A few years back, we spent a week in Tuscany region visiting Florence and the neighbouring Tuscan towns and villages and found the wines there pretty impressive. Thanks to the warm Mediterranean climate and its scenic beauty; the wines and the pairings seemed to be more delightful by the day. While those Chianti we tasted were simply superb, we started to develop an understanding and gratitude towards the Sangiovese grapes. We also learnt the soil in that region has always been relatively poor forcing vineyards to emphasize on low yields in order to gain higher-quality wines. Though Chianti and Sangiovese have become household names even in Canada; Italy actually has many other equally well known wine regions offering local varietals.
Fast forward to 2015, we skipped Tuscany and went to explore other wine regions of Italy this summer. We spent a week in Sicily and to our surprise, was told the area is the most planted wine region of the country. One of Europe’s most ancient viticulture regions and contrary to Tuscany, Sicily boasts fertile soil. Combined with good Mediterranean summer weather with little humidity and endless sun from June to August allowing grapes to mature, harvests in Sicily is very consistent year over year. Here the most notable red varietal is Nero d’Avola, a varietal used mostly in a blend in the old days but now more wineries are crafting their wines with 100% Nero d’Avola. It is a medium to full bodied red wine of higher tannins infused with plum and blackberries aroma. Depending on the barrel aging time, the body can be dense and laced with substance on the mouth feel. I did find this a versatile varietal to suit different kinds of Italian dishes.
Food and wine go deep in Italian’s culinary culture and each meal demanded our attention which I regarded happily as a wine tasting event. The restaurants we visited did not have big wine lists and most times when we asked for recommendation, the server insisted on trying something local. Being an island, Sicily has abundance of seafood besides pizza and pasta and quite naturally the choice of wines revolved around the seafood choices and how they were prepared.
Meal in Italy is a multi-course affair. There were ample opportunities to sample various local wines to pair with. Palermo and Trapani are coastal towns in Sicily, seafood dominates the restaurant menu and is served as buffet-style Antipasti or cold plates; as second course and in pasta dishes: squid, octopus, prawns, swordfish, tuna, local white fish, eels, sardines and mackerel are the main fares along with crabs, mussels and clams on the daily fresh sheets. We usually start off with a Rosé or white wine to get our palates going.
Grillo and Trebbiano are common local grapes as well as Pinot Grigio. From our perspective, the whites go well with most seafood dish as if they are made solely for that purpose. Some smaller restaurants serve nothing but house wines and like all house wines, there are hits and misses. Individual bottles still dominate the market but some restaurants also serve their house wines in one litre carafe. We love the Planeta Alastro which is a blend mainly of Grecanico with Grillo and Sauvignon Blanc providing the luring aroma and is delightful to sip with the Mediterranean dishes.
Planeta is a large scale wine producer in Sicily with five wine operations around the island. Even though it is only 20 years old, this wine producer carries a lot of the tradition handed down from the 1500s and seventeen generations of agricultural authenticity. While their whites are good but it’s their reds that shine. The Planeta Plumgabo is a 100% Nero d’Avola medium-bodied red wine with dry plum, dark cherries and a hint of vanilla from the time in oak barrel that soften the tannins a bit. It’s a reasonably priced red that pairs well with tomato sauces, pizza and heavier pasta dishes and grilled seafood. Another up and coming producer is Cusumano. Established in 2001, the winery is producing reasonably priced and quality wines that are gaining traction among restaurants in Italy. That day we ordered the Cusumano Nero d’Avola 2014 to go with a tableful of various classic Italian pizzas, we found the pairing very charming. A fresh young red that is fruit forward, jammy and brushed with plum flavour with a hint of spice.
Nothing is complete if one doesn’t taste any Marsala while in Sicily. However, across this side of North America, Marsala is better known for cocktails and cooking than for drinking. The aptly named Marsala is a kind of wine produced from vineyards around the City of Marsala. It could be fairly sweet or dry; could be a dessert wine, a cocktail mix or as a welcoming aperitif drink. The common varietals to produce Marsala are Grillo, Catarratta, Inzolia and Nero d’Avola. It has higher alcohol content than most wines so it is closer to the fortified wine category. Depending on the aging and the oak treatment, the colour can be golden, amber or ruby. We visited the famed Florio Winery in Marsala which was established in 1833. A tour of the winery telltales the history and their pride of winemaking in Sicily and the crafting of Marsala, the progress and improvements since the olden days. From the light to the heavier, we tasted three styles of Marsala paired with different kinds of cheese and fruits. Personally I prefer Marsala as more of a dessert wine which is perfect to with harder and stronger cheese. As a wine lover, it’s educational and rewarding to taste some unfamiliar grape varietals such as Grillo, Nero d’Avola etc.
Backed by ancient tradition with 4,000 years of history influenced by the Greeks and Romans culture, Sicilian wines are rustic, laid back, simple everyday wines that are uncomplicated but food friendly. We found them the prices invitingly reasonable and great easy-drinking patio or under-the-tree wines. To align with the slow pace of the island culture, things don’t change rapidly or drastically here. You don’t see screw cap or light weight wine bottles. Decanting before serving is uncommon. Small, family wineries dotted the landscape with only a handful of larger wineries with the capacity to export, making those available in BC more joyful to sip.