A Look at 21st-Century Sicily

A Look at 21st-Century Sicily

Sicily is an enological Etna,” says Diego Cusumano, marketing director for Cusumano, a boutique winery on the Mediterranean’s largest island. He could be speaking for many Sicilian winemakers, as well as hard-headed business types from the peninsula who believe that the region’s wine business is about to explode.

Sicily, a place of dramatic contrasts, has long had a reputation for its natural and man-made wonders: Brilliant sunshine bathes Greek and Norman antiquities, while Mount Etna, Europe’s most active volcano, casts a long shadow over the lives of Sicilians. There’s enough wine made there to rival Australia’s production, although most of it is of doubtful quality.

The past looms large. The island’s ancient villages and cities nestle among rugged mountains. In the south are remnants of Greek civilization at Agrigento and Syracuse while, farther north, Palermo is ringed by mountains and Norman churches and palaces from the 12th century.

There is a future, too, and it increasingly involves winemaking. Sicily is bolstering its reputation through a growing array of high-quality wines made from exciting native varieties, many of them at value prices and a few with boutique price tags.

Local, large-volume producers such as Corvo, Rapitalà, Donnafugata, Regaleali and Planeta have invested heavily in quality in recent years. Mainland companies, including Gruppo Italiano Vini (GIV) and Zonin from the Veneto, and Casa Girelli and Mezzacorona from Trentino, are investing in land and new wineries across the island. They are drawn by the huge potential in quality and the reasonable prices for land and labor. Their presence has spurred new ideas and competition. “The local producers are being forced to improve what they were doing, especially as regards selling more quality wine in bottle rather than just exporting cheap wine in bulk,” says Carlo Casavecchia, general manager of the Corvo winery in Casteldaccia, 20 minutes east of the island’s capital, Palermo.

Until now, bulk wine has been what has put Sicily on the map, vinously speaking. The island produced 211 million gallons of wine in 2002, but only 10 percent ever saw the inside of a bottle—the lion’s share was bought with European Community farm subsidies and distilled into alcohol. That’s part of the image problem that Sicily’s winemakers are combating.

Most of the island vineyards are in the west, around the cities of Marsala, famed for its fortified wine, and Alcamo, which used to be known for its white wine but is now increasingly known for its value red wines. There are other vineyard concentrations in the southeast, near Vittoria and south of Syracuse. The vineyards in the volcanic soil around and on the slopes of Mount Etna are gaining in quality rapidly, as shown by the wines of Cottanera and others.

The leading native Sicilian grape varieties are the red Nero d’Avola and white Inzolia. The Nero d’Avola has sweet, raisiny flavors when ripe, but manages to retain acidity and a dry finish in the bottle. “Nero d’Avola is like a Sicilian man. It is never calm, always nervous. It’s not an easy grape to work with,” says Cusumano, whose family’s vineyards are scattered throughout the island.

“Nero d’Avola is a great grape,” says Carmelo Morgante, 35, who runs Morgante winery with his brother Giovanni and father Antonio. “It’s got good concentrated color, good structure, and it is different from other varietals, which makes it interesting. Its success will depend on the people that make Nero d’Avola. Producers must be serious to work it properly.” Morgante’s 500 acres are located in the countryside of Grotte, in the province of Agrigento. The family has been growing grapes for five generations. In 1994, father Antonio and his two sons decided to make their own wine (they invested in stainless steel and a modern winery), and in 1997 they hired enologist extraordinaire Riccardo Cotarella as a consultant to work their Nero d’Avola grapes. Their two most famous wines are Don Antonio, a blend, and the 100 percent Nero d’Avola.

Inzolia, which is best grown at higher altitudes than the red grapes (many vineyards in Sicily are over 1,000 feet above sea level), has floral aromas and crisp fruit flavors that are accentuated by new winemaking technology. And then there is Catarratto, a white grape that is widely planted across western Sicily.

Nonnative grape varieties exist on the island—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay—and some excellent wines are made from them. But the best Sicilian wines are made either solely from local grapes or as blends of the local grapes with nonindigenous varieties.

Putting the right grapes into a wine that will appeal to wine lovers looking for a new experience takes vision and money. A number of hard-headed businessmen, farsighted growers and inspired individuals are betting the great potential for Sicilian wine.
The Corvo winery, producer of Corvo and Duca di Salaparuta wines, is an example of northern Italian investment. The winery was owned by the Sicilian regional government from 1961 to 2001. Toward the end of that period, the quality of the wines stagnated. Under the new ownership of Illva, producers of Amaretto di Saronno in northeast Italy, $11 million is going into the two Corvo wineries, and the wines are already improving under a new winemaking team headed by Giovanni di Giovanni.

