A very gentle start at 9.40 and a short drive through Marsala to the Curatolo Arini winery. 50 years ago this would have been surrounded by vines, but Marsala has grown around it, so now this is their base, and grapes are grown in a number of places mainly in the north west of Italy.
Alexandra, a fifth generation member of the Curatolo family welcomed us and after a some introductions she let Carlo, their export manager, take us round the winery before our tasting. Carlo shared some great insights into the challenges of making wine as a medium sized producer, even one as famous as Curatolo – the Curatolo family were one of the first families to invest in Marsala production in 1875, and we gathered an impression of an innovative, forward looking company.
Our tasting took place in the main barrel cellar, amid the barrels and we tasted a red and a white from each of their ranges – Borgo Selene (a Catarrato Inzolia blend and a Nero D’Avola), Paccamora (an Inzola and a Nero D’Avola) and Curatolo Arini (a Grillo and another Nero D’Avola) which demonstrated the increasing quality and complexity of wines grown on finer vineyard sites. The whites demonstrated the freshness and great acidity of Sicilian wines – thanks to 200+ days of wind each year, and harvesting in August. The three reds showed what an interesting grape Nero D’Avola is and how 15 months in a barrique can add somthing very classy to good quality grapes. Just before our Marsala masterclass we tried a Zibibbo, a spicy white with something of Gewurtztraminer about it. At Donnafugata our next visit we were reintroduced to it as Moscato d’Alexandra.
Our Marsala masterclass served as a great introduction, and I think resulted in a few converts! We learnt about the different classifications based on dryness or sweetness, time spent ageing and grape quality, and tasted a basic Fine (mainly sold as a cooking wine in the States which seems a bit of a waste), a Superiore Riserva from the 2000 vintage, a 1998 Superiore Riserva, a Marsala Vergine 1995 from cask and finally a Superiore Dolce that was just five years old. Alongside these we had a glass of Mistella, the grape must blended with spirit added to all Marsalas to fortify them, and a glass of Mosto Cotto, a treacly liquid that adds sweetness and character to all but the Vergine wines. These really helped our understanding of the wines, as we could find traces of both of them in the finished wines.
After three hours you would think we’d have had enough Marsala but we were truly sorry to leave, but we had to say goodbye to Nino, the winemaker, Alexandra and Carlo in order to get to Donnafugata for a lunchtime visit and tasting.
Ivan and Chiara were our hosts at one of the most famous wineries in Sicily. An long established family winery, what we saw is the creation of the current generation of the Rallo family: Giacomo (who died last year), his wife Gabriella, son Antonio, and daughter Josè, Donnafugata means ‘fleeing woman’, and wine labels abound with images of Queen Maria Carolina who escaped the court of Naples in the early 19th century to take refuge on Sicily. Design is an important part of what Donnafugata does, but then so is a focus on indigenous grape varieties, investment in new and improved vineyards (on Mount Etna and the island of Pantelleria), and on telling the Sicilian wine story worldwide.
Their vineyards in Pantelleria are a UNESCO world heritage site, using the traditional method of planting vines in hollows – to protect them from the wind and maximise any water they can gather.
A huge vaulted barrel cellar shows their commitment to developing fabulous red wine, and the beautifully decorated room we had our tasting lunch in showed their commitment to woo-ing customers!
Our tasting lunch was wonderful – we sat down to eight little (or not so little) plates of local dishes, and eight empty glasses. Those of us with allergies or other food preferences had our own lineup of dishes, but the eight wines were the same, and took us through Donnafugata’s range of grape varieties and levels of wine.
The Sur Sur Catarrato and Sherazade Nero d’Avola from their basic range were both good, well made wines that paired very well with respectively a mini bruschetta and a fish couscous dish. We met a new white grape, Ansonica in the Vigna di Gabri from their upper range, paired with a broccoli and pine nut flan, a lovely combination.
The Chiarandà chardonnay paired with octopus on a potato glacé was a bit challenging for some of us, but it’s good to be challenged – the wine was good, but indigenous Italian white grape varieties are growing so fast on me that it was probably the one I liked least! The Tancredi Cab Sauv/Nero d’Avola/Tannat blend that I know from home delivered all the easy drinking elegance that I expected, and went beautifully with an aubergine melanzane. Top of the range Mille e una Notte, a blend of Nero d’Avola, Petit Verdot, Syrah and others was excellent, and probably needed something more robust than the pork and spinach dish we had (which was still very good!).
Finally two sweeties, made from Zibibbo (which we had met for the first time in the morning) – the ‘entry level’ Kabir, which I particularly liked for its lightness, flavour and great acidity, and top of the range Ben Ryè, from the same grape but superior vines, given the passito treatment (20 days drying on straw outside, exposed to wind and sun), altogether a bigger experience in the glass. The two puddings, a typical Sicilian canoli and a chocolate and ricotta crumble, were both lovely and went with both wines.
As you can see from the before and after photos, I ate and drank pretty much everything, and I do apologise for going on and on about food and listing so many wines, but it’s impossible to leave anything out! When Tim blogs on the next tour it will be altogether more brief and to the point, but you will have to suffer my ramblings for a few more days…