Sicily, the Italian island that lies in the Mediterranean Sea, has long been known for its culinary contributions to the world. Some of the dishes that originated in Sicily include deep dish pizza, the deep fried rice balls called arancini, the eggplant dish called caponata, muffuletta (the bread, not the New Orleans sandwich), the tubular pastry called cannoli, and ricotta cheese, a key ingredient in lasagna and other famous Italian dishes.
Sicily has also long been known for Marsala wine, a fortified wine similar to Sherry that can be sweet or dry and is often used to make dishes like chicken Marsala. However, Sicily didn’t really become known for other kinds of wines until more recently, even though the island has been producing table wines for at least 2,500 years.
Attendees of the Somm Series event on July 26 at West Indies Wine Company learned about the Sicilian wine revival from Flavio Andreatta, the Caribbean area manager for Giowine, the distributor for the Planeta winery in Sicily.
“Sicily produces the same amount of grapes as the country of Chile,” Andreatta said. “But until the 1980s, Sicily was pretty forgotten in the winemaking industry.”
A large reason for Sicily’s wine obscurity until the 1980s was the poor quality. Most of Sicily’s production was sold as bulk wines. Diego Planeta, for whom the Planeta winery is named, was at the leading edge of Sicily’s wine renaissance, which put a focus on quality instead of quantity.
Diego Planeta, for whom the Planeta winery is named, was at the leading edge of Sicily’s wine renaissance, which put a focus of quality instead of quantity.
Sicily’s southernmost point is located farther south than Africa’s northern most point, which means it can be very hot. However, its Mediterranean climate helps moderate the temperatures. In addition, Sicily is very hilly and most grape production is done in areas with altitude that also helps moderate temperatures.
Because of its Mediterranean location, hilly topography and volcanic soils — Mount Etna, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, is in Sicily — the growing conditions are diverse and unique, factors that show in the wines the island produces. Andreatta described Sicily’s wines as “something Italian, but not in a traditional way.”
The Somm Series event featured two white wines, one from a grape variety with which attendees were undoubtedly familiar, and one from a grape they probably weren’t. Etna Bianco, which is made entirely from the Carricante grape, was the latter.
Produced from grapes grown at high altitudes on the slope of Mt. Etna, which rises to almost 11,000 feet, the wine displays good minerality from the volcanic soils to go with refreshing acidity and flavours of pears.
“It’s a nice, light palate cleaner,” said Andreatta.
Because of its structured acidity, the Etna Bianco has the ability to pleasantly evolve over five to seven years, a rarity for a white wine priced under $22.
The other white wine tasted was Planeta’s Chardonnay, the vanguard of Sicily’s wine revival.
“It’s what put Sicily on the map of fine winemaking,” said Andreatta. “This Chardonnay was the first statement of the improvement of Sicilian wines in the 1980s.”
Chardonnay is one of the most popular white wines in the world. Depending on where Chardonnay grapes are grown and how they’re vinified and aged, the resulting wine can take on many different characteristics. The Planeta Chardonnay is differentiated not only by its Sicilian terroir, but also by its winemaking process.
“It is aged 12 months in French oak, half of which is new, and it skips malolactic fermentation,” Andreatta said, referring to the secondary fermentation that converts tart malic acid to creamy lactic acid, a process often used with Chardonnays and all red wines. “This keeps the acidity and then when aged in oak, produces a unique expression of Chardonnay that is pretty much in between the Old World and the New World styles.”
Chardonnay is an international variety that is produced well in Sicily, at least by Planeta, but when it comes to red wines, Sicily’s indigenous grape varieties dominate the scene.
Planeta’s easy drinking and versatile Etna Rosso is made from the Nerello Mascalese grape and the soft and fruity Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico Dorilli is made from a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappata grapes.
Planeta also produces a hearty-but-friendly wine made from a blend of Nero d’Avola and Norcera grapes called Mamertino, named after Roman Empire-era mercenaries called Mamertines, who took to growing grapes when the war business went soft and produced a wine from Sicily that was a favourite of Julius Caesar.
Ending the evening, guests of the Somm Series event got to taste Santa Cecilia, an elegant, powerful and complex wine made entirely form Nero d’Avola grapes, the most iconic of all indigenous Sicilian
All of the wines tasted were priced between CI$21.99 and CI$34.49 retail, an indication of the kind of value offered with wines