Corvo is a typical large-scale island producer (they produce 10.5 million bottles) in that grapes come from all over the island. The difference between Corvo and some other large-scale producers lies in the selection process and in the care taken with vinification.
“We buy grapes from growers and cooperatives,” says Giovanni. “They could be in Trapani [in the west] or in Syracuse and Vittoria [in the east]. Then we can select the grapes for our wines, with the best going to our Duca di Salaparuta and Duca Enrico wines.”
Another winery to bring in grapes is Calatrasi’s Terre di Ginestra winery at San Cipirello, to the southwest of Palermo. Calatrasi, headquartered in Sicily, has wineries and vineyards in Puglia in southern Italy and in Tunisia in north Africa. “In total, in these three regions, we control 4,900 acres,” says Australian winemaker Brian Fletcher. “One of the most important things we do is to reflect the fruit that we have.”

Maurizio Micchiche, director of Calatrasi, explains the relationship between the company and the growers: “We restructured so that we have a management company, separate from the winery, which looks after the 500 growers we have on our books.” The result has been the creation of a range of inexpensive wines (under $10) that reflect the richness and vibrancy of Sicilian varieties and terroir with an extra push towards fruitiness.

Other producers on the island have departed from this traditional merchants’ view of winemaking (buying grapes and fruit) and are relying on their own vineyards, which in some cases are huge. Spreading regally over more than 1,000 acres in the center of the island, surrounded by 2,000-foot mountains, is the venerable Regaleali estate. Owned by the Tasca family since 1835, the vineyards cover the hillsides at an average altitude of 1,800 feet. In the summer, the green of the vines is a relief from miles of golden wheat fields that supply the flour for Italian pasta. The name of the estate comes from the Arabic “Ali’s farm,” a reference to Sicily’s long Arab rule—from the 9th to 11th centuries.

“We are high up here at Regaleali,” says Count Lucio Tasca, head of the family estate. “So it is cool at night. That means we harvest nearly a month after the vineyards down by the coast. The slow ripening gives us great flavors in the grapes.”

This is an estate that is artfully blending old and new. Innovation has come in the use of international varieties—Regaleali was the first on the island to plant Chardonnay. But Count Tasca sees an increasing return to native varieties: “This is what our land is all about,” he says, as he surveys the 19th-century estate from his favorite vantage point.

Nor does he want to make wines that are too overtly concentrated and New World in style: “I don’t want to make a wine that you have to chew. I want to be able to drink half a bottle if I choose.” So, Tasca d’Almerita wines emphasize elegance and drinkability. The Nero d’Avola reds, such as Rosso del Conte, Camastra and Cygnus, show the benefits of long, cool ripening in their intense flavors. Under the watchful eye of Tuscan wine consultant Carlo Ferrini, they will only get better.

The same blending of old and new describes one of the newest Sicilian wineries. The Planeta name is old in wine terms: “My family has been in wine since my grandfather,” says Francesca Planeta. Although only in her thirties, she exudes a quiet confidence in her abilities as a winemaker, working closely with her brothers Alessio and Filippo. Her father, Diego Planeta, started the Planeta winery while working as president of the huge Settesoli winery. Both are based near Menfi in the southwestern corner of the island. Planeta introduced its first vintage of Chardonnay in 1995.

“We started by experimenting with imported varieties. We had Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc,” says Planeta. “We even planted Riesling and Müller-Thurgau, but they didn’t work. So we are concentrating on a few international varieties, and also on local grapes, particularly the Nero d’Avola for reds and Grecanico for whites.”
Antonio Rallo and his sister, Josè, also believe in native varieties. Their parents created the evocatively named Donnafugata in 1983. “We learned all about international varieties from our Californian friends, but we felt we were better off applying that knowledge to local varieties,” Antonio says. “Sicily is the perfect example of how soft reds come from the warmer southern vineyards of Europe.”

Rallo’s family sold the Rallo Marsala brand and decided to concentrate on table wines, but retained the winery in Marsala. Donnafugata—the name means “fugitive woman”—memorializes Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, who fled to the Contessa Entellina estate when Napoleon’s army occupied Naples at the end of the 18th century. The estate was also the setting of the novel, The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa.

