Sicily has to be one of the most underrated tourist destinations in the world. It has it all: rich history, art and culture; lovely climate; man-made and natural beauty, from its ancient temples to its stunning beaches; charming people, great food and even a dangerous volcano. It’s all so irresistible.
It is a land of stark contrasts: rich and poor, old and new, Europe and Africa, east and west. I recently paid a visit to this dazzling island, traveling from Palermo to Catania and beyond. I visited some of its best restaurants, historic sights and natural wonders. But what was most impressive to me was the changes that have taken place in its wine industry.
The Sicilian wine industry has created a model that others should follow. Wine has created employment and economic opportunities, but most importantly it has given the island an enormous sense of pride and purpose. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that wine has helped the image of Sicily abroad and is part of the island’s new, modern identity. I can’t think of any other part of Italy that owes as much to wine the way Sicily does.
Much credit belongs to Count Lucio Tasca, who helped unite the Sicilan wine producers. That unity is one of the most important keys to their international success today—especially when you consider that the island has suffered many decades of deep economic problems. Together, the producers created an ambitious, innovative marketing plan to promote not only their individual wines, but Sicily as a whole. This is also a very important key to their success, since “Sicily” has now become a brand on its own in the wine industry.
When I asked the Count about his efforts to unite the producers, he joked: “I may look 65- years-old to you, but I’m really 35. That’s how hard the job of unifying them has been.” Among the handful of producers who spearheaded this initiative are Planeta, Cusumano, Donnafugata, Tasca d’Almerita, Zonin-Feudo Principi di Butera, Mezzacorona-Feudo Arancio and Rapitalà.
As for the wines themselves: One of the pleasant surprises wine lovers can have as they travel is the discovery of great wines, unique flavors, outside the traditional Chardonnay, Cabernet, Pinot Noir box. There is no better place to experience that thrill than in Sicily. On most dining occasions there, our hosts, aware that I was American, immediately offered Sicilian bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay for my review. I was generally underwhelmed by what I was offered.
The story changed dramatically, however, when a delicious glass of Insolia was placed before me. I was amazed by the floral nose, the creamy mouthfeel and fruity-nutty flavors on the palate. Plush, yet crisp and refreshing, all without seeing a moment in oak. The most memorable Insolia, a 2005, was offered by the venerable Principe di Butera Winery.
Nero d’Avola, Frappato, Catarrrato—there are a host of varietal and blended wines to be discovered in Sicily, many of which pair well with flavored cheeses and robust meats, as I discovered during my visit. The Insolia is available in this country for around $15, making it the essence of a value wine.
Value is what this issue is all about. You’ll find our editors’ annual round-up of great value wines, or Best Buys: wines that, when you take into consideration price and subjective quality score, represent great bargains. Paul Pacult, our spirits tasting director, offers his suggestions for underpriced spirits.
Risa Weinreb gives great tips for finding upscale travel bargains. She draws on the expertise of travel agents who are aware of the bargains as they come online, when the airlines offer discounts, travel packages and reduced rates for hotels. You can go much further and experience much more if you save money along the way.
Joe Czerwinski recently traveled to France’s Rhône, home to some of the great wines of that country, particularly the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Hermitage. But Joe’s assignment was to find value wines, and he deliberately sought out the wines of lesser-known appellations. There are great discoveries to be had in his article, in this issue’s Buying Guide, and in the many additional notes that are found only in the Buying Guide section of our Web site.
I want to convey special thanks to Monica Larner, our Italian editor, for making our experience in Sicily memorable yet easy. I raise a glass of Insolia.