One of the great things about running wine tours is being able to follow wineries as they develop and grow. We’ve been coming to Sicily since 2002, so we’ve witnessed significant change. It’s ironic, given Sicily’s 2,500-year viticultural history. But despite this ancient wine culture, Sicily is one of Italy’s newest, hottest wine zones.
“How did you find me?” That was Antonino Alessandro’s first question when we rang his doorbell in 2002. Ithad taken a concerted effort. Marsala producer Marco de Bartolihad tipped us off about this brand-new winery—built in 2000 by a fourth generation grape-growing family. Driving into in the dusty village of Camporeale, we felt like strangers arriving in a Western cow town. All eyes were trained on us, sizing up the unfamiliar rental car, the ‘foreign’ Italian driver, the blonde navigator. A group of black-clad retirees provided directions to the tiny courtyard that de Bartoli had described, but every doorbell bore the name “Alessandro.” Ringing each one, we finally found Antonino Alessandro and were buzzed in.
By profession a geometra (something between an architect and a contractor), Antonino had an office lined with thick books that imparted an air of expertise. But he himself was an intimidating figure. Big and burly, with thick black eyebrows and a thicker Sicilian accent, his How did you find me? was reminiscent of too many mafia movies. But the question was perfectly legitimate. After all, he’d only built his winery two years earlier, and his first release coincided with our visit—a Syrah called Kaid, or “the boss” in Arabic. We dropped de Bartoli’s name, and he nodded, pleased, and instantly metamorphosed into the most gracious host, a proud father delighted to show off his new baby.
Eight years later, Alessandro di Camporeale’s production has grown from 60,000 to 160,000 bottles, and from a single Syrah to four labels. The latest is something truly unique: a red Sicilian dessert wine. Called Kaid Vendemmia Tardiva, or Late Harvest Kaid, this is another pure Syrah. Dried for one month on the vine (a method that involves pinching the stem while the bunch is still attached), this wine is difficult to produce, so only 5,000 bottles are made. We found it absolutely delectable, a seductive nectar with blackberry and blueberry flavors, and an ability to pair equally well with sweets like vanilla gelato, cheesecake, or dark chocolate, or with aged pecorino.
When doing a wine pilgrimage in Sicily, one simply has to pay homage to Planeta. Founded by three cousins in 1995, the Planeta family had a calculated strategy: to prove that Sicily had the terroir and mentality to make prize-winning wines, not just vino sfuso. At that time, no one outside of Sicily knew what its indigenous varieties should taste like—there was no template for appraising Nero d’Avola, nor Grillo, nor Catarratto. So they started with Merlot and Chardonnay. Planeta quickly racked up prestigious awards, proved their point, and shifted their attention to indigenous grapes, their true love.
Case in point: their latest wine, Plumbago, a pure Nero d’Avola from the Ulmo vineyards near Sambuca. Previously these grapes had gone into the Segreta blend, but now they’re vinified separately. We tasted the 2008, made from 15-year-old vines. The wine had beautiful, pure, soft black fruit with an appealing spiciness. A lovely wine, it’s more accessible than their well-established Santa Cecilia, a Nero d’Avola from Noto, the grape’s birthplace on the other side of the island. The comparison demonstrates the influence of terrain on this site-sensitive varietal.
Abbazia di Sant’ Anastasia also recently debuted a new, limited-production Nero d’Avola. Established in 1985 in an 11th C. abbey near Cefalú, this winery takes full advantage of the cooling breezes that shoot up the mountainside from the sea and create ideal conditions for refreshing acidity in hot-climate wines. The new Nero d’Avola, called Senso Inverso, is a biodynamic wine that follows even stricter protocols than those required by law. Using no filtration, no added yeast, no enzymes, and no stainless steel, the wine is a juicy, deep, appealing symphony of blackberry with balsamic notes and a finish that never ends.
Voyaging through Sicily, it’s clear that Nero d’Avola can range from ho-hum to hubba-hubba. Nowadays the template for excellence is clear, thanks to quality-minded wineries like these three. But the bottom line for buyers is this: Know thy producer. It makes a world of difference.