in Creature of Creatures, Selected Poems, translated by Justin Vitiello (Saratoga: Anma Libri, 1980), 12-13.

In recent years young Sicilians have bravely propelled the grassroots movement called Addiopizzo, banding together merchants and consumers to renounce the historic stranglehold of organized crime doing business in and around Palermo.  Lands that have been reclaimed from the Mafia now are also organically planted to vines, olive trees, and grain under the banner Libera Terra (“Free Land”).  Sicilians are creating their own new incredible age for Sicily.  We share their hope.                                      

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Targa Florio: Racing Wine Road

 1913 Targa Florio, Beni Culturali in Sicilia
Marco De Bartoli drove a car for the first time at age 10 on the pathways of his family’s garden in Marsala.  By age 21, De Bartoli made his racing debut as the driver of a Lancia Fulvia sports car in the Termini Imerese-Caccamo race.  From there he would go on to compete in races along the winding mountain roads of some of Sicily’s highest peaks – Mounts Pellegrino, Erice, and Etna.  While pursuing his studies of agrarian science at the University of Palermo, he raced under the assumed names Debam and Marco Paolo to avoid the wrath of his mother and his grandfather, Paolo Pellegrino (of the eponymous Marsala estate).

In 1972 De Bartoli went on to win first in class in the storied Targa Florio.  Created in 1906 by Vincenzo Florio, the scion of the Florio Marsala house (and himself a racing driver), the Targa Florio was among the premier open road racing events in the world. The original course snaked around the whole island, but later was redesigned as an eleven-lap circuit in the Madonie Mountains which hug Sicily’s northern coastline.  The Targa Florio was considered the ultimate test of a race-car driver’s endurance and daring.  Fans of De Bartoli’s Marsala and Pantelleria wines (who also read Italian) will be thrilled to read about Marco’s passion for racing and winemaking in the slim biography written by Attilio Vinci and published by Veronelli in 2004.

Marco De Bartoli Biography

Marco De Bartoli is not the only Sicilian winegrower with racing roots.  Paolo Marzotto, founder of the Baglio di Pianetto wine estate south of Palermo, won the Targa Florio (then called the Giro di Sicilia) race in 1952 at the helm of a Ferrari.  To speak with the genteel and elegant Marzotto now, one would never dream that he conquered the world's toughest road race sixty years ago.

Paolo Marzotto and his 1952 Winning Ferrari 166 Inter 2000

In homage to this epic race, Porsche introduced the convertible model of its iconic 911 in 1966 with the name Targa.  Porsche credits the challenge and experience of the Targa Florio for the very evolution of its sports cars.  No small compliment!

"The road to excellence takes many turns. For Porsche,
that road runs through Sicily."
Porsche Brochure (2001) 

New World countries Australia and New Zealand have each created an open road rally with a nod to Sicily's mother of all races, the Targa Tasmania and Targa New ZealandThis year amateur race enthusiasts came to Sicily in early June for the XXIII edition of the 4-day Giro di Sicilia rally, driving vintage sports cars along more than 1,000 kilometers of Sicily’s coastline beginning in Palermo and ending with the Circuito delle Madonie of the Targa Florio. There is also an official Strada del Vino (wine road) in Sicily based on the legendary Madonie circuit of the Targa Florio that encompasses the Contea di Sclafani DOC – home to Tasca d’Almerita’s Regaleali estate and Fabio Sireci’s Feudo Montoni.  Further proof that Sicily is not your everyday wine road!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Terroir Nero d'Avola

Because Nero d’Avola is highly adaptable to a wide variety of growing environments, producers have had excellent results making Sicily-wide blends. The wine world has yet to associate Nero d’Avola with distinct locales. Yet there are two locales that deserve special attention: the triangle-shaped area outlined by the towns of Riesi, Butera, and Mazzarino on the gentle slopes north of the southern coastal city of Gela, and the slightly hilly-to-flat area around the town of Pachino at the southeastern tip of Sicily.

Though there is some historical and ecological tourism connected to inactive 19th century sulfur mines, there is little reason for the world to take note of or visit the Riesi triangle. Pachino, on the other hand, has become famous for crunchy, slightly salty cherry tomatoes, officially named Pachino tomatoes. This association has made wine producers shy away from using the place name Pachino on wine labels, though there is a Pachino subzone within the Eloro DOC. Due to the proximity of the highly touristed, Baroque city of Noto, winegrowers have increasingly opted to associate their wines with the place name Noto and even created a Noto DOC with slightly different boundaries than the Eloro one.  In the immediate vicinity of the city of Noto, however, there are few vineyards, and besides Zisola, no noteworthy wine producers.

