Wine From Sicily — Gotta Love Those Local Varieties

I admit to not thinking much about Sicily with regard to wine and winemaking. True, I knew Marsala was Italian, but honestly did not know it was made in Sicily.

A bit of reading about Sicily lead me to discover the island is a leading wine production region in Italy, right in there with Veneto and Puglia in terms of total production. Though it has produced mostly lower quality wines in the past, its production is improving in quality.

Sicily is located just off the “toe” of of Italy’s boot and only 100 miles from the coast of North Africa. The island is mostly hilly and mountainous. Mount Etna, an active volcano, rises above 10,000 feet in the eastern portion of the island.

The Mediterranean climate is hot and dry in summer, cold and wet in winter. Hot winds from North Africa warm the southern portion of the Island in summer. Agriculture dominates the island and viticulture fits right in.

Marsala, a fortified wine produced from local varieties Catarratto, Grillo and Inzolia, is produced here. I have always thought of Marsala as just cooking wine, but it is made in several styles some of which is aged for more than 10 years.

Other indigenous varieties are well-regarded and the Cerasuolo de Vittoria DOCG has been established for two of them, Nero d’Avola and Frappato. It is the only DOCG currently designated on Sicily. In addition, Sicily has 23 DOC and 7 IGT designations, all of which can be found on this map.

In addition to geography that includes an active volcano, Sicily has an abundance of ruins from ancient times. It is littered with Greek temples and theaters, Moorish ruins and Roman mosaics. Look here for a quick peek at what Sicily has to offer.

Of course George and Gail Herron of Fine Wines of Stockton know Sicily is home to some mighty fine wine, and they very cleverly poured a selection of six Sicilian wines at a recent Thursday night tasting. Here is what we tasted:

2011 Tenuta Rapitalà Grillo2011 Tenuta Rapitalà Grillopale yellow in the glass with obvious citrus scents. Pleasant and complex flavors of Meyer lemon, minerals and citrus pith combine with clean acidity for a crisp, refreshing finish. This palate-cleansing wine would be perfect with appetizers, light summer dishes, or just to sip on a warm afternoon. ABV 13.5%.

The Tenuta Rapitalà Grillo is made from 100% Grillo harvested from low-yield vineyards and vinified using a long, cool fermentation to preserve the aromatic qualities of the variety.

Tenuta Rapitalà is located in the hills around Camporeale, in the northwest corner of Sicily, at between 900 and 1800 feet above the sea level. Soil is a combination of sand and clay. Restoration of the earthquake-damaged estate by Hugues de la Gatinais and Gigi Guarrasi began after their marriage in 1968. Their first vintage was released in 1976.

The name, Tenuta Rapitalà is derived from the Arabic Rabidh-Allah “river of
Allah” for the stream which flows through the vineyards. Tenuta Rapitalà produces a wide range of wine on the estate from both local (Catarratto, Grillo, Nero d’Avola, Pinot Nero) and international varieties (Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah). In recognition of the history of the area, the names are a combination of French, Italian and Arabic. Very interesting.

2011 Torresella Nero d’Avola2011 Torresella Nero d’Avoladark ruby-garnet in the glass, with smoke, caramel and and vegetal aromas. Flavors of dark plums with hints of smoke and vegetal back notes combine with juicy acidity and significant, slightly grippy tannins. The wine has a fairly light body and has lots of fruit flavor without being too ripe. ABV 13.5%.

The flavors in this wine are mostly fruit, very little wood influence. That makes this wine a good choice for warm weather and a good match for lighter food. The production notes for the 2010 vintage does not indicate any wood aging.

2010 Tenuta Rapitalà Alto Nero d’Avola2010 Tenuta Rapitalà Alto Nero d’Avoladark ruby-garnet in the glass with a closed nose. Pleasant sweet cherry and dried cranberry flavors with a hint of flowers more than make up for the lack of aroma in the glass. Tannins are moderate and drying, the body is a bit heavier in this wine but it still has good acidity and overall is a bit more complex. ABV 14%.

