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THE WONDERFUL WINES OF SICILY

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 25th May, 2019

Sicily is an island of huge contrasts: ugly and chaotic at times, amazingly beautiful, enchanting and serene at others. Any downsides are offset by the warmth, friendliness and vitality of the people, the excellent food and of course, the wine.

In the past, Sicily was best known for inexpensive bulk wine that ended up being turned into cheap Marsala or vermouth. Over the last decade or so, a group of high quality producers has emerged, primarily using indigenous grapes to produce a variety of red and white wines (and sparkling too) with their own unique Sicilian character.

In many ways this is the ideal place to grow vines; Sicily gets more sun than any other part of Europe, 2,500 hours, compared with 2,000 on the mainland and 1,800 in the south of France. The constant winds keep temperatures in check, particularly on the higher mountainside slopes. Over 40 per cent of vineyards are farmed organically (the highest in the world), a figure that rises further in quality estates.

While you will find some of the international grape varieties (Syrah in particular has been around a long time), Sicily has a treasure trove of indigenous varieties, some very ancient, that are only now beginning to show their true potential. Many of these have various different clones that are almost like separate varieties

Four white grapes are worth remembering: Inzolia and Cataratto are usually used in fresh fruity wines. Grillo, once used to make Marsala, shows real potential. Decent inexpensive versions of these can be found on the shelves of your local supermarket. These days, most of the white grapes are picked early and the resulting wines are crisp, light and dry. Carricante, grown almost exclusively on the slopes on Mount Etna, can be delightful – the elegant, cool fruits and acidity, tasting more like the Loire than Mediterranean.

For red wines, Nero d’Avola grown on warmer flat sites can be rich and powerful; wines from the cooler hillside sites can be surprisingly floral and elegant. Nerello Mascalese, grown primarily on the slopes of Mount Etna, produces distinctive, very exciting wines with soft, silky Pinot-like fruit, often combined with a dry tannic finish.

Frapatto, usually grown in the southeastern corner of the island (often blended with Nero d’Avola to produce Cerasuolo di Vitoria) is fragrant and light with juicy strawberry fruits. Perricone is highly regarded by many quality producers, and is often blended with Nero d’Avola.

Sicilian food is unique and magnificent, varying region by region, clearly showing influences of the various invaders that have passed through over the centuries. Every kind of fish is eaten, high quality Mediterranean vegetables take pride of place in many recipes. Sicilian whites go perfectly with fresh grilled fish, and the reds with rich pasta dishes and roasted vegetables.

Nero d’Avola Principi di Butera IGT Sicilia 2015
14%, €16.99
Attractively aromatic, with supple rounded red cherry fruits, black olives, and a nicely rounded finish. A good flexible red to serve on its own or with an Otto Lenghinian mezze of kofte and Mediterranean salads.
From Deveneys, Dublin 14; Fresh, Dublin 2 and 7, freshthegoodfoodmarket.ie; Boggans, Wexford

Sherazadze Donnafugatta 2017, Sicilia DOC, Nero d’Avola
13%, €22.99
A lovely fresh juicy mouthful of voluptuous dark fruits with hints of spice, and nicely integrated tannins on the finish. Serve cool with roast lamb accompanied by roast Mediterranean vegetables or caponata.
From Sweeneys Wines, Dublin 11, sweeneyswines.ie; Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin, ely64.com; Thomas Woodberrys, Galway, woodberrys.ie; Searsons, Monkstown, Co Dublin, searsons.com; Gibney’s, Malahide, Co Dublin, gibneys.com; Alain & Christine’s, Kenmare, Co Kerry, acwine.ie; Red Island Wine Co, Skerries, Co Dublin; wineonline.ie; the Corkscrew, Dublin 2, thecorkscrew.ie

Pietradolce Etna Bianco 2018
13%, €27
An elegant, refined and delicious light white with cool green fruits, mouthwatering lemon zest, and a long dry finish. Grilled white fish with lemon and herbs.
From Green Man Wines, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; the Corkscrew, Dublin 2, thecorkscrew.ie; Deveneys, Dublin 14

