Over three tours during Spring 2017, we enjoyed wonderful hospitality, a lot of laughter, the abundance and flavour of Sicilian food, and best of all discovered the range and quality of Sicilian wine.
The tours commenced on Wednesday afternoon. Those of us meeting at Palermo airport boarded our coach, met our driver David, and were driven through rolling vineyards and olive groves and through a number of tunnels, to Marsala, and the beautiful Hotel Carmine with its lovely garden. We met in the bar for a glass of Marsala, and then walked round the corner for a superb meal at Casamia restaurant. Located literally 50 yards from our hotel in Marsala, this wonderful family owned restaurant delivered an exceptional dinner. Delicious salamis and local cheeses, vegetable stuffed pastries, black rice, an amazing selection of grilled meats and a classic Sicilian dessert – Cannoli, washed down with plenty of Grillo, Nero d’Avola and Syrah
Around Marsala – Curatolo Arini and Donnafugata
Englishman John Woodhouse discovered the concept of the In Perpetuum wine in Sicily in 1773. High alcohol wines of 15-16% were being stored in vats by the locals and each year were topped up by the next vintage. The high alcohol protected the wine from excessive oxidation and Woodhouse discovered that adding a bit more alcohol, the wine had the ability to travel by sea to England where it seemed to have improved with the journey. Thus the Marsala industry was born and became very popular with the Royal Navy.
Fast forward to the 1970’s and the wine was in decline. The name was abused; it became a wine that coffee or banana or almond flavours could be added and most people associated it with cooking wine. Since 1984, steps have been taken to take back control and restore the famous fortified wine at least part way to its former glory.
At Curatolo Arini, we were met by Alexandra, a fifth generation member of the family. She handed over to the exuberant Carlo who is in charge of sales and we were recipients of a whirlwind of information: social history, the origins of Marsala, current issues facing the Sicilian wine trade and much more.
We tasted through five whites and four reds including Grillo, Zibibbo, Inzolia/Cattarratto blends and different versions of Nero d’Avola before moving on to a quite amazing Marsala masterclass. Given the English connection we were slightly ashamed about how little we knew of its history and production methods. Carlo took us through all the details (including samples of the mistella and mosto cotto which add to Marsala’s unique character) as we tasted four Marsalas of increasing sweetness: Semisecco, Superiore, Dolce and a Vergine 1995 followed by an amazing 30 year old “forgotten” Marsala.
We came away enthralled, educated and resolving to drink more Marsala rather than just cook with it!
The Rallo family have been highly influential in putting high quality Sicilian wines into the international market place and Donnafugata has a top class reputation. After a short visit round the winery and amazing barrel cellar we settled in for an eight wine/eight dish pairing lunch that showcased the estate wines and some delicious local cuisine. There were many highlights but the two dessert wines from Pantelleria shone out for me.
We headed south to the town of Sambuca and devoted our time to one very important winery, Planeta, at their exquisite Ulmo property . We basked in glorious sunshine on Tours 2 and 3, but on Tour 1, which was at the end of April, the weather was a little murky as the picture of us returning from the vineyards by Lake Arancio shows.
Diego Planeta put Sicily on the wine map when his Chardonnay won various Chardonnay di Mundi awards in the 1990s.
Subsequently the family have experimented with dozens of international and indigenous grape varieties, and have acquired vineyards and established wineries across Sicily. Their quest for top notch Pinot Noir continues, they have launched an exciting method traditionelle Carricante and are seeing exciting results for Riesling grown around Mount Etna.
We took a tour of the vineyards, observing the hallowed Chardonnay vines that created the wine that really put Planeta on the world wine map. Chiara Planeta gave us a deep insight into the progressive family mentality and then hosted a terrific tasting of six wines from different regions of Sicily.
The quality was exceptional and introduced us to grapes such as Nocera, Grecanico and Frappato. After canapés with a glass of something, we enjoyed a wonderful lunch accompanied by their famed Menfi Chardonnay and Ulmo Merlot.
Fina, Barraco and Ceuso
A short drive up the coast from Marsala towards Palermo, enjoying stunning views across the Trapani coastline, was our outward route on Saturday morning. On two of our tours we visited Cantine Fina where we met various members of the Fina family, Bruno, Federica and Pietro.
We marvelled at the huge wine press (15,000 litres), and at the lovely north facing tasting room in the Arabian influenced ‘visitor centre’. There we tasted a series of wines that were clean, fresh, interesting and complex, and of a quality that was really impressive given the scale at which they operate. No wonder perhaps as the legendary consultant oenologist Giacomo Tachis advises the estate.
A somewhat riotous tasting ensued with 13 wines, a lot of shouting amongst the Fina family and a desperate bid to keep on schedule. An unexpected and enormous pre light lunch spread appeared but we seemed to manage!
On Tour 3 I tried something different: Vini Baracco is a small, eleven hectare estate that produces most of its wines without adding sulphites. This added a fascinating twist to our tour as we discovered an intriguing new range of aromas and tastes. Using the technique of slightly extending the skin contact with the fermenting juice the colours of the wine were deeper than expected.
Aromatically, the wines were intense, with plenty of almond, bergamot, iodine (due to the proximity of the vineyards to the sea), herbs and spices. Paolo was an engaging host who took us for a walk through the vineyards which helped to explain the effect of the sea breezes. The styles of Grillo, Catarratto, Zibibbo and Nero d’Avola were markedly different to those tasted earlier in the week.
This was a highly unusual visit and tasting and gave a different perspective on Sicilian wine.
Ceuso was a wonderful culmination of our tour itinerary. Three brothers and their brother-in-law had started making wine in a garage in the 1980s, and assisted by some very favourable journalism about ‘Chateau Garage’, built a reputation that enabled them to expand and occupy the baglio, or traditional Sicilian courtyard farm, where we visited them. Giuseppe (one of the three brothers) and Luisa (his niece) gave us a marvellous tour, including a revealing exposition of the benefits of storing wine in cement vats rather than stainless steel. The idea of keeping wine calm, away from galvanic currents, was something none of us had heard of before!
We then tasted their stunning Grillo and Nero D’Avola, and different vintages of flagship Ceuso (50% Nero d’Avola, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot)—which showed loads of potential (we will definitely have to come back!). The actual light lunch was lovely, and very much enjoyed with the Ceuso wine.
Back in Marsala we gathered our energy and all made it to the final dinner at Osteria San Lorenzo, where we enjoyed a fantastic meal including an amazing seafood antipasti. We drank them dry of Grillo, and added Nerello Mascalese to our trophy list.
I think everyone left Sicily whether on the Sunday morning after breakfast or after a few days’ extra holiday with a determination to return. Many of our hosts referred to the island as ‘a continent’, and the diversity of wine styles surpassed all our expectations – as did the quality. All prejudiced views of hot climate wines being heavy and alcoholic were dispelled at every visit – all the wines we tasted were fresh, vibrant and beautifully balanced. As this wonderful region’s wine culture continues to develop, I have no doubt there will be more to explore in the future – I personally cannot wait to return.