Sicily; a study in duality

xOne has the feeling that there are two levels to everything in this ancient island. Sicily is a kingdom that has been a part of – yet apart from – the nation of Italy for just over a century; a very short time in its three millenia of known history. The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that an outsider may enjoy and appreciate the extremely attractive countryside and climate. But we will never truly be part of the passionate culture, clans and religion of this enigmatic island that tenderly yet firmly hold so many Sicilians in its thrall no matter how far afield they may range, in time and distance.
Most recently, I went to Sicily to attend the first annual Sicilia En Primeur event. In addition to sampling most of the 2003 wines and many older vintages, this visit was replete with glorious palatial dinners, vast drives across the island and exquisitely fresh country foods.

Eighty journalists from around the world were transported from the airport to the small seaside village of Mondello, to Hotel La Torre, where the New York writers sniffed disdainfully: “Tourist class, not four stars”. After lunch, they declared it to be “The worst meal we’ve ever had in Sicily”. Personally, I was pleased with my room where the balcony overlooked the sea, and the full-length glass doors, cracked open all night (has anyone ever figured out the heating system in these hotels?) allowed me to hear the quiet comings-and-goings of the fishermen. They provided the freshest cuttlefish I’ve ever had, as well as the regional delicacy, sea urchin, to the town’s restaurants.

At the end of an afternoon of resting and walking by the clear blue of the Mediterranean seashore, it was something of a shock to find ourselves in our fine clothing, entering a small palace well-populated by luminaries of the city of Palermo and of the wine industry of Sicilia – which now includes notables such as Fausto Maculan of Tuscany fame.First, however, were hors d’oeuvres and speeches of welcome, of course, by il Presidente di Assovini Sicilia Lucio Tasca D’Almerita and il Presidente di Banca Nuova Marino Breganze.

Wandering about the first floor of the elegant Palazzo Malvagna Spedalotto I admired the décor, antiques and knick-knacks, and suddenly realised that this was not a museum. The family photos were contemporary, and real. They had merely lent us one floor of their impressive 18th century home for the evening.

xAt dinner, the six courses were accompanied by 51 wines. Cleverly, wines from the 25 winemakers participating in this tasting festival were available, and could be ordered at any table, with any course.

Saturday night, dinner at the Palazzo Gangi was elegant and refined, and we dressed even more formally. The foods and wines were modern, yet it felt as if we were going back in time to the mid-1700s, when the Palazzo was built, and the height of Sicilian nobility gathered in these very rooms. Later that night, we sipped our after-dinner coffee in the room where Visconti directed Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale in 1963 classic movie “The Leopard”.

Sicilian wine producers’ major conflict today seems to be whether to stake their reputations on “international” varieties, or to create a market for Sicilian native grapes. While there is a proven worldwide market for varieties such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, growers are still in the process of learning how these grapes and wines behave in the various regions of Sicily.

The hearty native Nero d’Avola is being blended with international reds with more backbone such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon -and not always successfully. From my own tasting, it seems that adding more than about 10% Cabernet to Nero d’Avola essentially drowns out the best of the aromas and flavors of the Sicilian grape. Yet without the Cabernet, it’s much harder to age the wine. The fresh, white Inzolia grape has very little market awareness worldwide – and it is also known as Ansonica, to further confuse matters. Producers are divided in their thoughts and their methods – as well as their need for more immediate revenues.

Typically hot and dry during the summer, Sicily did not suffer greatly from the 2003 heatwave that affected other European wine-growing regions last year. With a colder spring and a September that included both high heat and some rainfall, conditions were somewhat uneven around the island, resulting in slightly lower yields (13% off the previous five-year average). Ranging from hot interior valleys, to Mediterranean, to mountainous, 65% of Sicily’s vineyards are classified as “hillside”.

The native varieties tend to be more interesting, judging by the older vintages such as 2000 and 2002. I tasted a few blends of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capuccio, for example, which had lovely plum and cherry fruit, with touches of eucalyptus or minerals.

Other than Inzolia, Sicily’s white grapes include Carricante, Catarratto, Grecanico and Grillo. Chardonnay is the main international white variety showing up in today’s wines.

There are 20 DOCs in Sicily, and as of this writing, no DOCGs. While on the island, I heard speculation the first DOCG might be created in the next year, most probably the Cerasuolo di Vittoria red wine made from the Frappato grape in the province of Ragusa.

xA carefully planned itinerary of winery visits somehow went awry, and I ended up crisscrossing the island multiple times in an effort to visit as many wineries and vineyards as possible. Fortunately, this allowed me to get a great sense of the terroir of the central and western areas of Sicily, and gave me a chance to tour the amazing Valley of the Temples in Agrigento en route for a rendezvous with a winery at the Agrigento rotary.In March, Sicily’s interior was a lush green, with flowering, white almond trees in the mountains, and pink cherry blossoms in the valleys.

Coastal regions were arid with fresh breezes from the sea. Winery personnel were extremely gracious and accommodating, though they did tend to stick to their own agendas while inundating us with their own theories, facts and figures. I can’t say any of us saw much of the behind-the-scenes developments, unless these ideas were ready to present to the public.

At several wineries we again experienced the duality of the island culture. Entering the property, one is presented with low, stone and stucco farm buildings that have stood this way for hundreds of years. Yet open one door you’ve stepped through the looking glass, into a gleaming, modern winery, instead of the mouldy barn and ancient storerooms the exterior suggest. This was repeated at the interior vineyards of Donnafugata, where we stepped from an elegant weekend country house directly into the winery. And the same is true at Tasca d’Almerita – where I do want to mention the tireless Lilly Lo Cascio, who sped us expertly around the island in her road-hugging BMW for the better part of a day, and even took time to get us to the best marzipan shop in Palermo.

Planeta is restoring an even more ancient Arabian-style farm site for visitors and tastings, with its classic gnarled olive tree in front, overlooking picturesque vineyards and hillsides sloping down to the small lake which serves as a reservoir for the property. Only a couple of us deigned to visit Settesoli, the plant which made Planeta possible. Owned by the Planeta family, this is an industrial winery, the source of menu wines for many hotels and restaurants on the island. However, Settesoli is going global as well: their newly-designed MandraRossa line of about a dozen casual wines will be appearing in shops in September (price Euro 12 or less).

While tasting these wines in Settesoli’s rooftop conference room, we noticed giant tanks studded about the property. This is the wine that goes to “fill out” the wines of northern regions. Once again, a duality: common knowledge; but never normally mentioned here – and certainly not in Tuscany, Umbria, Piedmont and other celebrated wine regions that might just be using this product…

As dessert wines are close to my heart, I hope to experience Pallenteria and Marsala someday. The gracious doyenne of Donnafugata, Gabriella Rallo, showed me amazing pictures of the traditional, boxy, thick-walled houses of Pallenteria, and described the lengthy harvest and drying time for the grapes.

I hope to visit this tiny island soon, and having seen much of Sicily, I will certainly return to visit the eastern regions, including Caltanissetta and Etna, where I hear there is good wine as well as innovation going on. Viva Sicilia!