Blog of Michael Edwards FINE WINE

Sicilian Idyll

Michael Edwards
Written by Aksel Ritenis

Michael EdwardsIn early March, I finally made it to Sicily. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a magical island, the largest in the Med, fascinating in its traces of Moorish, Norman and Piedmontese domination down the centuries. And it has magnetic attractions all its own: dramatic mountains, deep blue seascapes, historic Baroque cities, fabulous fish markets and spectacular food, especially the sauced fish pastas and the desserts. There are vineyards everywhere, of course, the grapes on the plains ripening too quickly under a fierce summer sun. So it’s not surprising that the best Sicilian wines come from cooler vineyards at higher altitudes.

The aristocratic Tasca d’Almerita family, owners of the superb Regaleali estate at Sclafani, know this better than anyone. Far from the sea, at an altitude of 1,500 – 2,300 feet, Regaleali has an ideal microclimate with a positive difference of temperatures between night and day that allows for a preservation of the grapes’ full aromatic spread. No Tasca white shows such generous, pure and scented flavours as the Nozze d’Oro. The first vintage was released in 1984 to commemorate Count Giuseppe Tasca’s golden wedding anniversary and marriage to his wife, Franca. It has always been a perfect wine with ewe’s milk cheese from the estate’s own flock of sheep.

Made from a mix of ‘Inzolia’ and Tasca’s special Sauvingon style grape – ‘Grecanico’ – it costs a reasonable £7.00 a bottle from World Wines of Semley (01748 30030). The Tasca reds are exceptional, particularly the Cygnus, an innovative mix of ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’ and ‘Nero d’Avola’, and the magnificent Rosso del Conte from the estate’s oldest vines.The current vintage for both wines is 2004 and you should look to pay £20 and £30 for the Cygnus and Conte respectively. (Contact Berkmann Wine Cellars at their regional Chippenham office (01249 463501) for stockists). Better still, if you’re in a largish party in Sicily next summer, why not pay a call at Regaleali? The estate welcomes visitors (minimum 8 people) for a wine tasting or tasting and lunch. Booking essential. You’re advised to leave your cars behind and take the old rail line from Palermo to Catania, travelling slowly through the secret heart of old Sicily, stopping at the Vallelunga station which borders Regaleali. To book your visit, log onto www.tascadalmerita.it

Travel east to the hills below Etna for Sicily’s most elegant reds. Overlooking the straits of Messina, the legendary wine Il Faro has been made here since at least 1400 BC. The vineyards were devastated by the phylloxera bug at the beginning of the 20th century and production had slumped so badly by 1985 that the wine was in danger of extinction. Now Salvatori Geraci, owner of the new Palari winery, is reviving the production of this ancient wine with the help of modern technology. But it’s still made from old local grape varieties with evocative names like ‘Nerelo Cappuccino’, Cappuccino referring to the white hoods of the winemaking monks, not to a cup of frothy coffee! Il Faro is another vineyard with a special microclimate, cultivated at an altitude of 2,000 feet. The 2004 (£26.50, Caves de Pyrène 01483 554750) has a lustrous ruby/purple colour and smells beautifully of black cherries with a whiff of smoky oak. The palate is stylishly poised with a mouthwatering fruitiness, but none of the cooked, overripe flavours of many South Italian reds. The Rosso del Soprano is a gentler priced alternative from the Palari winery (£14.05). Caves de Pyrène say it tastes like a cross between a meaty Pinot Noir and a sun-drenched Grenache. Sounds to me like a great wine for a veal chop with rosemary grilled over charcoal.

84_3Back to Marsala, the little port on the far western shores of Sicily, where Garibaldi and his band of a thousand red shirts landed on May 11, 1860, triggering Italian unification. Marsala is, of course, home to one of the world’s best fortified wines, on par with great fino and oloroso sherry from Jerez. Marsala’s finest exponent is Dr. Marco de Bartoli, who has been rock-solid in his commitment to West Sicily’s most distinctive grapes – ‘Grillo’, the base for the best Marsala, and ‘Zibbibo’, better known as ‘Muscat of Alexandria’. His Pietra Nera 2006 is a blossom-scented dryish white wine made from pure ‘Zibbibo’ (£13.25, Caves de Pyrène). Yet its discreet, opulent flick of sweetness makes it an ideal partner for the spice and herb touches of Sicilian fish cooking: as good as with aromatic fish soup as with grilled swordfish or sea bream and fennel. Grapolo di Grillo 2005 for the same price has a nice focus and intensity, marrying lemon and honey tastes quite bold enough for steamed lobster and crab. ‘Grillo’ reaches its peak in Bartoli’s Vecchia Samperi (£22.95), an exquisite example of the rare ‘Vergine’ style of old Marsala, very different from the commercial blends of today. With an average age of forty years, it’s made by the solera system. Using a nursery of many barrels, Bartoli regularly “tops up” his oldest wines with ones from the next oldest vintage; newer ones are added at a proper stage of maturity in a process of perpetual blending. The wine is intense, dry, mellow but finely balanced: do try it with aged pecorino cheese or any really mature hard cheeses like farmhouse Cheddar. Or again chill it slightly as an aperitif with a garlic-infused brandade of cod.

Buon Appetito!

Report by Michael Edwards, Wine Editor

About the author

Aksel Ritenis

Leave a Comment