Nero d'Avola's path to greatness

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I’ve written about the Cinderella story behind Piedmont’s barbera grape, but the more I learn about nero d’avola, the more it’s clear that this native son of Sicily also has its rags-to-riches story.Originally, nero d’avola was a farmer wine. It was easy to cultivate under the hot Mediterranean sun—as exuberant in growth as a teenager, and extremely prolific. On farmers’ tables, it might wind up being harsh and acidic, but hey, life was tough and so was the wine.

In the 1900s, Sicily’s bulk wine industry was gearing up, eventually growing to a size that surpassed the entire country of Australia. A prolific grape was perfect for industrial-sized production. If overcropping produced a thin, unstructured wine that was little more than juice, so be it. You get what you pay for.

By most accounts, the turning point in Sicily came with the tenure of Giacomo Tachis, the legendary winemaker behind Sassicaia, Tignanello, and other iconic Italian wines. After his retirement from Antinori, Tachis spent the 1990s as a consultant to Sicily’s Istituto Regionale della Vite e del Vino. He implored grape-growers to stop selling to cooperatives and lifted the bar all around. Duca di Salaparuta, Santa Anastasia, Donnafugata, and Ceuso were among the estates who benefited from his counsel.

Tachis adored nero d’avola. As he showed, give nero a little love—coddle it with the proper terrain matched with the right clone, exacting vineyard management to preserve acidity, and precise harvest times to avoid the overripe jam effect—and you’ve got a wine that truly sings. From its inky, opaque depths comes an explosion of plum, mulberry, blackberry, and amarena cherry, chased by chocolate, herbs, and a finish that’s (ideally) smooth and bright. At its best, it’s succulent and elegant. Lip-smacking good.

Nero d’Avola’s been on my mind lately, since I recently ran our DISCOVER SICILY tour and yesterday turned in an article on nero for the September issue of Tastes of Italia. Without scooping myself, I will take this opportunity to offer a more extended list of my favorite nero d’avola producers…of the moment. If you, dear reader, have others you’d like to recommend, I’m all ears.

Morgante: Found everywhere in the U.S., Morgante’s basic nero d’avola is a good everyday wine at a terrific price point. Their upscale Don Antonio ups the ante on hedonistic fruit.

Ceuso: Vincent Melia, one of the three brothers behind this boutique winery, worked with Tachis at IRVV, becoming good friends. So for 15 years, Tachis advised the brothers as they started up their labor of love. Tachis always preferred blends, and Ceuso’s portfolio reflects this. But their Scurati is a 100% nero d’avola. Clean and natural, it’s unfiltered, aged in cement, and charms with a bucket-load of cherry.

Cusumano: Here I’m going to tout their blend. Yes, their pure nero d’avola, Sagana, is awfully good, and it’s the wine that’s racked up their Tre Bicchieri awards. But I went gaga over Benuara, a 70/30 nero d’avola/syrah blend, with its seductive chocolate and dark cherry flavors. Maybe it’s the wind-whipped vineyard 450 meters high, which evidently has the perfect ripening conditions. Or maybe it’s the splash of briary, spicy syrah, one of the best partners for nero. Whatever it is, I’m happy Benuara it’s one of Cusumano’s most widely available wines, because I intend to stock up.

Abbazia Santa Anastasia: The monks knew how to pick their vineyards. This estate east of Palermo is situated in a no-man’s land according to modern-day winery locations. But when the winery was resurrected in the 1980s, its grapes were tops, benefiting from the winds that swept up from the sea. In addition to their luscious blends (Tachis’ hand again), they have two pure nero d’avolas: Contempo, an easy-drinking wine with loads of character (my notes say “cherry, black pepper, nutmeg, briar”) and a fantastic price. Then there’s the biodynamic Senso Inverso, with an awesome purity and focus of fruit (mulberry, blackberry, balsamic). As the cellar master says, “It’s like you’re eating the fruit, rather than drinking it.”

Planeta: One of Sicily’s benchmark nero d’avolas is Santa Cecilia, the most important wine from this pioneering estate. Ironically, it started out as a blend with syrah. That was done as a marketing tactic: to provide a familiar face on the label back in the days when the words nero d’avola elicited blank stares. Now it’s pure, elegant nero from Noto, the white-soiled region in southeast Sicily where the grape was born. In January 2010, Planeta launched Plumbago, another pure nero, this time from its Ulmo vineyards in western Sicily. They aim to tease out differences in terroir. I like this new wine. It’s direct—softer and rounder than Sta. Cecilia—and very luscious. Only problem: It’s not distributed in the U.S….yet.

Donnafugata: This solid, dependable estate offers three nero d’avola options: the upscale, prize-winning nero d’avola Mille e una Notte (with 5 percent local grapes); a simpler, fruity, no-barrique Sedàra; and a summer-time, quaffable 100% nero that can be slightly chilled, Sherazade. Aged only in stainless steel, the cherry–wild berry fruit takes the spotlight.

What nero d'avola do you like?