Winemakers and viticultural teams at the wineries owned by northern Italian companies are also emphasizing Sicilian varieties. Calatrasi makes white wine from the Catarratto grape. At the Principi di Butera estate on the island’s south coast, Zonin’s winemaker Franco Giacosa, who once headed Corvo’s winemaking team, makes 100-percent varietal wines. “The Zonin family asked me to find a good place for Nero d’Avola. We planted it in limestone soil to restrict its natural vigor and give us good quality grapes,” he says. Inzolia is the featured grape for the whites: “With Inzolia we can follow all the techniques used in Burgundy, with lees stirring and wood aging. It gives us really complex wines.”

The same thing happened when Gruppo Italiano Vini (GIV), Italy’s largest wine producer, purchased the 300-acre Tenute Rapitalà estate in 1999. “The first decision we made was to improve the vineyards,” says cellarmaster Silvio Centonze. “We replanted Catarratto and Nero d’Avola.” Adds Tiziana Mori, a spokesperson for GIV, which is based in Bardolino, outside of Verona: “This is an unusual and exceptional terroir in which land quality, aspect and the microclimates offer optimal conditions for the production of great wines.”
GIV’s investment in Rapitalà is part of its larger GIV-Sud project, which includes Terre degli Svevi in Basilicata and Castello Monaci in Puglia—a sign that the producer is serious about its viticultural commitment in the south. Once the vineyard improvements were under way, Rapitalà began construction on a new winery.

Rapitalà is among those experimenting with Syrah and getting good results, particularly with its Solinero label, which has won awards from Italy’s national wine guides. And Planeta’s Syrah takes advantage of Sicily’s excellent ripening conditions—hotter than the Southern Rhône but otherwise similar—to make one of its top wines.

Casa Girelli’s Virtuoso, from vineyards close to Planeta’s winery, is another star Syrah. It is part of Girelli’s renewed commitment to Sicily, which includes the Santa Tresa estate near Vittoria where Nivuro, a Nero d’Avola and Cabernet Sauvignon blend, is produced. “We have learned so much from the traditions of Sicilian winemaking and yet we are also finding it to be an innovative region,” says Stefano Girelli.

Innovation is surely the driving force behind some of the smaller island wineries. Spadafora, a 247-acre vineyard, Contrada Virzì, in the hills behind Palermo, is a family estate that has been growing grapes and harvesting olives for centuries. In the 1960s, Pietro Spadafora decided to start making wine, too. Today his son, Francesco, grows Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Nero d’Avola, Merlot, Inzolia and Catarratto, among others. He is a winemaker to watch, many locals feel.

Cusumano, whose 340 acres of vineyards are scattered throughout Sicily, makes a variety of wines, with a keen eye to suiting the grapes to the different microclimates. “We prefer Nero d’Avola from Noto, while our Inzolia comes from the high vineyards at Salemi,” say Alberto Cusumano, who runs Cusumano with his brother, Diego. “We can get our Syrah from the hill vineyards of Contessa Entellina in central Sicily and the Merlot from vineyards tempered by the sea breezes at Riesi on the south coast.” His brother adds that “Sicily is considered one terroir. I would like to see many small terroirs develop.”

Vito Catania’s Gulfi estate is another quality-oriented boutique winery. It produced 100,000 bottles in 2002 from 140 acres of vines near Syracuse. The estate makes a range of 100-percent, single-vineyard Nero d’Avola wines—Neroibleo, Nerobaroni, Neromàccari, Nerobufaleffi and Nerosanlorenzi. The secret to getting quality fruit, according to Catania, is dense planting and a low yield-per-vine ratio. “It is a return to the practices of Sicilian viticulture 50 years ago, which were lost in the mechanization of the vineyard,” he says.
Sicily’s wine revolution is in its early stages, but much has already happened. The Settesoli cooperative, whose 2,300 members control 16,000 acres, paid only a few cents more per kilo for premium grapes in 1990. Today, the premium is about 60 cents per kilo. “This has made a huge difference in the quality of grapes arriving in the winery,” says Salvatore Li Petri, Settesoli’s director general.

“Everybody is talking about Sicily. Much more attention is being paid and development is underway,” says Giulio Vecchio, enologist with Cottanera in Castiglione di Sicilia. “Entrepreneurs are finally meeting the demands of the international consumer. What Sicily needs to watch out for are the entrepreneurs with little scruples who present a nice package, a nice bottle, without good wine inside. Importance is too often put on numbers, on volume sales.”

“The birth of Sicilian wines should have happened a long time ago,” adds soft-spoken Francesco Spadafora. “We are finally getting attention and we are making good wine. Our land has not changed, our climate is the same. Grapes like Grillo and Nero d’Avola are finally getting the attention they deserve.”

