First published in The Irish Times, Saturday, September 22nd, 2019
Grape varieties are to winemakers as raw ingredients are to chefs: they may not be able to change the basic nature of the grapes, but depending on where they grow them, and what they do in the cellar, they will end up with very different wines. Nero d’Avola is an example.
It is the most widely planted red grape in Sicily. Grown on the island’s enormous hot, arid plains, it produces powerful, full-bodied wines, with plenty of alcohol and tannin. Nobody is quite sure where it came from. Some believe it is simply the Nero, or Black One, from Avola, a town on the southeastern coast; others argue that its other name, Calabrese, suggests it comes from Calabria, across the Strait of Messina, on the Italian mainland.
Either way it has been important to the Sicilian economy for centuries, producing huge quantities of uninspiring but deeply coloured wines that were often blended with lighter wines. You will rarely find it outside Sicily, which seems strange, as it is ideally suited to warm, dry climates.
Until recently all of the more ambitious wines made from Nero d’Avola belonged to the big-is-beautiful school. Beefy, dense and often aged in new oak, these were huge wines with huge structure. Done well, these go perfectly with robust red-meat dishes many of us will be eating over the winter, or with barbecued beef during the summer. My absolute favourite is Gulfi Neromaccarj (€42.95 from jnwine.com).
Yet there are other styles of Nero d’Avola. Some use it to make very ripe, rounded appassimento-style wines with semi-dried grapes. (Try Nero Oro Appassimento, which costs €15.95 from O’Briens.) Alternatively, grown at higher altitudes, or close to the cooling effects of the sea, the same grape can produce much lighter wines with delicious pure, juicy fruits. These offer a far more digestible alternative to the bigger style, and can make for a great party wine. They also go really well with a wide variety of foods, including lighter pizza and pasta dishes, as well as medium-bodied cheeses.
Forty per cent of Italian vineyards are organic, a higher proportion than anywhere else, so all of the wines I feature today are organic. They also come in at less than €20 a bottle, and offer great value for money.
Cantine Rallo, Ciello Rosso ‘Nero d’Avola’ Terre Siciliane IGP (organic)
Light, juicy, ripe plum, red cherry and strawberry fruits, with a subtle earthy touch. On its own or with pizza, focaccia or arancini.
From Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4, baggotstreetwines.com; Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin, blackrockcellar.com; Bradleys Off-licence, Cork, bradleysofflicence.ie; Clontarf Wines, Dublin 3, clontarfwines.ie; Ely Wine Store, Maynooth, Co Kildare, elywinebar.ie; Corkscrew, Dublin 2, thecorkscrew.ie; Green Man Wines, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; Worldwide Wines, Waterford, worldwidewines.ie; Le Caveau, Kilkenny, lecaveau.ie; Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin, ely64.com
Rosso Organico 218, Fabrizio Vella, Terre Siciliane (Organic)
A very quaffable, soft, light, easy-drinking wine with mouth-watering plum fruits. Perfect on its own or with white meats – grilled chicken with spices, perhaps.
From Green Man Wines, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; Kellys, Dublin 3, kellysofflicence.ie; Deveney’s, Dundrum, Dublin 16; Crafted, Bennettsbridge, Co Kilkenny
Nero d’Avola 2017, Tenuta la Favola Sicilia (organic and vegan)
Supple, refreshing and full of juicy, dark, ripe fruits, sprinkled with herbs. Drink solo or with tomato-based dishes, including pasta.
From Sheridan’s Cheesemongers, Dublin 2, Kells, Co Meath, and Galway, sheridanscheesemongers.com; siyps.com; Green Man Wines, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; Eleven Deli, Greystones, Co Wicklow, elevendeli.ie
Cantine Rallo, Baglio Rosso ‘Nero d’Avola’ Terre Siciliane IGP Organic
Intense, pure damson fruits on nose and palate, with a slight spritz, and a fresh, juicy quality throughout. With cold meats or a crusty margherita pizza.
From Drinkstore, Dublin 7, drinkstore.ie; Le Caveau, Kilkenny, lecaveau.ie; Redmonds, Dublin 6, redmonds.ie