Rosso del Conte 2014, Regaleali, Tasca d’Almerita, Sicily Contea di Scalfani
14%, €53
Made from a blend of Nero d’Avola and Perricone. A magnificent wine, rich and hugely concentrated with very ripe sweet cherry fruits, held together by a fine tannic structure. Save it for your finest roast of beef or lamb.
From winesofitaly.ie

 

 

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A Duo from Sicily

A Duo from Sicily

“The amount of bullshit in the wine world is almost as much as that in the world of fashion”. Marco de Grazia, founder of Tenuta delle Terre Nere, doesn’t pull his punches. “Winemaking is a cultural process whereby you want to express the character of that vineyard; therefore you have to step back. Most winemakers have very big egos – we are the opposite, we want you to taste the vineyard.”

Thirty years ago, de Grazia, an American wine importer, was one of the very first to set up an estate on the northern slopes of Mount Etna, an ancient vineyard that had largely been forgotten. Since then, the region has been recognized as one of the finest in Sicily, with producers from all over Italy flocking to buy up vineyards.

Today the Terre Nere estate has 55 hectares on the northern slopes of Mount Etna, 27 of which are in production. That includes 24 separate parcels, four released as single vineyard wines. Except for seven hectares of recently planted vineyards all of the vines are 50-100 years old, growing at altitudes of 600-1,000 metres. All of the Terre Nere wines are made from local, indigenous grape varieties. “A happy vineyard produces happy grapes”, says de Grazia; all of the wines are organic and vegan.

De Grazia recently visited Dublin where he, and importers Wine Mason, put on a tasting of the Terre Nere wines. The wines are all good, and some spectacular; over the last few years, this has become one of my favourite Italian producers.

 

Etna Bianco 2017 Tenuta delle Terre Nere

 

Floral, fresh and light, with soft pears and subtle stone fruits, and a lively mineral acidity. There is a fantastic succulence and purity to the fruit. Delicious wine with real character and good length.

 

This would go perfectly with simply-cooked white fish. Grilled hake or sole.

The red wines of Mount Etna tend to get all of the attention, but the white wines can be spectacularly good and are well worth seeking out. The Bianco is made from a blend of 65% Carricante, with varying smaller proportions of Catarratto, Inzolia, Grecanico, and Minella. Organic and vegan.

 

€25.95 from Redmonds, Dublin 6; Redmonds.ie; Ely Wine Store, Maynooth; elywinebar.ie; Mitchell & Son, chq, Dublin 1, Sandycove, and Avoca, Kilmacanogue & Dunboyne, mitchellandson.com; The Wicklow Wine Co., Wicklow, wicklowwineco.ie; Ely 64, Glasthule, Ely64.com; Green Man Wines, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4, baggotstreetwines.com; Devenys, Dublin 14;

 

Etna Rosso Guardioloa 2016, Tenuta delle Terre Nere

 

Elegant, high-toned cool savoury red fruits – redcurrants and cherries, with a taut structure, and fine drying tannins and minerals on the finish. Fantastic concentration and depth. Magnificent wine.

 

Keep for a year or two, or if you must open it now, decant and drink alongside roast or grilled pork with tomato-based sauce of some kind.

 

This is made from primarily Nerello Mascalase with some Nerello Cappuccio, from a single vineyard, one of the highest plots at around 1,000 metres. Di Grazia describes it as “an austere taut coiled spring”, and “a soprano of a wine”. I bought some of the 2014 to lay down for a year or so.

 

€45 from The Corkscrew, Dublin 2, thecorkscrew.ie; Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock, blackrockcellar.com.

 

 

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The Wines of Etna

The Wines of Etna

First published in The Irish Times Saturday 3rd September, 2016

My only visit to Mount Etna a decade ago was not pleasant. Although it was sunny and spring-like in Syracuse, by the time our bus reached the mountain, the weather was bitterly cold and the sky very grey. The mountain was a black and brooding presence in the background, with patches of white snow here and there. We huddled around the fire in the tasting room, longing for the warmth of our bus. The wines, however, were extraordinary, completely different to anything else we tasted on the visit.

