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.