Time has flown, far too quickly, in Sicily. Several of the people we have met have described Sicily as a mini continent, with a wide variety of scenery, cultures and of course wine! I’m glad we were based in Marsala, which has real charm, a combination of beautiful old buildings and a bustling current liveliness – on Saturday night we ran the gauntlet of the passegiata, with whole families out strolling, the teenagers having peeled off into their groups and couples, the little ones looking in every direction but the one they were walking in and affectionate greetings in abundance. Two of the group managed to gatecrash a wedding in the main church, and were particularly struck by the drone being used by the photographer.
The western side of the island also seems to be the best place to visit the majority of the top names. Planeta, yesterday, is probably the most famous, but on our last day of visits we took in two more great wineries, each special in very different ways.
Our first visit was to Cantine Fina, which overlooks the northern coast between Marsala and Palermo, from an amazing clifftop position. Bruno Fina was director of Sicily’s viticultural research institute, and when he started making wine in 1990 was able to source some of the best grapes from the western side of Sicily. All but one of his wines are IGP Terre Sicilane, and their names reflect the Arab influences that also come through in the design of the buildings.
We were greeted by his daughter Frederica who took us into the winery and showed us their huge press, which could have filled the space shuttle cargo bay and can handle 15,000 litres of juice. Tim assures me we we would have seen presses of this size in Puglia, but I was still impressed. The barrel store was not of Donnafugata proportions, but still had a lot of barrels, the larger, older for Nero d’Avola, the new barriques for Chardonnay and a small amount of Grillo.
We ascended to the roof terrace and admired the even better view, and then descended one flight to their airy north facing tasting room for our tasting, and here any suspicions I had that the scale and quirky style of the winery might result in less interesting wine were thoroughly debunked. We tasted a series of wines that were so clean and fresh, with such interesting and complex flavours that the scale at which they might be made just didn’t matter.
The Kabrilla Grillo, grown organically, 50% from salt pans vineyards below us, the rest from higher altitude vineyards with 30% barrel fermented, had a fresh nose with a salty tang, good mouthfeel and a nice finish.
Kikè, named after Frederica, a blend of 90% Gewurtztraminer (Traminer Aromatico in Italy) and 10% Sauvignon Blanc was minerally aromatic on the nose with a hint of lychee, and a lovely palate: high acidity, lots of complex flavours and a good finish.
Taif, 100% Zibibbo had a delicate herby aromatic nose, and a great fresh palate with mouth coating interesting flavours.
Perricone was made from Sicily’s most ancient grape, historically used to make Marsala Rubio. This was the first wine made by her brother Sergio – a red wine made totally in stainless steel with a plummy nose, and for me a bit dense and tannic on the palate, but definitely worth putting away for a few years to return to.
All the wines so far had been from the 2016 vintage, but for Caro Maestro, their blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot we tasted the 2014, and this was a wine definitely worth laying down. A dense, somewhat minty claretty nose, even more dense on the palate. But a tantalising glimpse of what these cool climate grapes can do in Sicily’s fascinating growing conditions.
We finished our tasting with the El Aziz, a Grillo late harvest wine with great sweetness and acidity. And I must mention the splendid array of dishes we enjoyed with the wines – a pre-light lunch light lunch in itself!
From Fina to Azienda Agricola Ceuso was a short drive up into the hills, with no navigational issues. We were greeted by Giuseppe Melia and his niece Luisa who together gave us a fabulous introduction to Ceuso, and insight into their wine making philosophy.
Giuseppe, his brothers Antonio and Vincenzo, and their brother in law Francesco Vallone, all of whom had been involved in the wine industry as agronomists and winemakers came together in the 1980s, literally making wine in a garage in Alcamo in the Trapani region using the name Ceuso which means mulberry. Their wine was picked up by a journalist who wrote about the ‘Chateau Garage’, clearly very favourably and in the 1990s they moved into the baglio (the typical Sicilian courtyard farm) they now occupy. They have 42 hectares of vines in Salerni, about 20km away and 8ha of vines nearby. The local area is famous for its huge limestone caverns, in which were settlements in pre-historic times (and have featured in an episode of Inspector Montalbano), and Greek temples such as Il Tempio di Segesta.
