Nero Oro, Appassimento, Nero d’Avola, Sicilia DOC, The Wine People, 2017, 14.0%.
This is available from Majestic for around £9 if you “mix six”, otherwise £10. Oh, and it really is a Sicilia DOC wine as stated above, rather than the IGP designation shown in the image. The Wine People market it as part of their range, but the wine is actually made by Santa Tresa, an estate in South East Sicily near Vittoria.
Appassimento means that before winemaking the grapes are partially dried, which concentrates their sugar, acidity and flavour. In this case the enhanced sugar content of the grapes ferments to give a wine with a highish alcohol content, and with some sugar left over after the fermentation to give a slightly sweet wine. Together with low astringency, this gives a smooth easy drinking wine with some classy fruit, and the wine’s sweetness is moderated by balancing acidity.
This will doubtless have broad appeal, and it is well made for what it is, even if it is not a style I would usually drink myself. I suggest drinking it slightly chilled – maybe at around 17-18ºC. And remember it will warm up quickly if left out of the fridge in the hot weather we have been having recently, so probably best to bring it out a bit cooler than that. See here for advice on adjusting the temperature of wine bottles. I reckon it would work well with pork and duck, and pretty much any barbequed meat. Also with cheeses like Cheddar and Stilton, as a lighter alternative to Port.
Medium pale ruby. Intense fresh fruit – cherry and damson. A delicate fragrance, and aromas that somehow reminds me of Aussie Shiraz. Medium high acidity. Off dry. Low astringency, but there is some present. You can feel the alcohol on the palate, but it is not hot. The sweetness and acidity are nicely balanced, and the wine finishes sharp. A pretty and straightforward wine. Drink now ***
(Unlike the vast majority of wines I mention on my blog, I did not pay for this wine. It was offered to me as a sample, which I accepted because I thought the wine sounded interestingly different to a lot of wines on the market.)
Made in the Cerasuolo di Vittoria region in Sicily, this has the correct grape varieties – Nero d’Avola and Frappato – to be called Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOC were it not for the winemaking. What is wrong with the winemaking? Well, there’s nothing actually wrong, but it’s made in large clay vessels that are often called amphoras. After fermentation the wines remain in amphora for several months until bottling. See here for more about the producer and the winemaking, and here for note on earlier vintages of Pithos Rosso.
Note that the label design has changed since those vintages, and it changed again for the 2012, which also has the new designation Vittoria Rosso DOC. If you’re trying to find this wine on your wine merchant’s shelf, it is the words Pithos Rosso on a squat-shaped bottle that you need to look out for.
This is a wine that I have drunk many bottles of, from several different vintages, and it never fails to impress me. A recent bottle of the 2011 seemed particularly good, and that is what persuaded me to put fingers to keyboard on this occasion. If you understand what I like in this wine, I think you will have gone a long way towards knowing how my vinous mind works.
Here’s the tasting note for my recently drunk 2011, pictured above… Pale garnet ruby. On the nose, intense, delicate, fragrant, soft cherry, spice and herb complexity. High acidity. Medium low tannin. Aromas as on the nose, though the cherry aromas seem more vibrant with the acidity. Excellent length. A green note that reminds me of shelling broad beans – also on the nose now – nothing negative about this. Sweet red fruit now I am more accustomed to the acidity, which does not seem so stark after a few sips. Drink now I think. There’s a lot of enjoyment here. Can it really get better? Tossing up between 5 and 6 stars, I’ll go for ******
To try to put into words the aspects of this wine that I like so much, I think it is the delicate complexity of the fruit, spice and herb notes. It is almost as if this is a wine mature before its time – in a good way that is. In fact, I would say it is mature in the best possible way as far as I am concerned, as there is absolutely no tendency towards oxidation. Good acidity is also important – I like my wines to be refreshing and food friendly. Combine that with a price tag of around £20 and good availability, and it is a winner for me.
Ben (that’s Benjamin Spencer of Etna Wine Lab) had just shown us around the palmento at our hotel, and ferried us the short distance to the restaurant Da Antonio for this tasting. It was from one palmento to another. This restaurant used to be in the town of Randazzo, but had recently moved a few miles out into the country. The tasting was upstairs in the old treading area of the beautifully restored palmento, where we met Valeria Càrasto, also of Etna Wine Lab, who arranged this tasting for us. They did receive payment, but in the interests of full disclosure I should add that I very much doubt that what we paid covered the full cost of the event.
We soon got stuck into the pleasant task of tasting wines from the Etna region, starting with the whites. I finished up with 20 tasting notes, so a bottle must have arrived after the initial line up shown above. The tasting table picture was taken with permission from Valeria’s Facebook page and shows, left to right, Ben, my wife and me. The only thing missing from the picture, but not from the event, was the wonderful finger-food provided by Da Antonio, and the wine producers.
Towards the lunchtime, and I think about halfway through the tasting, producer representatives arrived to say hello to us and meet each other – owners and family members of the smaller producers, and winemakers and marketers from the larger ones. Left to right above are Mariarita Grasso, and Franco Calcagno with Valeria Càrasto.
And here is agronomist Giovanni Marletta with Alberto Falcone holding one of his bottles, and Patricia Tóth, winemaker at Planeta, in thoughtful discussion with Ben.
