Posts tagged ‘nero d’avola’
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.
As there are hundreds (or is it thousands) of grape varieties planted throughout Italy today, it is no surprise how many unique wines are produced in the twenty regions of the country.
For this post, I’d like to discuss one of Sicily’s most distinctive reds, Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Produced from grapes grown in a district near the town of Vittoria in the southeastern province of Ragusa, Cerasuolo di Vittoria is a blend of two grapes: Nero d’Avola and Frappato.
Nero d’Avola (see previous post) is Sicily’s most widely planted red variety and gives Cerasuolo its body and richness, while Frappato adds aromatics (usually fresh cherry – the word Cerasuolo means cherry) and acidity to the final blend.
For years while Cerasuolo was a DOC wine, the mix was almost always 60% Nero d’Avola and 40% Frappato. As of the 2005 vintage, the wine was recognized with DOCG status and with this classification, there is more blending freedom for winemakers. Some blends are now 70% Nero d’Avola and 30% Frappato, while others are just the opposite, while there are also 50/50 blends. Producers may bottle a DOCG version or a DOC version or both.
Cerasuolo di Vittoria is a medium-bodied wine that can be aged in various ways. Some producers use large oak casks, while others prefer small oak barrels (barriques). Then there is Giusto Occhipinti and his partner Giambattista Cilia at COS, who ferment and age their bottlings in amphorae, the ancient vessels made from terra cotta that are modeled after the same pots used by the Greeks more than 2000 years ago.
Generally, most bottlings of Cerasuolo di Vittoria express ripe cherry fruit, medium weight on the palate and a finish with moderate tannins and lively acidity. Most versions are meant for consumption within 5-7 years of the vintage, although a few exceptional bottlings, such as the “Pithos” from Cos can drink well for 20 plus years.
Here is a short list of the best producers of Cerasuolo di Vittoria:
- Valle dell’Acate
- Terre di Giurfo
- Santa Tresa
As Cerasuolo di Vittora has excellent levels of natural acidity, it is a wonderful food wine. Pair the wines with a variety of dishes, from couscous with vegetables, risotto with a Cerasuolo sauce, grilled mackerel, chicken with herbs or simple arancini (rice balls).
Ancient variety of Calabria; black cherry fruit and firm tannins. A few producers, most notably Librandi are working with this grape.
One of Italy’s most widely planted white varieties, this found in several regions, including Tuscany, Lazio, Sicily, Umbria and Basilicata. There are several clones and subvarieties of Malvasia. Generally produces a lighter, high acid white, but it can also be used for sweet wines, as in Malvasia di Lipari in Sicily.
Red subvariety of Malvasia found in Tuscany and Pugila. Generally used in blends for acidity (Salice Salentino in Puglia, e.g.)
White variety of Calabria, used often to produce dessert wines. Notes of pear and honey.
Red variety of Tuscany used in Chianti and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Deep color and good acidity. Almost always used as part of a blend.
Red variety of Trentino. Deep color and moderate tannins. Marzemino wine is mentioned in Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni.
One of the principal red varieties used in the Valpolicella district. Brisk acidity and firm tannins are the key trademarks of the variety.
Red variety found in Sardinia with light color and tannins. Bottled on its own as a stand-alone variety and also used in blends.
The leading red variety of the Abruzzo region – Montepulciano d’Abruzzo – is the best-known example – the variety is also found in Marche and a few other regions. Deep color and plenty of spice – often notes of tobacco.
White variety found in several regions of Italy, perhaps best known in Piemonte for Moscato d’Asti (frizzante) and Asti Spumante (bollicine). Gorgeous aromatics of peach, apricot and honey.Usually fermented with a bit of residual sugar to make a lightly sweet wine. There are also excellent examples of Moscato found in Sicily, most notably in Pantelleria and Noto.
One of the most important subvarieties of Moscao, this is found in Alto Adige, where it is usually fermented dry.
Red subvariety of Moscato found in Alto Adige. Gorgeous aromas of rose petals, raspberry and strawberry. Wines are lightly sweet.
Found in several regions, from Trentino to Sicily (yes, a few producers in sunny Sicily work with this variety!), this has aromatics of pear, peach and apple and is usually made in a lightly sweet style.
The great red variety of Piemonte and one of Italy’s most important red varieties. The only grape used in the production of Barolo and Barbaresco, Nebbiolo has aromas and flavors of currant, red cherry, orange peel and tar. Quite tannic, so most wines made from Nebbiolo age quite well. Also found in the neighboring region of Lombardia, where it is planted in the Valtellina district and known there as Chiavennasca.