We started with a fabulous explanation of red wine making from Luisa (who is Ceuso’s export manager), with interjections in Italian from Giuseppe. Temperature control, throughout fermentation and during maturation, is key, but achieved through two very different approaches. During vinification stainless steel and heat exchange is key to keeping temperatures right. However, once the wine is made stainless steel is no longer right and the wine is kept in large cement vats (lined with resin). This is for two reasons – cement vats do not require artificial cooling as they are built to be insulated, but for the first time ever on a tour we learnt about the galvanic effect set up by different metals exposed by welds in a stainless steel tank. This creates slight currents and therefore movement of wine, which needs to be avoided – as Ceuso red wines are not filtered, the time spent in cement enables all sediments remaining after fermentation to settle to the bottom, and occasional racking (removing the wine from a tank, leaving the sediments behind) ensures that by the time wines are bottled, the wines are naturally clean and ready to drink. The idea of keeping the wine ‘calm’ appealed to us!
In the barrel store we learnt that the majority of the barriques contained the blend of Nero d’Avola, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot making up their top wine, with just a few barrels of individual varieties kept for final blending. A bit shocking to think that some of these pure varietals, that have been treated so well, may end up sold as bulk if they are surplus to requirements after the final blend!
Their white wine ‘Scurati Grillo’ 2016 smelt of fresh cut hay and white peach, with minerally notes emerging as it warmed slightly in the glass.
Lot of structure on the palate, with good mouthfeel and fresh flavours.
Their entry level red, ‘Scurati Nero d’Avola’ 2014 had spent ten months in cement tanks, and is made from their youngest vines. Dense in colour, and loads of fruit and tannin on the palate – in perfect balance, but I felt needs a couple of years to open out and be properly approachable.
Finally two vintages of their top of the range Ceuso (a blend, approximately, of 50% Nero d’Avola, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Merlot), which spends ten months in cement tanks, around ten months in barrique and a further number of months back in cement before bottling.
The 2011 had a super nose, with black and red fruits and somewhat vegetal character. On the palate, it was dense and a bit closed,but a definite sense of elegance.
The 2008 was much more herbaceous on the nose, with dark fruits dominated the red cherries, and more developed in palate: the fruit more forward, but the tannins still quite prevelant. I thought it was very elegant and over lunch it opened up further delivering lots of complexity and flavour.
Once we had finished the tasting we returned to the wines while we tucked into a lunch local of meats and cheeses including ricotta made that morning, caponata, various bruschetta and pizze, olives and olive oil. All the wines went beautifully.
Lunch was rounded off with the most divine ricotta pastries – just lovely!
After two light lunches we might have found dinner a bit difficult but we came round with the help of some coffee and a sit in the sun in the Hotel Carmine’s lovely garden, and enjoyed a fantastic final meal at Osteria San Lorenzo – yet more superb antipasti, delicious pasta, a fried fish main and another delicious ricotta pudding. White Grillo and red Nerello Mascalese wines went perfectly, and we finished the evening as we had started, in the hotel bar, drinking Marsala.
In case I don’t get the chance to blog again I do hope I have conveyed the fun we have had (it was lovely to hear from a first timer how much laughter had been a feature of the tour), the warmth of hospitality we received (not just from wineries, but from our hotel and every restaurant, bar or pizzeria we frequented), the beauty of the island, the abundance and flavour of its food (aubergines and anchovies will henceforth be a major feature of my cooking at home, teenage daughters beware!), and the range and quality of Sicilian wine. I firmly believe that if I am ever in doubt of what to order in a bar or restaurant back home, I will look for a Sicilian wine, becuase what will find its way to the UK market will be of such brilliant value for money that you can’t go wrong.