Finally, Ben with Agatino Failla, responsible for export sales at Benanti, and Valeria Franco and Giuseppe Scirto. We also met Antonino Destro, Peter Wiegner, and Irene Badalà, but sadly they will have to remain pictureless, and is as far as I can tell Irene does not have a website.
As ever, please do not take my tasting notes too seriously – they show my impressions on the day, no more no less – I hate to be seen as a judge of wines, but also feel I want to communicate my impressions. Looking back on my notes I see that there are a lot more high scores than usual, which is measure of how I enjoyed the day, but which I fear might be a bit unfair to wines elsewhere in my blog. The prices are approximate UK retail, or my best guess in the cases where they are not available over here.
Saxanigra, Vino Spumante, Metodo Classico, Brut, Destro, 2010, 12.0%, £20.00
This is 100% Nerello Mascalese, with 36 months on lees. Pale greenish straw. Very persistent surface foam, whose appearance reminded me of Asti. But appearance was the only similarity to Asti. This was fresh, dry, and had high acidity. Intense minerality and fruit. I think I would probably drink this now, but it could have aging potential ****
Isolonuda, Etna Bianco DOC, Destro, 2013, 12.5%, £13.00
Carricante, with some Carraratto. Pale straw. Intense fruit, and with a distinctive spice. Clove perhaps? Medium acidity. Dry, intense, viscous. Excellent length. Drink now ****
Mari, di Ripiddu, Etna Bianco DOC, Filippo Grasso, 2011, 12.5%, £13.00
Carricante, with some Carraratto, 50% from Milo. Medium gold. Don’t get a lot on the nose. Medium acidity. Dry, with citrus fruit. Thought I detected oak, but there is none! Excellent length. Drink now ****
Eruzione 1614, DOC, Sicilia Planeta, 2013, 14.0%, £14.00
Carricante and 5% Riesling. Medium gold. Again, that spicy note that could be clove. Medium acidity. A little off-dry I think? Citrus. Excellent length. Drink now ***
Dayini, Bianco, Etna DOC, Terre di Trente 2012, 12.5%, £18.00
Carricante and Minnelo. Medium gold. Reductive and farmyard – but in a good way. Medium acid. Dry, elegant, complex and subtle. Drink now *****
Wiegner, Elisena, Sicilia IGT, 2011, 13.0%, £15.00
Fiano. Medium gold. Dumb on the nose. Medium acidity. Dry, elegant, some complexity. Something about this wine that I find difficult to characterise. Drink now *****
Quantico, Etna Bianco DOP, Giulemi, 2012, 13.5%, £25.00
Carricante and Cateratto. Biodynamic, natural, and I’ve heard they do weird stuff with electromagnetism in the vineyards (which I am sure someone else told me was bad for cosmic energy, but what do I know). Medium gold. Nose is complex and had a sweet nature. Medium high acidity. Definitely dry on the palate. Hugely intense. Apples. Drink now *****
Eruzione 1614, Nerello Mascelese, Sicilia IGT, Planeta, 2011, 13.5%, £14.00
Pale ruby garnet. Slightly reductive red fruit. Medium low acid. Medium low tannin. Drink now **
Treterre, Sicilia IGT, Rosso, Wiegner, 2009, 14.0%, £15.00
Nerello Mascalese. Medium garnet. Rasiny red fruit. Medium high acid. Medium tannin. Raisiny, but fresh. Intense. Drink now ****
Arcuria, Etna Rosso DOC, Calcagno, 2011, 14.0%, £17.00
Arcuria is the Contrada name. 2010 was the drier vintage in this Contrada, but 2011 is generally better. Medium garnet. Dumb. Spicy red fruit. Medium high acid. Medium tannin. Good sweet intense fruit. Drink now or keep ****
Arcuria, Etna Rosso DOC, Calcagno, 2010, 13.5%, £17.00
More tawny than the 2011. More intense, and spicier, but otherwise quite similar. Good intense fruit. Drink now or keep *****
Capu, Chiurma, di Ripiddu, Etna Rosso DOC, Calderara Sottano, Filippo Grasso, 2011, 14.0%, £18.00
Intense garnet. Smoky. Reductive. Medium acidity. Medium high tannin. Big, powerful and intense. Sweet fruit. Needs several years *****
Etna Rosso DOC, Azienda Agricola Irene Badalà, 2012, 14.5%, £20.00
From a 3ha vineyard. The wine is made at Terre Nere. Intense ruby garnet. Intense sweet perfumed fruit. Medium high acid. High tannin. As nose. Very attractive wine. Needs more time ******
A’Culonna, Scirto, Etna Rosso DOC, 2010, 14.5%, £30.00
Medium pale garnet. Fresh red fruit. Medium acid. Medium tannin. As nose. Delicate and elegant. Another great wine. Drink now or keep ******
Nerello Mascalese, Sicilia IGT, Terre di Trente, 2008, 14.0%, £21.00
Medium pale garnet. Reductive. Medium acidity. Medium high tannin. Metallic finish. Maybe will come round with time, but I find this difficult to like now **
Quantico, Etna Rosso DOP, Giulemi, 2012, 13.0%, £25.00
Pale garnet. Gentle nose with blackcurrant. Medium high acidity. Medium low tannin. Excellent length. Drink now, but no hurry *****
Aitho, Etna Rosso DOC, Azienda Falcone , 2012, 13.5%, £15.00
3ha South-West of Etna, and high altitude vineyard. Medium pale garnet. Reductive, perhaps. Fresh aromatic fruit. Medium high acid. Medium high tannin. Needs more time ***
Rosso di Gulfa, Etna Rosso DOC, Feudo di Gulfa, 2011, 14.0%, £25.00
South-West of Etna. Medium pale ruby garnet. Intense fresh fruit. Medium high acid. Medium tannin. A little raisiny, but still refreshing. Excellent length. Spice. Good now, but will improve *****
