Isle be there (Sicily, Italy – Day One)

Thus I have arrived to my eighth and final week in Italy (for now), and I am doing so in quite possibly the most diverse and misunderstood region in the country; Sicily. After spending the weekend in the chaotic city of pizza, Napoli, I boarded the overnight ferry to Palermo. The ride was uneventful, apart from some terrible service for overpriced pizza, but I am glad I paid a little extra for a berth in a cabin, as trying to sleep out in the halls would have been challenging. The ferry arrived an hour earlier than indicated, so when I disembarked in Palermo it was 7:00am and of course nothing was open, so I hit the road. My goal was Faro, a region very close to Messina, where I had an appointment with a very small producer. Unfortunately the address I had failed to get me to the winery and the contact number had similar problems. Therefore after several hours I was forced to abandon this plan with great disappointment, and head south through the Etna region where I unfortunately had no appointments. It was fascinating to see fossilised volcanic lava on the sides of the mountain, and hard to believe that vineyards are planted metres away from this lava. It was a shame that I didn’t visit any producers here, as it would have been interesting to learn more about the specific viticulture and interactions of the varieties with the environment. I look forward to the chance to taste some wines from this part of the island, and hopefully I will be able to visit again. From what I have seen so far, Sicily is most definitely different to mainland Italy, but then again, each region is different from each other. Like in other parts of Italy it is not so easy to get around; the roads are not in great condition, there is often traffic, rarely is there a direct route between places that you don’t have to pay for, and the landscape being hilly also makes for slow-going. But I made it to Vittoria, for three sensational visits on my second but first day in Sicily.

Me at Mount Etna

Planeta is without question one of the most important wine producers in Sicily, if not Italy. In their brief yet illustrious history they have completely revolutionised wine production on the island, and introduced millions of consumers around the world to the treasures that Sicily has to offer. The fact that this has happened only since 1995 is testament to the vision and determination of the Planeta family, most notably Alessio, who is a modern icon of the region. The family have been involved with agriculture in Sicily for generation, and the realisation of the family’s goals to have such an impact on the wine industry began with Diego Planeta. The first winery was the Ulmo estate, established very close to Sambuca di Sicilia. The Dispensa estate in Menfi, already part of the family’s holdings, has now been established as the main winery where much of the logistics and packaging is conducted. There are now four additional estates that have since been acquired, some of which have wineries and some yet to come. Two additional estates are in the north-eastern part of the island, in Etna and Capo Milazzo, and are the more recent additions to the brand. Before this were the estates in the south-west, in Noto and Vittoria. With vineyards in six separate sub-regions, and wineries in four of them, it is amazing to think that a four-person winemaking team led by Alessio is able to cover so much ground, particularly during the harvests. One saving grace is that each sub-region and subsequent varieties will ripen at slightly different times, and so can be managed with exceptional management. Planeta focuses on the indigenous varieties of Sicily, and attempts to introduce as many consumers to them as possible. The research and understanding of these varieties has only been recent, as accumulated understanding of the grapes and terroirs was not well documented in the past.

The Planeta family look on this estate with rose-coloured glasses

I was joined at the Vittoria based Dorilli estate by Patricia Toth, one of the winemakers, who introduced me to this particular estate and some of the other on the eastern side of the island. This was fantastic and I learnt a lot, as she has one of the most impressive technical recalls I’ve had the fortune of encountering on this trip. It was also great to focus on this side of the island, as later in the week I will visit the Menfi estate to learn more about the older wineries. Currently the only DOCG wine in Sicily is the Cerasuolo di Vittoria, which uses two indigenous varieties. The wine must have at least 30% of frappato, and up to 70% of nero d’avola, and the style is commonly exactly the kind of Italian red wine that I like; light, fresh, vibrant, fruit driven, food-friendly and with great personality, just like Italy has. Within the DOCG area there is also a Classico designation, which is a higher quality. Planeta make both kinds of wine from this estate, with the Classico having better fruit from more mature vines. Significant resources are being put into better understanding the iconic Sicilian variety of nero d’avola, in terms of isolating genetic compositions and also how it performs in each region. This is particularly important as nero d’avola is planted at each estate, and is the most important component of the most recognisable and distributed product in the entire range; the La Segreta Rosso red blend. Producers around the island have a lot to thank Planeta for, as they are not only furthering the understanding of wine production here, but also pioneering markets for Sicilian wines all over the world. Click here to read my tasting notes.

