Expressive Sicily: Mount Etna, Nero d' Avola, Insolia and Frappato

Wednesday, 30 October, 2013
Kristina B, CWM
Sicily, another island in the news- see also the article ’ Japan the "new Old World" or the "unusual" winemaking country?’ -immediately conjures up emotional images: the romantic island, the remote hideaway, the perception of paradise, and the fascination of nature’s stage. This island, a bare 3 km from Italy’s mainland, known for its mafia insurgence, is in the news for the “constantly active” Mount Etna.
Fountains of lava and rock, a continuous spectacle (more than 60 major eruptions since the 16th century, endless volcano activity alone in this year) in last week’s news, do not disrupt the Sicilian lifestyle. The towns around Mount Etna, since June 2013 a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are known for their orchards, agriculture and vineyards. Fertile volcanic soils make interesting wines!

Etna, a DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) since 1968, is known for excellent producers, and the production of dry white, rose and red wines of varying qualities. Wine personality, Giuseppe Benanti, began producing some serious wines from local varieties grown on his farm in the Etna region in the early 1990’s. Well-Known Etna wines are: Tenuta Sicilia, Tenuta Delleterre Nere, Barone di Villagrande, Estate Murgo, Pietradolce etc.

A visit to the Azienda Agrituristica Estate Etna Wine, near Passopisciaro, near the bigger town of Randazzo, presents you with a wine history since 1820. With the non-photogenic “back” side of Etna, 3400m high, the 32 hectare Azienda has trellised vineyards and bush vines, some pre-phylloxera, even 80-100 years old. It is also veritable museum. The historic wooden wine press, the trough for the donkeys delivering the grape harvest (right in the winery), the immense oak barrels ( a 34700 litre barrel is one of the biggest in the world), the olive oil production presses, a number of amphorae and old glass bottles, make the visit worthwhile.

The main white varieties here are: Carricante and Cattarrato Bianco commune, although there are 8 more varieties (eg. Insolia, Minnella, Grecanico, Moscato Bianco, Moscato d’Alexandria, Grillo etc.) The Etna Bianco (Etna white) wines must have a minimum of 60 % Carricante, an indigenous white variety. 40 % of the blend can consist of other authorized local white varieties. Many wineries produce Etna Bianco wines of 100% Carricante . These white wines come in different styles, often depending on their vineyard location: either lean, crisp and acidic or more full-bodied with a creamier texture, balanced with generous fruit.

The main red varieties are Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capuccio , alongside 6 other varieties eg. Alicante (Grenache), Frappato, Nero d’Avola, Corinto Nero, Pericone, Nocera.

Etna Rosso /Etna Rosato, according to regulations from the DOC, have a minimum of 80% Nerello Mascalese, known for its higher tannins and acidity. The other 10-20% should either be Nerello Capuccio (more red berries and spice,) or other red varieties.

This is just one DOC. Sicily has some 23 DOCs and since 2005 one DOCG. It also has IGT appellations, not mentioned here. Sicily produces an annual 8 million hectolitres of wine, which means it competes with Apulia, for first place in production of- mostly- bulk wines. Only 2.6% of this amount is DOC wine. Of that, 90% of the total DOC region is dedicated to dessert wines.

The main 10 native grape varieties of Sicily, which also present 80% of the vineyard area, according to an article from 2005, in are: Catarratto, Frappato, Grecanico, Grillo, Inzolia, Nerello Mascalese, Nero d’Avola, Nerello Cappuccio, Perricone and Zibibbo .

The DOCs with dominating sweet and fortified wines are:

The sweet wines of Pantelleria, island near to Lampedusa ( just in the news with the refugee disaster). Moscato di Pantelleria Naturale or the Moscato di Passito di Pantelleria are categorized as sweet sparkling or sweet still wines with 12-17% alc.

Another a sweet and aromatic wine is Malvasia delle Lipari. There is also Moscato di Siracusa and Moscato di Noto Naturale which are sweet or fortified. Then there is Marsala ,a DOC stretching from Trapani to Marsala producing red or white fortified wines of 16 to 20% alcohol per volume. These wines can age tremendously well, and it is not strange to find Marsalas, say, from 1900, still oozing ethereal , persistent, elegant aromas and flavours.

The DOCs that produce dry wines are too countless to name here (although names like Santa Margherita del Belice, Sambuca, Sciaca, Menfi, Delia Novolelli, Riesi have their own stories to tell), as they also often produce sparkling and sweet wines. We do need to mention the one DOCG.

The clay and limestone soils in the vast area of the DOCG Cerasuolo di Vittoria produce a wonderful vibrant red wine from Nero d'Avola and Frappato. This lighter bodied, age-worthy wine, has put Sicily back on the map.

On my recent visit, two white wines that stood out for me:

Valle Dell’Acote, Insolia, Vittoria Insolia, DOC 2012: Fresh, green aromas and flavours, white flowers, medium bodied , integrated acidity, ageing potential; ideal with swordfish pasta, grilled fish or simmered veal. Insolia was used in Marsala wines in the past, to add alcohol and body.

Fina Taif, IGP, Sicilia 2011, Zibibbo: very ripe fruit, the aromas of white blossoms, yellow peaches, granadilla, dry palate with pineapple, citrus, raisins,peaches, viscous, and light bodied, with integrated acid and a good finish. This wine can easily accompany foods like fried octopus to creamy fish with tomatoes, capers and olives. Zibibbo or Muscat of Alexandria when produced in a dry style is immensely flavourful.

The two red wines, which I enjoyed were:

Il Frappato, Vittoria Frappato DOC, from Valle Dell’Acate, 2012: approachable dark cherries, red berries and spice, balanced with just enough soft tannin to make this wine the perfect accompaniment for light swordfish carpaccio, beef fillet, or pasta dishes. It is also one of the main varieties in the famous Cerasuolo di Vittoria wine.

Mille e una Notte, Donnafugata, Contessa Entellina DOC, 2007: Nero d’Avola with other red varieties; top of the range, great vintage, a harmonious wine, balanced , classic wine unfolding throughout the whole meal with cheese and chocolate. This will make you come back to Sicilian wines over and over again.

But, one wine in particular, that stood out for me was the handcrafted red wine in water bottles at “Zio’s” generous, rustic lunch table, in the warm orchards of his agricultural farm in Rocca Caprileone!