Sicily – Unlocking the Key
In my last post, I wrote about the beautiful red wines of the Etna district in northeastern Sicily. For this post, I will deal with the rest of Sicily, a wine region that has been evolving into one of Italy’s most varied and highly respected over the past decade.
As the vintners there will tell you, Sicily is an island, but is it more like its own country, given its size. While some in other Italian regions believe that the entire island is one big temperate zone, the truth is that there are many different microclimates that work better for some varieties than others.
Take the Noto area in the far southeastern reaches of the island, for example. More and more producers have discovered this is a superior zone for Nero d’Avola, as the variety ripens much better than in the western part of the island. Planeta has been concentrating on Noto for its top bottling of this variety named Santa Cristina. Originally, the fruit for this wine was sourced from the family’s property near Menfi in western Sicily, but soon grapes from Noto were added to the blend. Winemaker Alessio Planeta noticed a difference in style between these two zones, with fruit from Menfi being more rustic with herbal notes, while the Noto fruit being brighter and more voluptuous. Planeta changed the blend a few years ago and today the Santa Cecilia bottling is Nero d’Avola entirely from Noto; in fact, the newly released 2008 bottling is labeled as DOC Noto. The wine offers lovely maraschino cherry fruit (prototypical for the variety) along with notes of toffee and licorice, has very good acidity and excellent complexity.
A unique wine that shows the difference in microclimates is a bottling called Shymer from Baglio di Pianetto. This is a blend of Merlot and Syrah from two opposite ends of the island; the Merlot is sourced from their vineyards at their winery about 12 miles south of Palermo in northwestern Sicily, while the Syrah is from their estate in Noto. The varieties need different conditions for optimum results; the cool reaches of Noto, where vineyards are planted at lower elevations, assure a long hang time as well as ideal acidity that are perfect for Syrah (and as we have seen, Nero d’Avola). Meanwhile the higher elevations at the Pianetto winery near Palermo (plantings at 650 meters – or 2130 feet – above sea level) combined with the clay soils there are excellent conditions for Merlot.
Then there is the area near Vittoria, located a bit west of Noto, where the famous Cerasuolo di Vittoria, the island’s only DOCG wine, is produced. A blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato, the wine has soft tannins and very good acidity, as the Frappato provides softness and roundness along with red cherry flavors as opposed to the maraschino cherry notes of Nero d’Avola (the word Cerasuolo means “cherry.”) Here the soils are generally loose sand (which helps promote floral notes and lighter tannins), while there is often a strata of tufa stone deep blow the surface. The best examples of Cerasuolo di Vittoria from producers such as COS, Valle dell’Acate, Avide and Planeta are beautifully balanced wines with marvelous complexity as well as finesse. Meanwhile, Arianna Occhipinti, Valle dell’Acate and COS produce separate bottlings of Nero d’Avola and Frappato here and the results are striking.
These are only three examples that show how the producers of Sicily are making wines that reflect a sense of place- not that of Sicily as a whole, but as an island with a multitude of growing situations. The best red wines of Sicily have grown far beyond rich, ripe reds into multi-layered, beautifully structured offerings that can stand side by side with Italy’s finest.