But Sicily’s revolution, like anything good, will take time: “Sicily is very big, and there is a long way to go,” says Donnafugata’s Antonio Rallo.

Savoring Sicily

Alberto Tasca trains his binoculars on the sea, scanning the waters for his father, Count Lucio Tasca, head of the Tasca d’Almerita wine estate. The count is in a dinghy somewhere in the Aeolian Archipelago, about 20 miles off the northeastern corner of Sicily, having left the island of Panarea, where he has a summer house, more than an hour ago. He is late to meet his family for lunch on the island of Salina.

The winds have picked up and the sea is choppy. The binoculars are passed between worried—and ravenous—family members until the count’s bobbing boat is spotted. Before long, he is safely on shore. As he joins his children and grandchildren, a huge grin on his face, he holds up red and swollen hands, the result of a battle that morning with ricci, or sea urchins, whose roe is a local delicacy.

If Sicilians are known as a people with one foot in a fishing boat, another in the vineyard, and their hearts in the kitchen, then the Count is as Sicilian as they come.
Finally, the Tasca family sits down for a meal that would loom large in an epicurean’s diary, perhaps that of Archestratus, the Greek-Sicilian poet who wrote the world’s first cookbook, The Life of Luxury, in the 4th century BC. Prepared by Teodoro, who runs the bougainvillea-framed restaurant Porto Bello, with his wife, memorable dishes include pasta with swordfish, chopped mint and roasted red pepper; fish carpaccio doused with lemon and blanketed with paper-thin sweet onions; and calamaretti alla Malvasi, baby squid stuffed with breadcrumbs, parsley, garlic and pecorino cheese, sautéed in Malvasia wine and onion. The crowd-pleaser is dessert—native figs cooked in red wine and cinnamon and topped with shavings of almond. Ristorante Porto Bello, Santa Marina Salina; Tel. (39) 090-984312

After the meal, the count produces a pearl of wisdom: “Non c’è miglior condimento che l’appetito.” Indeed, appetite is the best condiment and the land that shaped the Count is, in a word, appetitosa.

A triangle of beauty, excess and contrasts, Sicily is at the crossroads of Europe and Africa. As a result, it has been both pillaged and enriched by foreign invaders—the Greeks, Carthaginians, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, and French have all left their mark.
Despite the continual presence of outsiders, the Siculi—the indigenous inhabitants after whom the island is named—maintained a distinct personality and their descendants, the Sicilians of today, are a stoic, intelligent and intensely proud people often described as “the most Italian of the Italians.”

Sicilians, on the other hand, will tell you that they are the least Italian of the Italians. Their stubborn refusal to build a bridge over the Straits of Messina, connecting them to the boot of Italy—forever poised to kick the island into oblivion—is a telling clue. Sicilians occupy a region apart.

What sets Sicily’s gastronomy apart from the rest of Italy is its Arab-influenced cuisine. Considered to be the source of some of Italy’s best cooking, it is certainly spicier and sweeter than that found in other regions. The Arabs, who occupied Sicily from the late 8th century through the 11th century, introduced exotic citrus trees and, impor- tantly, the sugarcane that feeds Sicily’s famously insatiable sweet tooth. Eastern culinary preferences such as eggplant, mint, raisins, olives, pine nuts, capers and anchovies are the building blocks of today’s Sicilian cuisine.

Saracen pirates, who were Arab, are said to have left behind semolina grain called cùscusu. Unlike the North African version of couscous stew, which is made with lamb and chickpeas, in Sicily it is made with fish, a specialty of Trapani, the town that juts into the Mediterranean in a sickle shape. A festival dedicated to the dish is celebrated each September in nearby San Vito Lo Capo, home to what many consider to be Sicily’s most beautiful sand beach. The Arabs also founded a pasta industry in the 12th century near Palermo using existing durum wheat plantations.

Arabs are also credited with inventing the one dish that perhaps most represents the island: pasta con le sarde. According to legend, a chef charged with feeding the conquering army sent troops to forage for food in the surrounding countryside. They returned with a motley concoction of edibles: sardines, wild fennel, olive oil, dried currants, pine nuts and saffron. The chef threw them all together and a Sicilian classic was born.
Indeed, Sicily’s unrelenting sunshine, fertile volcanic soils covered with vineyards, citrus, almond and olive groves; natural salt fields; and proximity to seas brimming with red tuna, swordfish, lobster, and red mullet, have inspired chefs since antiquity.

