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)