Serra delle Contessa, Etna Rosso DOC, Benanti, 2004, 14.0%, £31.00
Prephylloxera. Nerello Mascelese and approx 20% Nerello Cappuchio. Medium pale garnet. Intense, mature, complex, aromatic. Medium high acid. Medium high tannin. Intense. Great now, but still scope for improvement ******
Pietra Marina, Etna Bianco Superiore DOC, Benanti, 2009, 12.5%, £31.00
Pale greenish gold. Complex, and not too intense on the nose. Medium acidity. Dry. Intense, and complex in ways I find difficult to describe. Good now, but will keep for several more years ******
For those that know Benanti maybe it is no great surprise that I liked their wines so much, especially considering they had the advantage of a fair amount of bottle age over the others at the tasting. But I was really impressed by them, even though they were numbers 19 and 20 of a 20 wine tasting. The white was even tasted “out of order”, after the reds.
My other two favourites (given all the caveats already expressed) were a couple of wines less familiar to UK drinkers. They are pictured below to help you recognise them should you get a buying opportunity. The Scirto A’Culonna was difficult for me to adequately describe, but had a quiet elegance that I really liked. While the Irene Badalà was very different, being very astringent and with intense and good quality fruit. I really didn’t think the Badalà was ready for drinking now, but I took a bottle home with me and look forward to trying it again in several years time.
After my Etna trip, and this tasting in particular, I certainly understand Etna wines a lot better than before, but I still don’t think I have a great handle on the major grape varieties of Carricante and Nerello Mascelese. Indeed I am beginning to doubt there is much of a handle to grasp. I view them both as being like Chardonnay, in the sense that they are good quality, but seem to be able to adopt a broad variety of styles, but do not have easily recognised aromatics. The only style that I have not encountered in Etna wine is over-ripe flabbiness – they all have good structure, even reds with raisiny notes. Where the comparison with Chardonnay breaks down is in the underlying cause of style variation. That is, I suspect that the Etna varieties are more similar to Riesling and Pinot Noir in their ability to express terroir, if not the distinctiveness of their aromas. I would be interested to hear other views on that subject. I have certainly seen Nerello Mascelese aromatics compared to Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, but I am personally not convinced.
Finally, I’d like to say a big thank you to Ben and Valeria of Etna Wine Lab. They are great people, very knowledgeable, and responded very positively and flexibly to my requests for help to become better acquainted with Etna wines.
Monte Ilice and Carpene were both owned by Vini Biondi until 2011, at which point Ciro Biondi and his business partner Giuseppe Brancatelli separated. After the separation, Giuseppe finished up in possession of Monte Ilice and Carpene, and Ciro the vineyards Chianta, San Nicolò, and Cisterna Fuori. The right to the Biondi company name is now a matter of legal dispute, but it is useful to understand that Giuseppe currently has control of the old Vini Biondi website www.vinibiondi.it, which still seems to reflect the state of the business before the split, while Ciro’s website is www.levignebiondi.it. I contacted an email address given on www.vinibiondi.it, and so was looked after by Gino Paternò who works with Giuseppe.
We met Gino in Sant’Alfio square in Trecastagni and were land-rovered off to two vineyards, starting with Monte Ilice, shown below, which is significantly higher and steeper than Carpene. Monte Ilice is very difficult to work. Walking uphill between the vines is very much like climbing a sand dune – your feet constantly slide back in the deep, fine soil. To make life easier, a cable transportation system was installed for moving goods up and down the hill.
Note the beauty of the vineyard. This beauty is not by any means unique on Etna, with many of the good vineyards seemed to including small trees, shrubs and undergrowth, or having them nearby. See the picture of one of Terre Nere’s for another example. This is not the uniform monoculture of many of the better French vineyards.
To my eye, the soil at Carpene was very similar but, contrary to my expectation, the grapes here ripen later than in Monte Ilice, as the steep slope of Monte Ilice catches the sun, whose warming effect more than compensates for the higher altitude.
Sadly it was not possible to visit the winery or taste the wines, but we were given a present of three wines for later: two Outis whites and one red. Note that these were both of vintages before Ciro and Giuseppe went their separate ways. I had already tasted the red last year, and liked it a lot. Here are notes from that wine and the three gifts, which were all tasted and drunk with a meal. They probably retail in the UK for between £20 and £25. You can see that my notes are very different for the same wine. I never pretend to be a consistent taster, but I do think that in these instances there was some bottle variation.