In the Riesi-Butera-Mazzarino triangle, vineyard elevations are between 250 to 350 meters above sea level. These elevations are considerably higher than those at Noto/Pachino which are between 10 and 100 meters and close to the coastline. The higher day-to-night temperature differences in the Riesi triangle trigger polyphenolic compound development in grape skins, providing more color, aroma, and tannin to the resulting wine. Cooler night-time temperature slows the respiration of acids during the night providing higher than typical acidity levels in the ripened grapes (not that Nero d’Avola, an acid rich grape, needs it).   The climate in the Pachino area has less day-night temperature variation and hotter summer temperatures.  As a result, wines made from Pachino grapes harvested at ripeness levels similar to those in the Riesi triangle are normally paler, riper in flavor, and less sour.

The soil types where Nero d’Avola usually achieves best results are calcium carbonate-laced.  Such soils are present in both areas.  Calcium carbonate retains water and feeds it slowly to the vine roots.  It is also nutrient poor, thus reducing vine vigor. The whitish calcium carbonate-rich soils reflect rather than absorb radiant heat. Trubi, the name for light gray calcareous-clay soils sprinkled with marine fossils, are the best soils for Nero d’Avola in the Riesi triangle though reddish brown soils are also prized.   At Pachino/Noto, there are some gleaming white sandy, calcareous soils, usually located at the tops of hills.  Some black clayey soils are more vigorous and can produce more powerful wines in some years. Both areas have soils that are rich in mineral salts. Proximity to the sea can give the Nero d’Avola of the Noto/Pachino area a slight saltiness that lingers after astringency trails off.

Trubi at Feudo Principi di Butera
Calcareous Sandy Soil at Marabino

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, large producers from other areas of Sicily and Italy moved into the Riesi triangle and Noto/Pachino.  Cusumano, and Duca di Salaparuta, two large Sicilian companies bought vineyards in the triangle.  Zonin, a Veneto company, which has become one of the largest wine producers in Italy, established the Feudo Principi di Butera estate. Near the town of Pachino, Planeta, another leading Sicilian producer, has bought vineyards and constructed a small winery. Other notable northern Italian investors who have bought into Noto/Pachino are Venetian Paolo Marzotto who owns Baglio di Pianetto just outside Palermo, Milanese businessman Vito Catania who makes a range of contrada-designated wines at his estate, Gulfi, located in the Vittoria area, Antonio Moretti from Tuscany who owns Feudo Maccari, and Filippo Mazzei also from Tuscany who created Zisola.

In the Riesi triangle, there are few local growers that have made the step from grower to producer.  At Vinitaly 2013, I was impressed with the Nero d’Avolas of one local winegrower, the Patrì Rocco estate. I have yet to see their wines here in the US.  On the other hand, at Noto/Pachino, locally-owned wine estates with talented winemakers are plentiful, such as Felice Modica, Marabino, Arfò, Riofavara, Curto, and Barone Sergio. The wines of these producers may be found in some states in the US.

Recently, I tasted several Nero d’Avola’s from both areas.  From Butera in the Riesi triangle, Cusumano’s 2010 Sàgana ($44) is a big, structured Nero d’Avola: dark in color, rich in the mouth, nicely astringent, and thankfully without an overlay of oak.  The 2010 Principi di Butera Nero d’Avola ($19) is more elegant in style, emphasizing acidity.  Also from Butera, Duca di Salaparuta’s 2010 Passo delle Mule ($20) is lighter in style.  

From the Noto/Pachino area, two Nero d’Avolas fermented and aged in stainless steel tank were very enjoyable to drink. The 2010 Marabino ($17) has nice purple-red coloration and smells of super-ripe raspberries, freshly cut ripe watermelon and asphalt.  The mouth is fresh and lively with a dominant bitter edge. The Feudo Maccari Nero d’Avola 2011 ($16) has the same characteristics but is even fresher and livelier in style. Matured in oak barrel, the Feudo Maccari 2010 “Saia” ($35), a 100% Nero d’Avola, smells of nuts, earth, and charred oak. Underneath are ripe fruits. The mouth shows more body than in Feudo Maccari’s basic Nero d’Avola. Astringency dominates bitterness in the mouth followed by a salty finish. 

