AUGUST 2019 ITALIAN WINE CLUB
CRISP AND COMPLEX TEXTURES FROM SICILIAN HOTSPOTS
Sicily produces an insane amount of wine. The international reputation of its warm island soils can be credited to the big local red grape Calabrese, far more commonly known as Nero d’Avola. Long ago, however, it was the fortified wines of Marsala that first launched Sicily’s fame. Although the grand majority of white grapes grown on the island today still go into Marsala production very little is considered of quality (that being said, if you’ve never had a proper aged Marsala, it is more than worth seeking out!) For far too long the white wines of Sicily were overripe, inexpensive and reaching for an international audience. This is not the case today.
Sicilian producers have quickly re-discovered the great potential of their native local grapes in regards to their propensity towards making incredibly complex white wines. Some of these grape varieties they’re only just now figuring out how to grow and produce with high quality in mind even though they’ve existed there for many generations. The island of Sicily is peppered with world class soils and vineyard sites, not too mention the constant influence of the surrounding Mediterranean Sea, as the rest of the world has recently discovered that there is some serious magic to be had from wines made from volcanic islands. There is a perfect storm brewing. Hold out your glasses.
PS: All four wines this month will benefit from some oxygen so go ahead and decant away. And when we say that… it does not mean you need anything fancy nor extra hours to do so. A vase? A large Ball Jar? Ready, go. The result is the same. Creative decanter substitutes makes great conversation starters at your dinner party.
PPS: Sicilia (Trinacria) is the biggest island in the Mediterranean, separated from the mainland by the strait of Messina. Sicily was known by the Romans as Trinacrium, meaning “star with three points.”
WINE NO. 1
Malvasia di Lipari
Malfa, Salina, Sicily 2017
MALVASIA DI LIPARI [mahl-vah-ZEE-ah dee LEE-pah-ri]
The Malvasia family of grapes can be quite confusing. Most often they are associated with sweeter wines due to their opulent aromatics, but out of the 18 different Malvasia grapes there are only a few that consistently excel in making outstanding dry wines. And those just happen to be the hardest to find. Malvasia di Lipari is only found in the Aeolian Islands (which is essentially just a string of active volcanoes in the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Northeast of Sicily) on Lipari and Salina. All told there’s only about 160 acres planted to this particular Malvasia variety and about 80% of that goes to producing dessert wine. This truly a rare and beautiful gem to behold.
Nino Caravaglio was among the first artisans in all of Sicily to become certified organic in the 90’s, though his family has been farming that way for 500 years. He and his wife are always slowly expanding both their vineyards and farm land (where they also grow the Salina’s famous caperberries) but only as the natural terrain will allow. The Salina volcano slopes are steep on this north side of the island and then they level out straight into the sea below – you can imagine how precious the land is and how thoughtful one must be to maintain such properties. This Sicilian Shangri-la is in the perfect hands with the Caravaglios and we’re thankful to share a taste of it.
Star fruit, Kaffir Lime, orange blossom honey, passionfruit, and anise hyssop (nerdy, but I simply can’t get enough of this in my garden right now). All that on it’s own is delightful, but hands down it’s the tightly wound minerality that strings this wine together beautifully. Dry aromatic white wines made this well can easily inspire exotic descriptors such as these. Sometimes with Malvasia the aromatics get too perfumey and can be off-putting for many wine lovers. Not a problem here, thankfully, as this wine is balanced beautifully with a briny and savory side that provides complexity and nerve, resulting in thirst-quenching glee. I know… I get extra wordy when I love the wine just a bit extra. This is some serious summer-y deliciousness.
‘Infatata’ means ‘enchanted’ – Caravaglio says his passion for winemaking stems from both wisdom and “an equal dose of magic.” ‘Tricoli’ Vineyard is shaped like a triangle and stretches up the steep slope of an ancient volcano in the famed Malfa district on Salina Island.
Centopassi ‘Terre Rosse di Giabbascio’
San Giuseppe Jato, Palermo, Sicily 2017
Catarratto comes from ‘waterfall,’ as in this grape’s ability to produce in huge volumes, or ‘cascades’ of fruit. This is truly it’s superpower. Catarratto is the workhorse grape for most of Sicily’s Marsala production. Up until recently this grape made up about 75% of all plantings in Sicily (beastly numbers) but in the last 20 years that number has shrunk to 35%. The history of the grape is one of quantity and not quality, but clearly the focus in Sicily has changed for the better. This wine is easily the best varietal Catarratto I’ve ever had.
Italy is one of the only places in Europe where the state can reclaim property from convicted criminals. The Libera Terra (free the land) project is working to revitalize this otherwise dormant land and create organic cooperatives for the local farmers. Centopassi is the winemaking division and all of the wines are grown in vineyards confiscated from convicted Mafiosi, borrowing its name from the recent and influential anti-Mafia film ‘I Cento Passi’ (the Hundred Steps). But the real story here is in the vines themselves and in the families and communities reclaiming their identities which lived for far too long under the shadow of the infamous criminal organization. This is an inspiring project that is clearly worthy of support well beyond the phenomenal wines they are producing.