Etna Rosso DOC, Outis (Nessuno), 2008, 13.5%
I first tasted this in August 2013. Medium pale tawny garnet. Intense, complex and mature red fruit. Medium high acid. Light. Medium low tannin. A peppermint note. Fruit is vibrant and tangy as well as having some maturity. Drink now *****
Later on my Etna trip, at La Rocca della Rosa, where we were staying at the time. Medium garnet. Fresh mature red fruit. Medium high acid. Low but detectable tannins. Savoury mature fruit. Sous bois maybe. Possibly a bit tired ***
Etna Bianco DOC, Outis (Nessuno), 2010, 12.5%
At La Rocca della Rosa. Medium pale gold. Nose difficult in this glass. Medium acidity. Dry. Rich, deep and mature flavours. Orange, apricot. Excellent length. Ginger that is pretty dominant. Other spice too – more obvious as wine warms up. Drink now ****
Back home, after the trip. Pale amber gold. Intense. Pear maybe. Very slightly oxidised. Smoky. Mature. Medium acidity. Dry. Excellent length, with smoky finish. Drink now. Significantly more oxidation the following day ****
The cantina of Calabretta, despite being on the main road through Randazzo, is easy to miss. Planning our visit, we just about managed to locate it the previous day, Sunday, when it looked pretty much like it did in Street View, shown below (click image to go to Google Street View). There may have been a small sign to indicate its presence, but we couldn’t find one. The following afternoon however, the shutters were open and the cellar man Salvatore was by the entrance to greet us.
It soon became apparent that Salvatore had about as little English as we had Italian, and only a little longer to discover that actually it did not matter. We could get the drift of most of what he said, and he seemed to understand most of our blend of English and pidgin Italian. His friendly smiling manner helped no end, and the more technical it got the easier it was. Fermentazione malolattica? No problem. He showed us a list of wines that we were to taste: Carricante 2012, Nerello Cappuccio 2012, Nonna Concetta 2012, Contrada dei Centinari 2012, Pinot Noir 2012, Pinot Noir 2013, Etna Rosso 2012, Etna Rosso 2010, Etna Rosso 2007, Etna Rosso 2005. The non-varietally named wines were basically Nerello Mascalese, the Etna Rosso also having some Nerello Cappuccio.
With the list in mind, we set about exploring the cantina to find each of the wines. As at Terre Nere, this was to be a tasting from barrel and (here) stainless steel tank. As I remember it, the cantina consisted of the basement, ground floor and first floor of the small block shown in Street View above, plus some out buildings in the yard behind, and it certainly felt like we visited all corners. It’s amazing how much wine you can store in a small space. It seemed chaotic, but was clean, and Salvatore knew exactly where to find each wine. My tasting notes are so sketchy as to be meaningless to anyone else, so I will just give some brief more-or-less general impressions here.
Overall I was very impressed, with all my scores being **** or *****. Supposedly Calabretta make wine in a more traditional manner than most Etna producers, for example favouring large barrel maturation to barrique. I am not sure I was (or am now) knowledgeable enough to be able to recognise that traditional quality in the wines, but I will say that they generally had a straightforward fresh honest simplicity about them, which I liked a lot.
The Nonna Concietta 2012 and the Etna Rosso 2012 had a raisiny note, which I also came across in Etna wines of other producers. Normally I do not like that character, associating it with flabby wines made from over-ripe grapes. But the raisiny Etna wines also seemed to show good acidity and astringency, which made them very appealing.
A star wine for me was the Pinot Noir 2012, grown at the high altitude of 900m. This definitely showed varietal character, but was a Pinot Noir unlike any other I have tasted. In addition to the intense fruit, it had a remarkable focus, and a steely minerality. We also tasted the 2013, which was a little frizzante and farmyardy – fermentazione malolattica.
Towards the end of the tasting, we had the mini-vertical of Etna Rosso – 2012, 2010, 2007 and 2005. All were very enjoyable. The 2012 was still very astringent, but not such that it would stop me drinking it with food, and I thought the 2007 and 2005 were fully mature.
After the tasting I bought a bottle of Etna Rosso 2004 without reflecting on it too much, but was later told that Calabretta sell their Etna Rosso only 10 years after the vintage, when it is judged to be ready for drinking – a fine principle that I wish more producers would adopt. The other two bottles I bought, based on my liking of the barrel sample vintages, were Nonna Concetta 2010 and La Contrada dei Centenari 2011. The Etna Rosso was a very reasonable 12 Euros at the cellar door, and would be likely to sell for around £20 in the UK, if you can find it at all. I didn’t see a complete price list, but none of the wines I bought were over 15 Euros. If you think you might wish to buy several cases, as well you might, take plenty of cash as credit cards are not accepted.
We started our visit to Tenuta delle Terre Nere in the winery office, and met our host Marco Ciancio. The first thing that caught my eye in the office was a large geological relief map of the Etna region. I wanted one, but soon realised that even if I could find one to buy, there was no way to get it home intact on the plane and so abandoned the idea. Unlike most images here, if you click on it you can see an enlarged version, but sadly there is still not enough detail to read it properly. The town of Randazzo, and Tenuta delle Terre Nere, lie roughly to the North of Etna’s peak, and must be close to the edge of the orange bit at the top of the map.