During the harvest season, the Noto/Pachino climate is usually bathed in gentle winds, making it an excellent spot to raisin grapes.  Felice Modica makes a wine, “Dolce Nero”, not vintaged, that tastes somewhere between Ruby Port and Amarone.  Nero d’Avola grapes are hand destemmed and semi-dried in the air and then vinified.  The wine is very deep purple-brown to the eye.  The nose is loaded with the smell of prunes, tar, and burnt sugar.  It is gently sweet due to an incomplete fermentation of grape sugars and is nicely balanced by sourness.  This is a wine to be enjoyed with fruits and nuts over conversation. The website of the estate, Azienda Agricola Bufalefi di Felice Modica reflects on its flavors thus: "Qui c'è un concentrato di Sicilia: tutta la violenza e la tenerezza della mia fortemente amata e odiata isola."  I translate: “Here is a concentration of Sicily: all the violence and tenderness of my intensely loved and hated island.” The wine is not to my knowledge available in the US. Visit the Modica di San Giovanni family’s cantina in the heart of Noto on Via Nicolaci to taste it accompanied by fresh produce grown on the estate.

Felice Modica, Fran, and Geri Di Savino (L to R)

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Marzamemi Memories

The ninth edition of an annual wine fair called Calici di Stelle (Star-Filled Goblets) takes place this evening in the picturesque seaside town of Marzamemi near Sicily’s southeastern tip.  Wine producers from the eastern half of the Val di Noto – including the Eloro, Noto, and Syracuse appellations – will be presenting wines made from both indigenous and international vine varieties.  In addition to the well-ripened Nero d’Avola wines from Pachino, there will be fresh and passito (dried) versions of the Moscato di Noto and Moscato di Sircasusa dessert wines and an elegant dry white wine from the Cantine Gulino estate made from 100% of a rare native variety called Albanello.

On our first trip to Sicily together in June 2008 we were welcomed to the Val di Noto by Salvatore Marino, a talented young winemaker who now is the enologist of the Marabino estate near Pachino.  At the end of our day together Salvatore took us off the wine road to explore Marzamemi.  He showed us the ex-tunny works (tonnara) that had first been established during the period of Muslim rule beginning in the ninth century A.D.   There was a fancifully painted boat docked in the harbor.  It had what appeared to be Arabic words and images decorating its hull – echoes of those distant Saracen rulers.

At the end of our visit, Salvatore brought us to a bar/gelateria next to the tonnara to try the black mulberry (gelso nero) and pistachio granite.  This was not your grandfather’s Italian ice!  It was a local version of whipped granita called cremolata.  Unlike gelato which is made with milk or cream, the cremolata is made with only fruit, water, and sugar.  The pistachio and mulberry flavors were as vibrant and intense as the Sicilian sun which blazed that late June afternoon.  This is a flavor memory!

Tonight we toast Salvatore Marino and the other winegrowers of the Val di Noto who will be sharing the flavors of their wines in the restored Palazzo Villadorata (the ex-tunny works) in the heart of Marzamemi.  Grazie for the memories.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Coastal Grillo

Winemaker Giacomo Ansaldi showed us a vineyard in the contrada (similar to a neighborhood) of Spagnola. The vines faced the Stagnone Lagoon toward Mozia Island to the west.  Further on was the Mediterranean Sea.  Giacomo, Fran, and I zig-zagged through old, scraggly alberello vines.  They were Grillo, the white variety prized for making the highest quality Marsala, called Vergine.  Ansaldi dreamed of making wine from that vineyard, but someone else owned it.

Giacomo drove us back to his cantina, La Divina, where we tasted several Grillos made from grapes harvested in the 1990s on Mozia Island. The tan-colored wines had citrus and nutty smells. They were dry on the palate. Their body expressed solidity.  Intertwined sourness, bitterness, and salinity trailed off as the flavors slowly finished.  They were my favorite wines among his vini perpetui (plural of vino perpetuo). Vini perpetui are perpetual wines, wines which live forever.

What happened that day is described in Chapter 4 of The World of Sicilian Wine.  There, you will learn more about vini perpetui.

Since then I have been searching for young coastal Grillos. They are difficult to find. Nearly all are blended with Grillo from higher altitudes. The hilly ones are more aromatic, but lighter in body.

