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)

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