Etna has been the darling of the wine business in recent years; it offers everything the wine geek seeks: steep, dark, rocky volcanic slopes (although the soil is actually very diverse); a unique climate; indigenous grape varieties; and an ancient tradition of viticulture.

The climate and soil are the first pieces in the puzzle. The combination of high altitude and volcanic soils produces wines that are ripe but at the same time very elegant, with a characteristic mineral element (a term that suggests a stony, flinty acidity). Etna wines, red and white, tend to be light and fruity, the reds often having a very seductive earthy warmth.

The primary red grape is Nerello Mascalese, which must make up 80 per cent of an Etna Rosso blend. It is responsible for those wonderful, perfumed, taut, refined dark fruits. Nerello Cappuccio is seen as inferior to Mascalese. The wines are broader and softer, and are often used to flesh out the more austere partner. The white wines tend to be low in alcohol with good refreshing acidity. The most respected grape is Carricante, again an ancient local variety, which is often blended with Catarratto (another more common Sicilian variety) and others.

The vineyard area has expanded in recent years, with many outsiders joining the local producers, but volumes are still small and the wines are in demand. Production costs are high, and so, sadly, prices tend to be high. You can expect to pay €20 or more for a bottle. I do think most of the wines are worth it though. Marks & Spencer have an attractive fruit-filled Etna Rosso at a very reasonable €15.50 – had it been 50 cents cheaper, it would have been my bargain wine – as well as a good Etna Bianco for €16.50.

Sicily is one of the largest wine producing regions of Italy, and has upped its game in recent years. As well as the mass of decent inexpensive red and white wines you can find in your supermarket, grapes such as Nero d’Avola and Frappato (for red wines), and Inzolia for whites, are responsible for some excellent wines at very keen prices.

DSCF6724Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Bianco 2015
12.5%
€25

Wonderful complex wine with soft ripe pears, grilled nuts, and a clean mineral backbone. Delicious.

Stockists: Baggot Street Wines, Green Man Wines, Blackrock Cellar, On the Grapevine.

DSCF6789Guardoilvento Etna Rosso 2014
13.5%
€26

Beautiful characterful wine with herby aromas, elegant dark fruits and a seductive warm earthiness.

Stockists: Sheridans Cheesemongers; Mitchell & Son.

DSCF6943Benanti Etna Rosso 2014
13.5%
€26.95

Attractive elegant savoury dark cherry fruits with some black coffee; precise with a nice freshness.

Stockists: 64 Wine; Baggot St Wines; Clontarf Wines; The Corkscrew.

DSCF6500Nero d’Avola, Sicilia, Feudo Arancio
13%
€15

Warm rounded ripe dark fruits with a sprinkle of spice. Great value.

Stockists: Mitchell & Son, chq, Sandycove & Avoca, Kilmacanoge; Rua Deli; Wilde & Green.

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Tenuta delle Terre Nere 2015 Etna Bianco, Sicily

<strong>Tenuta delle Terre Nere 2015 Etna Bianco, Sicily</strong>

DSCF6724Tenuta delle Terre Nere 2015 Etna Bianco, Sicily
€25 from On the Grapevine, Dalkey; 64 Wine, Glasthule; Corkscrew, Chatham St.; Green Man Wines, Terenure; Baggot Street Wines.

Soft ripe pear aromas; beautifully balanced wine with clean minerals and pear and a subtle pear skin texture, with a hint of toasted hazelnuts, finishing very dry and long – an excellent evolving wine with fresh elegant precise flavours.

Lightly flavoured seafood dishes (prawns with pasta?) would allow this to show off nicely.

The wines produced on the slopes of Mount Etna have been the talk of the wine world for the last decade. A few determined wine geeks, followed by an ever-increasing horde of producers, have established, or re-established ancient vineyards, largely using indigenous grape varieties. The results have been spectacular; I intend writing an article for the Irish Times over the next few weeks, but in the meantime, I feature one delicious white wine, made from a blend of Carrica, Catarratto, Grecanico and Minella.

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