While judging a wine competition, Radici del Sud, in Apulia, I finally came across a coastal Grillo. It was labeled “Ariddhru” whose flavors brought me back to Ansaldi’s Mozia vini perpetui.   Because it was young, a 2012, it smelled of melon and apple, scents mostly imparted by fermentation. The mouth had some, but not all, of the thickness, sourness, and salinity that I tasted in those Mozia wines.  Angela Galia, the owner of the Trapani-based company, VeroVini, told us that her wine was made from grapes harvested in her vineyard in the Spagnola contrada. Eureka!

Angela explained what “Ariddhru” meant. It is what the locals call "Grillo".  Later my research showed that “Arridu” or “Riddu” is how the word is commonly spelled in Sicilian. “Ariddhru” is either an alternative spelling or phonetically approximates how it is pronounced. The word is likely connected to “Ariddaru” which in different areas of Sicily identifies various fruits including pears, apples, quinces, plums and lemons.  The word seems to be connected to the shapes of these fruits or their seeds. Seen in this light, the Italian name for the Grillo variety is unfortunate, because Grillo in Italian also means "cricket", an insect with no apparent connection to the vine variety.  Let’s Riddu the name!

I hope we will see more contrada-identified examples of Grillo, and, for that matter, of other Sicilian varieties.  Instead of aiming at pleasing a common-denominator palate, contrada wines will elucidate places through the medium of grape variety and the hand of man.  They will provide us with a library of unique flavors that better express the complexity of Sicily.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Sicilian Fancy Food

At the 2013 Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City earlier this month, the vibrant flavors of Sicily were on display.  From the organic and fresh wines of the Judeka estate near the baroque city of Caltagirone in Sicily’s historic Val di Noto to the dried caper berries in sea salt and the raisined (uva passa) Zibibbo grapes harvested from the volcanic island of Pantelleria by the small producer called La Nicchia Pantelleria, these Sicilian agricultural products revealed the quality and diversity of the island’s materia prima (raw material).  The six single variety (mono-cultivar) olive oils from the Hyblaean Mountains (known in ancient Rome for the finest quality honey) produced by the Frantoi Cutrera estate near the town of Chiaramonte Gulfi expressed the delicacy, spice, and purity of Sicilian olive oil.  The Fiasconaro Oro Verde pistachio cream captured the essence of the prized pistachios from Bronte on Mount Etna’s western slopes.  The stone-ground organic whole grain durum wheat flour, Tumminia, milled by Molini Del Ponte made a dense and savory loaf of pane nero (black bread) of Castelvetrano, the town in western Sicily celebrated throughout its long history for both its bread and wine.  By design or chance, the Sicilian producers were located at the Fancy Food Show one floor below all of the other Italian producers in the Crystal Palace of the Jacob Javits Convention Center (as if still separated by the narrow Strait of Messina).  Meeting the Sicilian exhibitors and tasting their products evoked flavor memories of our cherished time on the Sicilian wine and food road.  If you cannot make it to Sicily anytime soon, experiencing the tastes of Sicily’s wine and food will bring Sicily home to you.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Premodern Winemaking

Here high-up on a clear plateau in the wooded hills overlooking the town of Sambuca in southwestern Sicily, we explored the stone ruins of an ancient pigiatoia (outdoor winepress) from the 5th century BC. It is believed to be a spot where a settlement of Sicans – the inhabitants of western Sicily pre-dating the arrival of both the Phoenicians and the Greeks in the 8th century BC – crushed and vinified wine grapes. It is an imposing cluster of whitish rocks firmly rooted in the surrounding soil. Wild grasses, caper bushes, and dwarf palms now grow at its edges. There is a higher rectangular vat with the remnants of four walls that once enclosed it. There is a lower circular receptacle nearby, with a cut-out channel that appears to connect the two tubs. We imagined the higher one was used for receiving grapes, and the lower one for collecting the fresh juice that flowed from the pressed grapes. The long cut out channel reminded us of the stone channels or tubes we have seen in old palmentos (crushing and vinification facilities) from the 19th and early 20th centuries around the island. Earlier generations of these Sicans likely acquired many of their winemaking skills from the nearby settlements of Greek Sicilians where the culture of wine flourished. To these indigenous Sicilians, the Greeks must have been the modern – or perhaps even postmodern – winemakers of their day.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Return to Corvo

