Posts tagged ‘noto’

Planeta – Top 100

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.

December 12, 2011 at 5:00 pm 1 comment

Sicily – Unlocking the Key

Alessio Planeta (Photo ©Tom Hyland)


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.


Merlot vineyard at Baglio di Pianetto estate, Santa Cristina Gela (Photo ©Tom Hyland)


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.


COS estate near Vittoria (Photo ©Tom Hyland)


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.

March 26, 2011 at 9:33 pm Leave a comment

Nero d’Avola


Antonio Rallo, co-owner of Donnafugata (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Antonio Rallo, co-owner of Donnafugata (Photo ©Tom Hyland)


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.



Alessio Planeta, winemaker, Planeta (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Alessio Planeta, winemaker, Planeta (Photo ©Tom Hyland)


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.

July 30, 2009 at 2:05 pm Leave a comment

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