We were briefly introduced to Marco de Grazia, the founder of Terre Nere, who had popped into the office briefly despite not feeling well. He explained his vision of how Etna could rival Burgundy in terms of quality wines showing distinct terroir characteristics. On the face of it, it certainly seemed possible. The colours on the map indicate geological variations, and superimposed on that there are large topological variations and height differences. The question remaining in my mind is whether Nerello Mascalese, the local standard bearer grape, is up to the job carried out by Pinot Noir in Burgundy. But even if Etna wine does not reach the dizzy heights of Burgundy, we can certainly all have a lot of fun discovering Etna’s potential.
Before long we were in Marco’s 4×4, heading out to Terre Nere’s various contrade, a term which in wine law is now used to refer to officially defined vineyards areas. Terre Nere’s vineyards are laid out in a band along Etna’s Northern flank between Solicchiata and Randazzo, at heights between 400 and 900m. We started at the relatively low Calderara Sottana, with the prephylloxera vineyard, and then drove up to the higher contrade of Santo Spirito, Guardiola and Feudo di Mezzo. The differences between these vineyards were obvious even to the untrained eye. They were not the famed Burgundian terroir differences that depend on which side of the track, or exactly how far up a gentle slope, you are. The soils were clearly different in texture, and the altitude differences huge. The image above shows rotovating in progress between old Nerello Mascalese albarello vines, in Guardiola I believe.
Then back for a quick scamper through the winery. We paused to taste barrel samples from last year’s vintage, which was to be bottled in 2015. I am not sure how meaningful tasting notes are at this early stage in the maturing process, but they were already attractive wines and showing clear differences, so some brief impressions are given below. The wines are all Etna Rosso DOC, and would retail for around £28 in the UK, or £50 for the Prephylloxera. Cellar door prices were about the same numbers, but in Euros rather than Pounds.
Santo Spiritu – Medium high acid. Medium tannin. Delicate. Feminine ****
Feudo di Mezzo – Slightly reductive. More body than the Santo Spiritu. Medium acid and tannin. Intense raspberry and strawberry *****
Guardiolo – Intense fruit. Some peppermint. Medium high acid. Medium tannin. Intense and precise *****
Calderara Sottana – Medium acid. Medium tannin. Precise and intense fruit. Similar to Guardiolo, but more fruit *****
Prephylloxera– Intense spice. Medium acid. Medium high tannin. Intense. Good minerality and fruit too. Great length *****
This was our second trip to Sicily, the first one being to the South East, where we stayed at COS, and also visited Valle dell’Acate. This time we were in the Etna region, and each place we stayed in contained a largely unrestored palmento – the local name for a wine production facility.
We started with a few days at Fuedo Vagliasindi, near Randazzo. Fuedo Vagliasindi is now a hotel, but used to be the country villa of a powerful noble family. It is difficult to over-emphasise the scale of the palmento there, and easy to be impressed. Basically it occupies all of what appears to be the ground floor in the picture below.
One thing I realised on this trip was that the basic pattern seems to change little, irrespective of how grand the palmento is. If you have a big important palmento, like this one, you simply scale up all the dimensions accordingly. So instead of the beam of the press having a cross-section of 50cm or so square, this one is closer to a metre square. And the size of the treading areas, tanks and barrel room are also scaled up accordingly.
The palmento has three levels. The highest level is where the grapes are received from the fields. Here there is a staircase on the outside of the building, to the right as shown above, to enable the grapes to be dumped through windows and into the area where the grapes are trodden. Below you can see Ben (that’s our knowledgeable guide Benjamin Spencer of The Etna Wine Lab) ready to start treading, and helping indicate how massive the beam of the press really is. After treading, the must is drained into tanks at a lower level, to the left and back in the picture below, and the press is operated to help extract the liquid from the skins and stalks.
Maybe I have been a bit slow on the uptake, but I always imagined that press worked by one end of the beam being pulled down to the floor by the screw. Actually, the screw lifts a large stone that is slotted into the floor, so it is the weight of the stone that ultimately determines the force on the beam, and that force will remain constant as long as the stone is suspended. If the beam end were simply pulled down against the floor, you would have to keep adjusting the position of the beam to maintain a constant force as the mass of skins and stalks compresses. As Ben put it, using the weight of the stone enables you to set up the press and go to lunch.
The last area of the palmento is the barrel room. This is at opposite the end to where the grapes arrive, and another level down, thus allowing the wine to continue to follow its easy gravity-driven course. Easy after some poor sod has initially lugged the baskets of grapes up the stairs, of course. Unfortunately, as far as the evidence in the picture goes, the barrels could be almost any size. Take it from me that they are on a scale appropriate to everything else – huge!
Feudo Vagliasindi still has vineyards around the house and produces a wine under its own label. But that wine is now made just down the road at Tenuta delle Terre Nere, of which there will probably be more in a later post. The massive area occupied by the palmento is now largely unused, but thankfully still pretty much intact.
After our stay at Feudo Vagliasindi to the North of Etna, we moved round to the South East of the mountain, near Zafferana Etnea, and stayed at La Rocca della Rosa. While not exactly what I would call small, this farmhouse was on a lot more intimate scale than Feudo Vagliasindi. The place is still run as a small farm, and it too used to have vines on its property. The vineyards are no more, but the house still has a palmento, now a bedroom suite for the agriturismo.
