Alessio Planeta (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
My inclusion of Planeta as one of the top 100 wine producers of Italy is not based merely on the consistent level of quality found in their wines; that factor alone would be enough to merit this ranking. No, it’s more than that, as the Planeta family has maintained this high quality level across a wide range and style of wines, from the indigenous varieties (such as Nero d’Avola, Frappato and Carricante) to that of international ones (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah). Even more impressive is the fact that they produce these wines at six separate estates in Sicily, spanning the width and breadth of this remarkable island.
Planeta was established in 1995 by three members of the family: Alessio, Santi and Francesca, who initiated their project with an estate near Sambuca in western Sicily. This was followed by an estate near Menfi and later one near Noto in the southeastern reaches of the island. The newest plantings of Planeta were undertaken in 2008 at their holdings in the Etna district.
All of this expansion has taken place with a goal of learning what the true viticultural identity of Sicily is; from the rich, ripe Nero d’Avola planted near Menfi as well as Noto to the delicate Frappato, planted at their Dorilli estate near Vittoria (a bit north and west of Noto), the Planeta family has been discovering how the various microclimates and terroirs in Sicily make for ideal conditions for particular varieties.
An excellent example of how Planeta has been refining their quality can be seen with the Santa Cecilia wine, the firm’s top bottling of Nero d’Avola. First produced from the 1997 vintage, the initial bottlings were made from fruit from the Sambuca property, but when research showed that the Nero d’Avola variety would perform better when planted near Noto, a cooler zone than Sambuca, the shift was made, as the Santa Cecilia wine was produced exclusively with Noto grapes beginning with the 2003 vintage. Today the wine is one of Sicily’s finest expressions of Nero d’Avola in purezza, with excellent depth of fruit and structure. (To read about a vertical tasting of this wine I participated in back in 2009, read here.)
Another first-rate red from Planeta – albeit in a very different manner than the Santa Cecilia – is their Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Thiis is the only DOCG wine from Sicily and is made from a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato. While the former variety provides deep color and richness on the palate, Frappato has a more delicate color with fresh berry flavors and very light tannins. This is a charming red, one that can be enjoyed upon release and even chilled for a bit, as the tannins are quite light. Planeta now produces a second bottling of Cerasuolo di Vittoria; this from the classico section of the wine zone, is labeled Dorilli, named for a nearby river. The 2009 version of this wine is a lovely example of how seductive and sensual a wine this is; medium-full with ripe bing cherry and plum fruit with a lengthy, beautifully balanced finish, this displays outstanding complexity and is a wine that charms you from its initial perfumes to the final taste in the mouth. As consumers look to branch out into new wine discoveries over the next few years, I believe that Cerasuolo di Vittoria will be a popular choice, with the Dorilli one of the leading examples of this type.
As remarkable as the red wines are at Planeta, the white wines are just as notable – and how many Sicilian estate can you say that about? There are three very special whites from Planeta, the most famous being the Chardonnay, which was first produced from the 1994 vintage. Its baked apple and oak aromas along with its intensity grabbed the attention of many wine critics around the world, who proclaimed it as “Italy’s finest Chardonnay.” Today the wine is still an attention-grabber, but I think that recent vintages have been even better than those from the first few years, as today, the oak is less dominant, resulting in a better-balanced wine with more emphasis on fruit and overall structure.
The second white is Carricante, made from the grape of the same name, grown at the winery’s estate in the Etna district. Unoaked, this has pear and almond aromas, good richness on the palate, very good acidity and a finish with a light minerality (this clearly a by-product of the volcanic soils). Carricante, by the way, is loosely translated as “consistent” and after only two releases of this particular wine (2009 and 2010), Planeta’s versions of this wine clearly fit this adjective.
But for me, the truly outstanding white from Planeta is Cometa, a 100% Fiano. While Fiano is best-known as a variety from the Campania region of southern Italy, a few producers in Sicily also work with this grape. Clearly, no one in Sicily comes close to this version, a white with a lovely array of aromas ranging from pineapple to pear to chamomile; these aromas are quite intense and deeply developed, as the wine is aged only in stainless steel tanks. Quite rich on the palate, this is a white with amazing complexity, one that offers superb varietal character as well as layers of fruit and a lengthy finish, again with a distinct minerality. The 2009 is a particularly outstanding version of this wine; drink it tonight or set it aside for another 3-5 years and enjoy it with an array of foods, from grilled shrimp to sea bass to chicken breast.
So while quality is perhaps the most important factor for listing Planeta among the Top 100 wine producers in Italy, it’s the way that the family goes about their business – seeking out new estates and optimizing on local terroirs – that truly makes Planeta special.
P.S. While some of my Top 100 wine producers are quite small, which makes it difficult to find their wines in many markets, Planeta is a medium-large producer, whose wines can be found without too much difficulty.
P.P.S. Planeta also has one of the finest winery websites found anywhere. The site, in both Italian and English, has detailed information on all the winery estates as well as the wines. It also has some of the most complete information you can find about pairing individual wines with specific foods – Sicilian or otherwise.