“Our best dishes are born from a poor person’s tradition,” says Countess Anna Tasca Lanza, Count Lucio Tasca’s sister, who runs an acclaimed cooking school at the family’s Tasca d’Almerita-Regaleali winery. “Ask an 80 or 90-year-old what they ate as young people and they will tell you ‘bread, water, what we found in our gardens and what our neighbors gave us.’ The historical force driving Sicilian gastronomy has more to do with hunger than appetite.” Tasca d’Almerita-Regaleali winery; Tel. (39) 0921-544011.

Another common culinary theme in Sicily is the pairing of sweet and sour tastes, or agrodolce. Nuts, dried berries or raisins often make their way into fish and meat dishes and sugar and vinegar are added to the stewed eggplant and tomatoes that comprise the classic Sicilian dish, caponata. “The tradition probably comes from the fact that rich people bought all the freshest vegetables and fish at the market and the poor people were left to doctor up what was left with vinegar and spices,” says Giovanni d’Arpa, the chef at the family-run Donalegge al Castellazzo.

Located in the Madonie Mountains between Palermo and Enna, this romantically secluded restaurant and agriturismo, or rural bed and breakfast, uses only home-grown greens and vegetables. Modern renditions of hearty country fare include involtini, veal “napkins” rolled around bread, ham, caciocavallo cheese, raisins, and pine nuts; and falsomagro or “fake thin,” a roll stuffed with hard-boiled eggs, meat, breadcrumbs, spinach and other leftovers. A Sicilian version of diet food, it is designed to look more fattening than it actually is. After your meal, the Buccellato family serves homemade nocino—a digestivo made from the green rinds of walnuts picked only on the night of San Giovanni in June. Donalegge al Castellazzo, Strada statale 120, Polizzi Generosa; Tel. (39) 0921-562289; www. donalegge.com.

A more classic Sicilian dish is pasta alla Norma, a specialty of Ristorante La Siciliana in Catania. Created to commemorate the 1831 Catania premiere of Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma, this mouthwatering dish consists of fried eggplant served with salted ricotta cheese, tomato and basil. La Siciliana, Via le Marco Polo 52, Catania; Tel. (39) 0953-76400.

Ristorante Mulinazzo’s Nino Graziano, the only chef to receive two Michelin stars south of Sorrento, prepares modern interpretations of pasta alla Norma and other Sicilian classics. “I do the dishes associated with Sicilian mamas but replace the fat and fried foods with lighter fare,” he says.”The ingredients are the same—eggplants, fava beans, swordfish and shrimp—but I might steam them or cook at lower temperatures to preserve freshness and taste.” Ristorante Mulinazzo, Strada statale 121, Bolognetta; Tel: (39) 091-8724870; www.mulinazzo.it.

Sicilians are also attached to their fast food. Arancine, deep-fried rice balls filled with meat and tomato; panelle, fried chickpea pancakes; sfincione, pizza topped with sautéed onions and anchovies; and panini con la milza, a sandwich of beef lungs cut thin and cooked in fat, are displayed in tavole calde or hot buffet stations. Sometimes served with ricotta and caciocavallo cheese, panini con la milza is the culinary highlight
of the historic Antica Focacceria San Francesco, founded in 1834. Antica Focacceria San Francesco, Piazza San Francesco 4, Palermo; Tel. (39) 091-320264.

An epicurean’s tour of Sicily must end on a sweet note as no other region of Italy produces better confections. The island’s trademark dessert is cannoli, pastry tubes filled with ricotta cheese, chocolate bits and candied fruit. According to legend, the city of Caltanissetta, known in Arab as Kalat an-nisa or “ladies’ castle,” was where sultans kept their harems. These bored wives decided to turn their energies to making cannoli to pass the time. Some of the best cannoli can be found in the town of Piana degli Albanesi, an Albanian enclave about 30 minutes outside of Palermo.

Other famous Sicilian desserts are cassata, made from sponge cake, sweetened ricotta, almond paste and candied fruit; and, granita di gelso, shaved ice flavored with mulberries.
Pastry shop windows throughout Sicily are decorated with miniature oranges, bananas, figs, cactus pears and even sunny-side-up eggs made of colored almond paste and known as frutta di Martorana. These edible works of art were supposedly invented by La Martorana nuns in Palermo, who hung them from trees to trick a visiting archbishop into believing that fruits grew in Sicily during the winter.

To sample these and other sweets, visit the bakery Cibus in Palermo or Pasticceria San Carlo in the hilltop hamlet of Erice. Cibus, Via Emerico Amari 64, Palermo; Tel. (39) 091-323062. Pasticceria San Carlo, Via San Domenico 18, Erice; Tel. (39) 0923-869390.
Buon appetito.

Published on October 1, 2003

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