The palmento occupies the room behind the two rightmost doors on the balcony shown below (one of the doors being largely hidden by the parasol). The internal height of the palmento is a little higher than you might think, extending to the bottom of the windows above. Here, grapes were delivered through a window to the back of the house, but with not so much distance for the vineyard workers to climb as the house is built on a slope. The barrels were kept on ground floor off to the right of the picture, a space now used as the agriturismo’s dining room.
The palmento has been converted to a bedroom suite, and I was delighted that we got to stay in it. The palmento has not been messed around with much in its conversion, and some might like more creature comforts, but it is ideal for the wine geek, or anyone else interested in the history of winemaking on Sicily. What you see in the picture below is the stairs up to the area where the grapes were trodden, now a double bedroom. Our bedroom window was where the grapes came in.
In the arch was underneath is an area that used to be a stone tank, now a twin bedroom. To the right was another area that could be used as a tank, and the press, now mainly used as a storage area.
One little detail, which I noticed only after a couple of days intimate contact between my bare feet and the palmento floor, was that the floor’s texture was different in different areas. Mostly the stone was rough-hewn, but relatively smooth – see below right. But in the grape-treading area, AKA the area between our bed and the bathroom, the stone surface had been deliberately roughened – below left.
To the sole of my feet, the roughness felt a little spiky, and not entirely comfortable. Was that to help prevent slipping while treading grapes, I wonder? Or perhaps it reduced the chance of crushing grape pips. I understand that in the Douro (sorry for the quick change of country), wooden soles had nails hammered in for that purpose. I also wonder if all palmento grape treading area have this textured surface, and wish I had been more observant at Feudo Vagliasindi.
This is a review of The World of Sicilian Wine, by Bill Nesto and Frances Di Savino. Hardback is available in the UK for just under £20.
The visual appearance of this book is not great. It has no pretty pictures, and is certainly not a coffee table book. That does not overly bother me, but I also found that its design did not lend itself to orienting myself in the book – I am not sure why, but a design professional might be able to figure out and correct the problem. Also the maps are basic, and frankly inadequate as so many aspects of wine depend on geography. I have vowed to reread the book with good maps to hand, so I can get a better understanding of the text.
However, the fact that I want to reread, hints at its strong point – the written content. It very comprehensively and authoritatively covers the subject of Sicilian wine – history, geography, grape varieties, viticulture, enology, and the individual producers and their wines. For Sicilian wine this book has no equal, and it covers the ground a lot more thoroughly than most books do for other regions.
Stylistically it is a bit uneven. Most of the book reads very well, but there are chapters where the language is a bit clunky. I suspect that is partly due to it having two authors, and partly perhaps the result of deadline pressure reducing the time available for editing.
But don’t let any clunkiness, or lack of maps, put you off. Obviously this book will only appeal if you have a serious interest in the wines of Sicily, but if you do you really need this book.
While staying at COS, on Sicily we popped North a little, to the other side of the Acate Valley to visit the eponymous Valle dell’Acate cantina. We had pre-booked using the contact details on the website and were offered tastings of 3 wines for a price that depended on the food that would be provided. I said we would take the more expensive €25 per person option, but asked nicely if we could taste all their wines, mentioning that I was a wine enthusiast with a blog. Very kindly they agreed. I say this not to offer hints about getting better tastings, but to declare that I was offered something on the basis of a possible implicit agreement to give them a write-up. But I actually promised nothing, and am writing this because I think they have wines of genuine interest.
We started with a tour of the older and more photogenic parts of the cantina – the cellar with large double-barrique barrels for ageing, and the early 20th century cantina, now a museum. The old cantina seemed to be very nicely designed, with, on the left in the picture below, shallow containers for treading grapes. against a wall with doors through which the grapes would be delivered. The must would then be allowed to run into deeper fermentation vessels. The opening to one of these can be seen in the centre of the picture. The wine would then run along channels, now covered, but you can see one or two to the right of the picture, into an area off to the right, and at a much lower level, where the wine was aged in barrels.
In the picture above you can see an open window throwing light into the cantina. Here is the view from the window, looking South across the mainly dry Acate valley. If I understand the geography correctly, the Acate Valley is carved into a more-or-less flat region, and the top of the hill you see represents the start of the flattish area where COS is located. The valley bottom, is also rather flat. If you want to see something to rival the landscape of Tuscany, don’t bother with this part of Sicily. The upside though, is that you manage to avoid the touristy gentrification that seems to plague the more obviously pretty parts of the wine world.
Finally, after asking specifically, I was briefly shown into the modern cantina. It was certainly modern – lots of stainless steel and control panels. I was told that a lot of the kit was due for replacement. Actually, maybe the buttons on the panels did look like they belonged to a time a couple of decades ago, but I was still impressed that it was already up for modernisation. Maybe I am not a typical visitor, but I think they should be less coy about showing how wine is made today.
These wines were presented as a tasting, in the order listed below, and the notes were taken before the food was served. They are all the current releases, and I understand that we covered the full range of Valle dell’Acate wines. The prices are approximate or estimated UK retail prices.
