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.