Hang in there!

The night I arrived in Vittoria Patricia introduced me to a great friend of both hers and the Planeta family, when we were invited to her house for dinner. I had actually been told about Arianna Occhipinti by a family friend from Milano, who had found an article from the New York Times. We enjoyed a lovely dinner of fresh pasta along with a journalist and wine blogger from Perugia, and I returned the following day to learn more about Arianna and her wines. What I discovered is that she is one of the most exciting winemakers I have encountered on my trip, and the cult following she has gained is well deserved. Arianna’s immediate family were not involved with the wine business, but her uncle was not only a winemaker, but also one of the founders of a very well-respected winery in Vittoria (that I incidentally visited afterwards). When he invited her to spend some vintages with him at the age of 16, she immediately fell in love and knew it was her passion and her career path. After completing studies in Milan in viticulture and oenology, she returned to Vittoria and new that her only choice was to establish a winery of her own and make her mark. Fortunately her parents had purchased a house with a small amount of land that was ideal for viticulture, and thus she began to purchase more land around it and plant. Initially she only had one hectare, which provided for her first official vintage in 2004.

Arianna inspects cleaning up under the vines

Right off the bat her wines gained attention, and she promptly sold the entire vintage. This allowed her to intensify the plantings and increase production, where she has not only 10 hectares on the original property, but she has purchased a new property much larger that has seven hectares with more to come. The new property will be where her new and larger cellars will be, as the existing winery on the original site is far too small for her increased production. Currently she produces less than 100,000 bottles, and this number won’t increase much for the foreseeable future, the new larger winery is simply to provide her more space to work in. Arianna only focuses on indigenous Vittoria varieties, predominantly red. As she is in the heart of the Cerasouolo di Vittoria Classico area, most of her wine is made from a combination of frappato and/or nero d’avola. The white wine she makes uses the local varieties of albanello and moscato. She is not a fan of new oak, with most of the wines going through at least second passage barrels, many of which are larger format. What she is a fan of is long macerations, up to 30 days, with very little temperature control in stainless steel tanks. She is not afraid to experiment, which in my opinion is critical being less than 10 vintages into her winery. Each year she tries something different, recently producing her first passito from nero d’avola grapes, and also her first metodo classic sparkling wine. She is an instinctively brilliant winemaker, and not even she understands how her wines have been so well received so early. My prediction is that she will become the most important winemaker in Sicily, and represent this part of Italy the world-over. There is an untamed nature to Arianna’s wines, but like Mother Nature she is in complete control without exerting her influence too much. The wines truly speak of the perfect marriage of variety and site, and are allowed to express themselves without too much interference, something I have already established I am a huge fan of. Click here to read the tasting notes.

Arianna pressed for space in her winery

A winery that clearly had an impact on Arianna’s direction was Azienda Agricola Cos, established in 1980. The winery was founded by three friends who all loved the spirit of discovery and experimentation, but also lamented the way technology was being used to manipulate and interfere with modern wines. This was back in the late 1970s, as chemical treatments and machinery were still in their infancy, so their desire to return to more traditional philosophies was way ahead of the current trends. The first thing they did was to establish their vineyards in biodynamic viticulture, which had been done centuries before in Sicily. If I haven’t already spoken about it, my opinion of biodynamics is complicated, as I completely agree with the reasons behind it, and the success it has in creating biodiversity, environmental equilibrium and therefore healthier vines, but the mysticism and superstition involved with it doesn’t make sense to my cynical mind. I have visited over 100 different biodynamic producers (certified or otherwise), but the Cos model made the most sense. The reason why is better understood when talking about the winemaking, which to suggest is traditional is an understatement. Many of the wines are fermented (and macerated) in clay amphoras, buried in rocks to regulate the temperatures. Some of the wines stay in the amphoras for seven months. Others are fermented in large cement vats, and only some are matured in large and quite old Slavonian oak barrels. In my limited experience I have only encountered one other winery which has this very traditional and hands-off approach, but the wines were either exhilarating or appalling. These are terroir wines in the clearest sense of the word, totally untamed and almost untouched. Even the bottle is a traditional shape, harking back to wines bottled in the 19th century. The wines are certainly different, but extraordinarily drinkable. Click here to read my tasting notes.

Now this is old-world

Click here to see more photos from Day One in Sicily, Italy. Stay tuned as I make my way around Sicily over the next three days.

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