Insolia, Vittoria Insolia DOC, 2012, 12.5%, £11
Watery appearance. Light, fresh, floral nose. Medium low acidity, dry, viscous, OK length. Drink now ***
Grillo, Zagra, Sicilia Bianco DOC, 2012, 13.0%, £12
Pale green. Fresh. Orange blossom. Medium low acidity, dry. Excellent length. This had a lot more character and flavour than the Insolia. Drink now ****
Bidis, Sicilia Bianco DOC, Chardonnay Insolia, 2011, 13.5%, £18
Light greeny gold. Estery nose, maybe some banana, and oak. Medium acidity. Dry. Light, fresh and sharp finish. Excellent length. Although a little oaky, this was not a heavy international style. Drink now ****
Il Frappato, Vittoria Frappato DOC, 2012, 13.0%, £14
Pale purple ruby. Light confected red fruit. This reminded me of stereotypical Beaujolais. Medium low acidity. Medium low tannin. Drink now ***
Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG, Nero d’Avola Frappato, 2009, 13.5%, £16
Medium pale garnet. Intense. High-toned. Complex. Medium low acidity. As nose. Excellent length. Medium low tannin. This is more like it! Drink now ****
Il Moro, Nero d’Avola, Sicilia IGT, 2009, 13.5%, £16
Medium pale garnet. Intense, fresh dark fruit. Medium acid. Medium tannin. As nose. Excellent length. Good minerality. Another good wine. Drink now or keep a few years ****
Rusciano, Sicilia IGT, Syrah and local grapes, 2010, 14.0%, £20
Medium pale purple ruby. Vaguely Syrah-like. Medium acid. As nose. Medium tannin. OK, but this wine did not really hold my interest. Needs more time ***
Tané, Sicilia IGT, Nero d’Avola Syrah, 2006, 15.0%, £25
Medium garnet tawny. Intense caramel and figs – flavours I perhaps wrongly associate with oxidation, but I know others like more than me. Medium low acidity. Medium tannin. As nose, but lighter than expected. Drink now. Not really to my taste ***
All in all, I felt this was a good range of very different wines. The acid test is perhaps which wines we took away with us. We were offered the remains of 2 bottles that were opened for the tasting. Without much thought we decided on the Zagra and Bidis. Despite the lack of thought, they turned out to be good choices, and we drank them as aperitifs over the next few days, and with a bread, cheese and ham meal. After a few days of drinking the wines, I did not feel the need to change my original notes to reflect any new impressions. And we bought a Zagra and Il Moro to take back to the UK. The cantina prices were particularly favourable compared with UK prices, so it is a good place to stock with wine to take back in your car – unfortunately we had an airline luggage allowance to contend with.
We have just returned from a week staying at Locanda COS – accommodation at the Sicilian wine producer Azienda Agricola COS. You might already know that I am a bit of a fan of COS wines (see here and here for example), but you probably did not know that we have long intended to holiday in Sicily, amongst other things to take in some Greek temples, like the Temple of Concord at Agrigento shown below. What a great solution it was to stay at COS.
I do not pretend to be a hotel critic or travel writer, so I am not going to dwell too much on the accommodation and the sightseeing. Let’s just say we would be happy to return, and if you want any more details please ask. However I feel confident in asserting that we were provided with great breakfasts, dinners and wine. The dinners, often just cooked for the two of us, were excellent. It is difficult to describe them briefly, as they varied so much. In the best possible sense they were rustic rather than sophisticated, and the flavours and flavour combinations were superb. Great raw ingredients were clearly an important basis for the quality of the food, but they were also put together very nicely. Our chef was usually Pino, but one evening Angela Occhipinti (Guisto’s sister) stepped in to offer us some local Sicilian dishes.
The wine service was good, and equally varied. You really have to dine several evenings to get a good picture! When it was just the two of us, Pino usually opened a couple of bottles and let us get on with it. On other occasions, I think basically when new people arrived, Joanna joined us and guided us through smaller quantities of a greater number of wines. By the end of the week, we had worked our way through all the current COS releases (some more than once, but I am not complaining), and a couple of older wines. A sip of their experimental sparkling Frappato, white and with the base wine fermented in amphora, passed my lips too, but it was sadly corked. Our dinner hosts, Joanna and Pino are shown below. They both deserve a big thank you for making our stay there enjoyable.
And here is the view from our apartment (Tramontana), over the vineyards to some mountains on the horizon. Just out of shot to the right, on a clear day you can see Etna. You can also see one of the COS dogs, keeping my wife company on an evening stroll. That particular one is easily distinguished from the others by his crazy sticky-out ears.
One morning we were given a tour of the cantina. Here are some of the amphoras used for the fermentation and initial aging of Pithos wines. Red and wihite wines are fermented on their skins, and allowed to sit on their skins in amphora for a while after fermentation. During fermentation the cap is pushed down with specially designed implements. One can be operated through the small whole in the lid that is clamped to the top of the amphora. For some reason I expected there to be more amphoras – the image shows something like 40% of the total in that room, and there were 4 amphoras elsewhere for the base wine of the experimental sparkling Frappato. All the ones shown are used for the Pithos Rosso. Production of Pithos Bianco is relatively small, and occupied only one corner of the room. The 2012 vintage had already been pumped out of the amphoras, but there was a problem with some of the wine, so it was returned to amphora in an attempt to rectify it – that is why two amphoras are in use with their lids clamped down
But only the Pithos wines are fermented in amphora. Most is fermented more conventionally in epoxy-lined concrete tanks in a recently designed building. Again the scale is not huge. You can see there are 4 pictured on the left, and there are another 4 to the right, and that is it. Gravity drives most of the flow. You can see where the tanks are loaded from the walkways at the top, which is close to ground level, and the large neutral barrels used for aging some of the wines are at a lower lever level than the fermentation vessels. Pumps only need to be used to get wine to the bottling line, which is again roughly at ground level.