In 1824, Corvo became the first Sicilian wine to be bottled, labeled, and commercialized.   The creator, Giuseppe Alliata, made both a red Corvo and a white one.  Corvo survived the Risorgimento, the phylloxera epidemic, two world wars, and the Great Depression and subsequent ones to finally reach the shores of the USA in 1972.  It became a very successful US wine brand.  It was low cost and simple.  Today Corvo is less popular than it once was, but I don’t see why.  Recently I tried a 2012 Corvo white, an Insolia varietal wine, and a 2010 Corvo red, a Nero D’Avola.   Both wines cost slightly less to slightly more than ten dollars depending on where you buy.  The white Corvo showed a classic banana-pear cold fermented bouquet and was light, tart, and slightly effervescent on the palate.  The red Corvo had a vivid cherry and tar bouquet and was pleasantly sour and bitter in the mouth.   Both wines are light and refreshing enough to tempt refills.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Postcards from the Edge

Like their mythological counterparts Odysseus and Aeneas, intrepid explorers throughout the centuries have voyaged to Sicily.  As with Homer and Virgil, Sicily has loomed large in the imagination of countless storytellers, poets and playwrights throughout the centuries.  In one Arthurian legend, King Arthur was even reputed to have taken refuge on Mount Etna to nurse his wounds and forge his shattered sword Excalibur.  By another calculation, Sicilian settings, characters or other references were employed in more than half of Shakespeare’s plays, including The Winter’s Tale, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Merchant of Venice

A British traveler and explorer by the name of Patrick Brydone came to Sicily in the Spring of 1770.  Brydone chronicled his travels in Sicily in a series of letters written to a friend, William Beckford, that were later published in 1809.  For more than two months Brydone traveled the untraveled mule paths of Sicily from Messina to Etna to Syracuse and ultimately to Palermo.  In the letters describing his exploration of Mount Etna, the modern reader is struck by the clarity of Brydone’s careful observations of nature and man.  He describes the strata and facets of Mount Etna with the precision of a geologist and the passion of a classicist.  As he traveled along the seacoast from Taormina south to Mount Etna, Brydone also recognized the fundamental contradiction between Sicily’s celebrated fertility and historic poverty.

In recounting the massive eruption of Mount Etna almost a century before in 1669, Brydone also provides us with a remarkable tale of how one mountainous vineyard belonging to a monastery of Jesuits was carried away on a lava flow (and partially survived!).

“This vineyard was formed on ancient lava, probably a thin one, with a number of caverns and crevices under it.  The liquid lava entering into these caverns, soon filled them up, and by degrees bore up the vineyard; and the Jesuits, who every moment expected to see it buried, beheld with amazement the whole field begin to move off.  It was carried on the surface of the lava to a considerable distance; and though the greatest part was destroyed, yet some of it remains to this day.”

Patrick Brydone, A Tour Through Sicily and Malta (London: Vernor, Hood & Sharpe, 1809), 89.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Santa Tresa

Feudo di Santa Tresa’s 35 hectares (86 acres) of vineyards spread out within the heart of a triangle outlined by the village of Roccazzo and the towns of Acate and Vittoria. Massimo Maggio, also enologist at Vittoria’s Maggio Vini winery, and Stefano Girelli, a wine entrepreneur from Northern Italy, began this project in 2001.  The soil is classic terra rossa, sandy red ferrous soil covering limestone rock.  Comprising a villa built in 1697, a one hundred year-old palmento, and a well dedicated to Saint Teresa (shortened in Sicilian to Santa Tresa), this biologically farmed vineyard produces delicate and elegant red and white wines.  The 2008 Cerasuolo di Vittoria, the most important appellation wine of the Vittoria area, that I tasted recently was pale reddish-brown in color with a delicate nose of red fruits and underbrush. Astringency, bitterness, and sourness danced with delicacy and finesse on the palate. The wine was fully mature, yet remained refreshing, the kind of wine that invites rather than challenges, that stays in the background of a meal rather than dominates it. Enjoy it with a delicate morsel of roast chicken and even meaty fish.

As is the case with most Cerasuolo di Vittoria wines, it is 60% to 70% Nero d’Avola filled out with Frappato, a red grape native to the area.  What makes this wine so delicate and easy-to-drink? Frappato makes a paler, less dense in the mouth, and faster-to-mature wine than Nero d’Avola.  The sandy soil of the area reduces the pigmentation and tannic structure of the mature grape skins. Furthermore, after the fermentation, Massimo Maggio matured the wine in neutral containers rather than new oak barrels where it could pick up wood aromas and more astringency and bitterness. 

If you want to learn more about Feudo di Santa Tresa, visit the winery website,  It is one of my favorites. With Sicilian folksongs and the sunlit countryside in the background, Girelli, speaking in easy-to-understand English, and Maggio, in Sicilian with English subtitles, form a duet. In tones, words and phrases, that evoke the balance and humility of their Cerasuolo di Vittoria, they tell the story of the estate, how the grapes are grown, and how the wine is made.