Another wine produced by Tenuta Rapitalà, as the name Alto implies the vineyard is located at between 1300 and 1700 feet above sea level. Wood aging is 5 months in French oak barrique, followed by 7 months aging in large French oak barrels.

2011 Planetta Cerasuolo de Vittoria Nero d’Avola2011 Planetta Cerasuolo de Vittoria Nero d’Avolalighter ruby in the glass. Aromas of red fruit and perfume are followed by complex flavors of tart red fruit, cranberries, earth and coffee. Tannins are smooth and acidity is juicy. The finish is not terribly long, but this pleasant, flavorful, light-bodied wine is sure to please in the warm weather. It will pair nicely with lighter dishes or grilled fish. ABV 13%.

Produced on the other side of the island of Sicily in the southeast corner near Vittoria, this wine is classified as a Cerasuolo de Vittoria DOCG. It is the only DOCG for the island of Sicily and is approved for Nero d’Avola and Frappato varieties only. The DOCG wines must be a blend of the two varieties with required proportions 50–70% Nero d’Avola and 30–50% Frappato. There are minimum requirements for both alcohol level and aging.

Frappato is a lighter variety than Nero d’Avola, and with only an 8 day maceration during vinification, the resulting wine is lighter color and body. The blend is 60% Nero d’Avola 40% Frappato. Malolactic fermentation takes place in stainless steel, followed by 4 months aging in stainless before bottling in mid-February.

2012 Villa Pozzi Cabernet Sauvignon2012 Villa Pozzi Cabernet Sauvignondark ruby in the glass with smoke, flowers and dark fruit aromas. Flavors of dark fruit, plums and smoke are fairly complex, a bit sweet and combine with adequate acidity and moderate tannins to produce a moderately long finish. This wine has a bit more weight in the mouth, has pleasant flavors and is not overly influenced by wood aging. ABV 13.5%.

Located in the western portion of Sicily, in the area of Marsala, Salemi and Mazzara del Vallo, Villa Pozzi vineyards are planted in the hills at 1300 feet above sea level in clay soil. Grapes are hand-harvested, gently pressed and undergo a 15 – 20 day period of maceration. Aging follows with 20% in oak and the remainder finished in stainless steel before blending.

Winemaking in the Pozzi family goes back 4 generations, beginning in Cremona in northern Italy. In 2000 the family purchased a 19th century winery in Marsala, and after a complete renovation, lauched the Villa Pozzi brand in 2006. The family’s goal is to produce affordable, approachable wines that give the consumer a “taste of Sicily.”

2007 Planeta Syrah2007 Planeta Syrahdark garnet in the glass with dried fruit scents of raisins and figs. Flavors of concentrated, dried, dark fruits along with cedar and a lingering sweetness. Tannins are smooth, acidity is adequate and the finish medium to long. This is a contrasting style to the previous wines, much riper and more concentrated. ABV 14.5%.

The Planeta family have been making wine in Sicily since the 1600s, beginning at the original estate in Sambuca di Sicilia located in the western end of the island. The family now make wine in 5 areas within Sicily.

The Syrah is grown in the area around Menfi, just a bit southwest of Sambuca di Sicilia. 12 days of maceration was followed by fermentation in stainless steel and eventual aging for 12 months in French oak barrels.

What an interesting group of wines. I have to say I have fallen in love with the local varieties of Sicily in particular. Both the Grillo and the Nero d’Avola in its various renditions caught my attention.

I love finding light bodied, flavorful red wines that I can enjoy in the summer when I am more inclined toward white wine. I just can’t drink heavy red wines when the weather is hot. Nero d’Avola from Sicily is now on my go-to list for summertime red wine. And it fits in with my new mantra…drink local varieties!


Reference: The World Atlas of Wine, 7th edition, Hugh Johnson &  Jancis Robinson.

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