Red grape grown in Sicily produces some tasty wines
In his famous “History of the Peloponnesian Wars,” historian Thucydides told how in 415 B.C. the leaders of Athens debated and then launched an ill-fated invasion of Sicily in an effort to “rule the whole Greek world.” Even though Athenian financial and military resources had been stretched thin after incessant warfare with neighbors on the Peloponnesian peninsula over the preceding 50 years, the ambitious invasion decision was made ostensibly to ensure the consolidation of “Hellenic” — that is, Greek — culture and commerce under the self-proclaimed enlightened leadership of Athens, the only nominal democracy in the region.
Because Greek city states other than Athens had long ago established colonies such as Siracusa — Syracuse — on the Sicilian shores, Greek cultural influences, most particularly the cultivation of grape vines and winemaking, had already taken firm hold in Sicily. In fact, the Greeks referred to Sicily and the toe of Italy as “Oenotria” or “Land of the Vines.”
Ultimately, the Athenians’ ambitions exceeded their grasp as, over the years, they were vanquished by Sicilians with the support of the Spartans and their Persian financiers. By 404 B.C., Athens surrendered completely and was demilitarized before fading into geopolitical insignificance.
Despite the Athenians’ utter debacle in Sicily, Hellenic cultural influences in Sicily remained strong even without Athenian governance. For example, to this day, Sicily’s annual production of more than 215 million gallons of wine exceeds by far any other region in Italy.
Most Sicilian wine is undistinguished, “bulk” production shipped to northern Italy and southern France where it is blended into nondescript and inexpensive table wines. (Notable exceptions include incredible Sicilian dessert wines such as Malvasia delle Lipari and top-quality fortified Marsala wines.) Bulk wine production is a legacy of the Italian government-subsidized cooperative wineries whose main goal in Sicily was to provide a market for the huge quantity of wine produced by Sicily’s independent farmers after World War II. Quality was a secondary consideration.
In the past 20 years, however, astute investors have recognized Sicily’s ideal “terroir” for growing certain varieties of red grapes. The climate is hot and dry for the most part, with practically no rainfall after February through the autumn harvest. Combined with plenty of sunshine and generally infertile soils, these conditions are excellent for growing cabernet, merlot and syrah. But Sicily’s most intriguing red variety is undoubtedly the nero d’avola.
Other than limited plantings in Calabria, just across the sea in the toe of southern Italy, nero d’avola is only grown in Sicily. The grape is thin-skinned and late in ripening, so it is particularly susceptible to rot. But Sicily’s dry conditions mitigate this problem. By limiting the yields at harvest, the grape is capable of producing some tasty wines both on its own and as part of blends with other red grapes.
Nero d’avola’s general profile features fruity plum and black raspberry aromas and ripe black fruit flavors with hints of brown spices and even black pepper. With proper yields, it retains good acidity for proper balance. It is a great complement to Sicilian cuisine with its heady mix of capers, mint, fennel, olives, garlic, and red peppers along with the chopped almonds, raisins and citrus slices.
It is not so important to know the name of nero d’avola as it is to have an open mind and try some of the tasty, well-made Sicilian red wines now more widely available. Try the following wines with Chicken Cacciatore, spicy Spaghetti Amatriciana, and pizza topped with red sauce, cheese, olives and anchovies:
2000 Planeta, “Santa Cecilia” Sicilia Rosso (Specialty 23982, $38.49): The Planeta family has helped to lead the renaissance in Sicilian reds by cultivating low yielding nero d’avola vineyards in the sandy soils near Syracuse in southeastern Sicily. This wine has piping, complex aromas of black raspberries, plums, cinnamon and spicy oak suggesting barrique oak aging. The rich, concentrated flavors of ripe black raspberries, plums and brown spices are layered in silky tannins and an intense, lingering fruit finish. Another 1 to 3 years of cellar aging should tame some of youthful exuberance as the wine rounds into it peak of pleasure. Highly Recommended.
2001 Hogue Cellars, Chardonnay, Columbia Valley, Washington State (7050, On Sale: $7.99): The majority of the wine was fermented in stainless steel to preserve fruity aromas of apples, pears and jasmine leading to crisp, fruity flavors of apples and pears. A small portion of the wine, however, was barrel-fermented to round out the wine with complex aromas of toasted oak and honey. All the wine was aged on its lees in barrel for six months to add richness and complexity to the texture. Try this tasty little wine with chicken salads, tuna salads and pasta tossed with minced garlic, olive oil and shrimp. Recommended.