Friday, 22 July 2011

O for a beaker full of the warm south...

Etna is Europe's largest volcano and still most definitely active, forever puffing out noxious clouds of sulphurous gases and sending out molten lava flows.

Not, you might think, a prime spot for grape-growing. Yet Etna is home to many vineyards and winemakers, who casually point out lava outcrops which have encroached on their vines.

This is just one of the many surprises awaiting the wine-lover in Sicily. Vines have been grown there for millennia, first brought by those ancient traders the Phoenicians in the 6th-8th century BC, then added to by successive waves of invaders including Greeks, Romans, Moors and Normans. Even the Brits have left their stamp on the Sicilian wine scene, being responsible for the popularity of the sherry-like fortified wine, Marsala. Its ability to keep without spoiling made it infinitely suitable as a tonic for the Royal Navy on their trips round the Med.

Today, Sicily has as much land under vine than Chile and produces a mind-boggling 11 million litres of wine each year. Along with Puglia, the heel of the boot of Italy, these two regions easily produce more wine than the whole of Australia. Where does it all go you ask? As less than 20% of it ends up in bottle, much of it is destined to be sold anonymously in bulk. And there has long been an invisible trade in deeply-coloured southern reds which have been used to beef up Italian wines from further north.

In recent years, however, Sicilians have been taking more pride in their treasure trove of indigenous grape varieties and the best producers are using them to make wines which are proudly and uniquely Sicilian in flavour.

Try these on for size:

Donnafugata Vigna di Gabri Contessa Entellina 2009 - £18.99 from Haslemere Cellar, Noble Green Wines (Hampton Hill) and
You might assume that somewhere as undoubtedly hot as Sicily would struggle to produce elegant white wines, but here's the proof that they can. This is two thirds Ansonica (confusingly also known as Inzolia, as if there aren't enough new grape names to get to grips with) with some Chardonnay. Nutty, mineral flavours and ripe fruit.

Cottanera Barbazzale Rosso 2010 - £10.23 from Astrum Cellars (Mitcham)
This is from the northern flank of Etna, which is cooler and wetter than much of the island – indeed they can get more rain in a year than Surrey. This is a blend of the delightfully-named Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, who sound as if they could be brothers from a Mafia family. Sniff it and that hint of tobacco leaf might remind you of a red wine from Bordeaux. However the palate has the kind of soft and ripe tannins that you would never find there. The lively red fruit and leafy character make this a wonderfully refreshing food wine.

Fondo Filara Etna Rosso - £10.95 from The Wine Society
Compare and contrast: the same two varieties as the wine above, but this one has seen some oak ageing. It does have a glossy oak sheen on it, but also a delicious liquorice, mineral character. The plush fruit is balanced by a ripe tannic underpinning. Do not attempt to drink without food!

COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2008 - £17.49 from Les Caves de Pyrène
Cerasuolo di Vittoria is a traditional blend of two native varieties: Frappato and Nero d'Avola, which complement each other perfectly. Nero d'Avola gives weight and fragrance and the Frappato a distinct sour cherry bite. This is beginning to mature and has a wonderfully laid back feel, with the fruit being given space to evolve and open out.

Planeta Santa Cecilia 2007 - £19.95 from, £21.75 from
The Planeta family (yes, a real name, not a made up brand name) have probably done more than any other winemaking family to blaze a trail for quality winemaking in modern era Sicily. This wine, 100% Nero d'Avola, is a great example of a deceptively simple drink – the fruit it bright and clean, it could never be described as heavy bodied, yet it doesn't lack for perfume and flavour. A surprisingly delicate expression of the heat and exoticism of Sicily. If this is a stretch for your wallet, the Planetas are also involved in the wines of the Settesoli co-operative, including their good value brand, Mandrarossa.

In our stop-start summer, a beaker of these wines could be as close as we get to the heat of the warm south this year – enjoy.