Soft fresh grown herbs on the nose with juicy ripe pears. Lemon grass, dried pineapple and mandarin oranges with some classic green apple tartness. This has a unique sweet ‘sushi ginger’ zing to it, as well as fresh wet stone minerality and bright acidity. Far more nerve and structure than can usually be expected from such a warm climate, let alone this area of Sicily. As it opens up, the length on the wine is really quite striking. Quaffable white wine is great and all, but when the flavors and textures of a wine are as persistent as this one is on the tongue, you know you’ve got something special going on.
The Giabbascio vineyard is 1150 feet above sea level and the soil is red with iron oxides, hence ‘Terre Rosse.’ On the back label you’ll see a dedication to Pio La Torre- a local Communist leader who was killed for standing against the Sicilian Mafia, and the creator of the aforementioned land and assets reclamation law.
Benanti, Etna Bianco
Viagrande, Etna, Sicily 2017
The true taste of Mt. Etna! Grown on these volcanic slopes for likely centuries, Carricante is now only found here, and so far any other attempts to grow elsewhere have been less than successful. It is prone to sunburn and disease, has a tendency toward low yields and low sugars (= low alcohol) and high acidity. All factors helping point toward its specialized (and rare) status, as (clearly) the rest of the Sicilian wine industry has long been focused on the exact opposite attributes. Yet with the combination of top flight real estate (though admittedly at the whim of a live volcano) and lots of hard work in the vineyard, there are few who doubt the potential for world class greatness from the Carricante grape.
Benanti is the most storied house in the Etna region. Giuseppe Benanti founded his family winery originally as a hobby project in 1988, and has since handed it over to his twin sons, Salvino and Antonio. 1988? These crazy old vines and viticulture had been there for ages, and only then was Etna being recognized as a special place for wine … which today simply seems insane. The grapes that now mark Sicily’s greatest wines; Nerello Mascalese and Carricante are known as such, thanks to this family and others who paved the way. ‘Pietramarina’, their reserve bottling and old vine single vineyard Carricante, is considered one of the very best white wines in all of Italy.
Ok pretend you were asked to smell this one blind… I don’t just mean ‘wine’ blind, but as if you had no idea what type of beverage was in your glass at all. I think I might guess a Margherita? Lime? Check. Salt? Check. And maybe be so bold as to suggest Mezcal instead of Tequila due to the slight smokiness? It’s all about Mt. Etna right here and the Carricante grape that gives off so many more flavors outside your normal rolodex. Add the likes of Lychee, Chamomile, and White Sage for example. The layers here are so unique, please do take your time. Drinking this after a day or two and it starts to show similarities to Chablis, or even Champagne sans bulles.
The Benanti name may be the most recognized in Etna, but they’re quick to state that none of the regions recent success would have been possible without the work of oenologist, Salvo Foti. Ok, homework assignment: drink more Etna Bianco! ‘I Vigneri’ is Foti’s small label and is a must try. Also try Graci, Ayunta and Federico Curtaz.
Mortellito ‘Calaiancu’ Bianco
Grillo 90% + Catarratto 10%
Pachino, Noto, Sicily 2018
The Grillo grape variety is likely named from the word Grilli, meaning pip, as opposed to Grillo, which means Cricket. It is also an important grape in Marsala production but more often found in the high quality stuff rather than the bulk ‘cooking wine.’ In fact, it is thought to have the highest potential for quality out of the more widely planted white grapes on the island (e.g. Catarratto, Ansonica; Carricante is in a class by itself.) on the island, but once again due to farmers conditioned to grow for volume – let’s just say you’ve got to kiss a lot of crickets before you find a princely Grillo such as this.
Dario Serrentino, after years of selling his grapes to now famous pioneers in Sicilian natural wine (Frank Cornelissen, Lamoresca) he finally started Mortellito in 2014. Dario also sits in the natural wine camp, but his approach is making clean wines which taste ‘extreme only in their deliciousness.’ Amen to that. The Noto region can get pretty stinking hot (see: same latitude as Morocco or Tunisia) but Dario’s family has been quite fortunate to have land rich with limestone, which helps keep the sugars in check, the acidity high, as well as providing the mineral backbone that all good island born white wines require. I love this quote from the importer:
“His wines have a tempered hedonism, a mix of ‘taking’ in the sun (as the Italian idiom goes), and then ‘taking a bath’ in the salty-cool sea.”
I’m totally a fan of a wine not shy about being straight vegetal. This one hits my olfactory happy spot with the unique and mouth watering summer fragrance of fresh tomato leafs. There are a few similarities here with Sauvignon Blanc, which I find alluring in this case (rare!) It is more fresh herbs than grassy, more exotic like Jalapeño than bell peppery. This wine more about Pomelo, under ripe kiwi fruit and lemon marmalade (so Sicilian!) than a typical tropical trap, and a sprig or two of mint and rosemary exotically finish it off. It’s complex to be sure, and will be super fun to experiment with for pairing foods (something with Tamarind perhaps?) but it is also surprisingly super refreshing in that sort of grapefruit-shandy sort of way.
Mortellito is the name of Dario’s family land and the label clearly gives you a window into how special a place it is. ‘Calaiancu’ is native Siciliano dialect for ‘white grapes’ Only 250 cases made, we are thrilled to have the opportunity to present it to you.