Important red variety of Puglia, literally meaning “black bitter.” Principal grape used in Salice Salentino; also bottled on its own. Deep color, big spice and firm tannins.
Red variety that is the lesser component (20%) of the Etna Rosso red of Sicily.
Red variety that is the principal component (80%) of Etna Rosso. Deeper color and more body that Nerello Cappuccio.
Arguably the most important red variety of Sicily, Nero d’Avola has flavors of marascino cherry with deep color, moderate acidity and tannins. Good examples of Nero d’Avola can be made at various levels; the more full-bodied examples offer more spice.
Red variety found in small plantings in the Valpolicella district. Masi is the leading proponent of this variety, which has more tannins than most of the other red varieties used in the production of Amarone.
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Sicily, the lovely, rugged island at the southern tip of Sicily, has a wine discipline that is not hampered by the strict regulations found in other Italian wine regions. Given that, you might expect a wide variety of wines to emerge from this land, but in truth the climate – it can be torridly hot during the summer – means that certain cool climate varieties such as Riesling and Pinot Noir are not suited for this area.
Thus only a few varieties here have emerged as critical and clearly the most important red variety is an idigenous one, Nero d’Avola. This variety has much in common with Syrah, as it is deeply colored (often bright purple) with only moderate tannins. The fruit aromas and flavors are primarily of marascino cherry, a opinion shared by many, including Attilio Scienza, one of Italy’s most renowned authorities on viticulture (I heard Scienza give his thoughts in a typically compelling speech in Sicily a few years ago). There are also notes of tobacco in some versions as well as spice notes, though some of this emerges from aging in small oak barrels. As for tannins, while most bottlings have only moderate levels, there are some premium offerings that have enough tannin to ensure aging for as long as 7-10 years.
Throughout the 1970s and early ’80s, Nero d’Avola was usually blended with other varieties throughout Sicily, including Nerello Mascalese and Pignatello. In 1984, history was made when the producer Duca di Salaparuta (best-known at that time for its well-made, moderately priced wines Corvo Bianco and Rosso) produced the first premium 100% Nero d’Avola; the wine was named Duca Enrico and was crafted by Carlo Casavecchia. He decided for Nero d’Avola as he believed this variety showed the most promise of the winery’s selections planted near the town of Gela, near Noto in the southeastern zone of the island; those other varieties included Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Casavecchia continues to make this wine and today, it is rightfully celebrated as one of the country’s most glorious reds.
For years, growers planted Nero d’Avola in several areas throughout Sicily; some of the best plantings were located near the western reaches of the island, near Menfi or Palermo. Today, though more and more producers are looking to the southeastern areas of Sicily for the finest plantings of this variety; indeed the grape is named for the town of Avola, not far from Noto.
There are several producers today who make excellent signature bottlings of Nero d’Avola; among the best is a bottling from Planeta called Santa Cecilia. During a recent visit to their estate near Noto, I was treated – along with a few dozen other journalists – to a vertical tasting of this wine. Winemaker Alessio Planeta told us how the early bottlings (such as 1997) were from Menfi, while the 1999 was a blend of grapes from both Menfi and Noto. The early bottlings, while quite good, were more rustic in nature as compared to the newer releases, which are blessed with abundant black fruit and lovely structure. Today, Santa Cecilia is always 100% Nero d’Avola from Noto and it has become one of Sicily’s finest wines (interestingly, the 1997 Santa Cecilia not only originated from Menfi, it also contained 15% Syrah in the blend).
Below is a list of several of the finest bottlings of Nero d’Avola:
- Duca di Salaparuta “Duca Enrico”
- Planeta “Santa Cecilia”
- Donnafugata “Mille e una Notte”
- Cusumano “Sagana”
- Morgante “Don Antonio”
- Tasca d’Almerita “Rosso del Conte”
- Baglio di Pianetto “Cembali”
Note that the Baglio di Pianetto bottling is produced from grapes grown at their estate a little south of Palermo, in the western part of Sicily. This particular wine is quite rich, but subdued with wonderful finesse. It is proof that not all great bottlings of Nero d’Avola come from the areas near Noto and Gela.
Finally, it is important to note that Nero d’Avola works well as a blending grape and just as it was blended with other varieties some 30 years ago, the same is true today, as some excellent wines that are primarily Nero d’Avola will often contain as much as 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah. However, the real character of Nero d’Avola emerges in wines that are almost always exclusively made from this variety alone; these are the bottlings that I believe are among the finest from Sicily.