Massimo Maggio observing roots of Favino plant, used to fix nitrogen in soil

Monday, May 27, 2013

Spreading The Good Word

Since the launch of our book in the Sicilia pavilion at Vinitaly in Verona in early April we have been privileged to present our work at Boston University, Chambers Street Wines and the 92YTribeca in New York City, and last week at The Butcher Shop and Stir in Boston's South End.  What a delight to share our adventures on the Sicilian wine road with with fellow explorers and Sicily appassionati!  To all of our readers, we extend our heartfelt appreciation for your interest and support.  Thank you for helping us to spread the good word.  Mille Grazie.  

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Sicilian Bread and Wine

This quintessential food and wine pairing was served at Margherita Platania’s Cavaliere estate on the southwest flank of Mount Etna, about 1,000 meters (mille metri) above sea level.   Margherita and her husband Saro brought us in the morning to a piccolo bakery (literally, a hole-in-the-wall) in Santa Maria di Licodia on our way up to their mountain vineyards.  Round loaves were being pulled from the brick oven as we entered through the unmarked portal.  An older mother and daughter manned the oven like the chief and second engineers in the engine room of a vintage steamship.  By the time we finished our walk-through of the walled vineyards (planted all in alberello), we were eager to sample the old-vine Nerello Mascalese Etna Rosso, Don Blasco, and that heavenly pane.  It was a match made on Etna!  Fresh salami from the Nebrodi Mountains and Ragusano cheese with black pepper complemented the bread and wine.  Both the Don Blasco and the Etna Rosso called Millemetri (which is made from younger vines) show the potential of this high-elevation property.  The Cavaliere estate was prized as a vineyard site in the late 19th century – as chronicled in Federico De Roberto's The Viceroys, an incisive novel about Catania's aristocratic families of that period.  Margherita and Saro are restoring this storied land with both heart and head.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Market Gardens

During the period of Muslim and Norman rule, the market gardens of Palermo, Catania, and Messina abounded with the fruits and fish of the Mediterranean. They still do. The central market of Catania is located just beyond the Piazza Duomo at the southern end of Via Etnea – where the basalt elephant carrying an Egyptian obelisk on its back salutes the Baroque cathedral dedicated to Saint Agatha, the city’s patron saint. The fish market wraps around the outer gate of the city and is bordered by streets that are lined with open-air stalls of fruits, vegetables, nuts, spices, and other earthly delights. The air is filled with the sing-song cries of the vendors hawking their produce and insulting their neighbors.

You will need to brush-up on your Sicilian if you hope to understand this opera. The colors and aromas require no translation, though. Strolling the market gardens of Sicily, you are vividly reminded why Sicily has been celebrated for its fertility since the days of the ancient Greeks. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Piccolo Poem

Cease your flight Aurora opulent
with fruit, with flower,
sprung from nearby banks,
   In the enchantment you drew with you
the migrant seasons,
each hour flaunts its boast,
and there are festoons of apricots,
peaches, cherries, twining tendrils,
the orchards’ fragrant pride.     

Lucio Piccolo, “Oratorio for Valverde,” in Collected Poems of Lucio Piccolo, translated by Brian Swann and Ruth Feldman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 83.

Before he ever put pen to paper to write his now classic novel, The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa idled in the literary shadow of his cousin, Lucio Piccolo.  The poetry of Piccolo is unknown in our own era.  It is now The Leopard that casts a long shadow over Sicily and its poets and storytellers.  During our travels in Sicily, we met many Sicilians who quoted familiar passages from The Leopard.  Lampedusa’s words and images fill the big screen in Luchino Visconti’s sweeping film of the novel.  Packed away like precious crystal in the Prince of Salina’s shuttered country villa, Lucio Piccolo’s poetry is exquisitely delicate and ethereal.  His body of work is small.  Many editions of his poems in Italian are now out of print.  A beautiful collection of these poems translated into English (with the Italian alongside) was published by Princeton University Press in 1972.  Each of Piccolo’s “baroque songs” is a polished gem.  Piccolo’s words evoke both the rich history and timeless quality of Sicily.  In the long line of Sicilian storytellers and poets who have brought acclaim to their island home, including Luigi Pirandello and Salvatore Quasimodo, Lucio Piccolo deserves to be remembered.