I didn’t hear the words “biodynamic” or “natural” mentioned once at COS, though I understand both terms apply to their wines. But there were a couple of hints given in the tour. One was the constant classical music being played in the main building with the concrete tanks, because the wines liked the vibrations. The amphora room however survived without – perhaps the amphoras were enough to compensate for the lack of music. The other hint was the reluctance to use stainless steel as a container, as it acts as an antenna and transfers unwanted energy to the wine.
Firstly, some brief notes on the designations. The most important local designation is Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOGC, which can also have Classico appended if the grapes come from a more restricted zone and the wine is aged a bit longer before selling. It is made from a blend of the local light and fruity Frappato variety, and the better known and more structured Nero d’Avola. Typical proportions are 60-70% Nero d’Avola and 40-30% Frappato. The COS Pithos Rosso blend would meet the Cerasuolo di Vittoria regulations, but the amphora vinification means it is not entitled to use the name. Recently the catch-all designation of Sicilia IGT ceased to exist, so producers now have to use an alternative on their labels – either Terre Siciliane IGT or Sicilia DOC on the label, depending on their wine and how they wish it to be perceived.
The wines were each taken with one or more of the dinners we had at COS. This was an ideal way of appreciating them, but as the food was different on different occasions, any comparisons must be taken with lashings of salt. And, as ever, I make no claims to objectivity – indeed, I don’t believe it exists in wine tasting. The prices are approximate, or estimated, UK retail.
Ramí, Sicilia IGT, Isolia – Grecanico, 2011, 12.0%, £17
Medium deep amber gold. Medium intense on the nose. Apricot and orange peel. Medium low acid. Sweet fruit. Drink now ****
Frappato, Terre Siciliane IGT, 2012, 12.0%, £17
Medium purple ruby. The nose seemed to get a bit lost in the glass. Medium low acid. Medium tannin. Intense confected raspberry fruity. Drink now, or soon. Gave *** on first occasion, but I enjoyed it more subsequently, so ****
Nero di Lupo, Sicilia IGT, Nero d’Avola, 2011, 12.0%, £17
Medium purple ruby. Intense sweet dark fruit. Medium acid. Low tannin. Drink now or leave to age a little ****
Pithos Bianco, Sicilia IGT, Grecanico, 2011, 11.5%, £20
Medium amber. Intense apricot and marmalade. Medium low acid. A little sweetness perhaps, or just ripe fruit. Some astringency. Excellent length. Drink now, but no hurry *****
Pithos, Sicilia IGT, Nero d’Avola – Frappato, 2011, 12.0%, £20
Medium pale, purple ruby. Fresh, vague red fruit. Some vegetal notes, broad bean pods, or maybe raw mushrooms. Medium acid. Delicate. Sweet fruit. Medium low tannin. More attractive on palate than nose. Like Burgundy with a little age perhaps. Sweet fruit on finish. Drink now, but no hurry. The vegetal notes would have cost this wine a star, but I did not get them on subsequent bottles, so *****
Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG, Nero d’Avola – Frappato, 2010, 13.0%, £20
Medium pale ruby garnet. Intense light berry fruit. Hint of raspberry maybe. Tad vegetal. Medium low acid. Medium high tannin. As nose. Could be a young non-Burgundian Pinot Noir. Excellent length. Drink now or maybe keep a few years ****
Maldafrica, Sicilia IGT, Cabernet Sauvignon – Merlot – Frappato, 2009, 13.0%, £20
Intense purple. Intense Cabernet blackcurrant nose. Medium acid. Medium high acid. Sweet fruit as per nose. Needs more time. Not really for me, and there are plenty of good alternatives for this type of wine ****
Maldafrica, Sicilia IGT, Cabernet Sauvignon – Nero d’Avola, 2008, 14.0%, £20
Intense, dark fruit. Slightly Smokey. Serious wine. Medium acid. Sweet fruit. Medium tannin. Excellent length. Drink now, but no hurry. A different blend from the 2009, and a big step up in quality *****
Contrada, Sicilia IGT, Nero d’Avola, 2007, 13.0%, £40
Intense purple ruby. Intense mature dark fruit. A little towards an oxidised style, with prune and caramel notes. Medium acid. Medium tannin. Good now, but may improve over several years ****
The notes above are written in my usual telegraphic, rather grumpy, style, but I would like to stress that I enjoyed all of these wines, and was very happy to drink them with food over the course of a week. Not once did I think I’d really rather be drinking something else. I brought a couple of bottles of Contrada back with me, choosing that wine largely because it is not so readily available in the UK. Then, one of my first acts on returning home was to order a case of Pithos Rosso – now only 11 bottles.