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Sicily: Diverse Land, Diverse Wines
By Michael Apstein
Oct 11, 2016
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The wine culture of Sicily--a little bit of everything--mirrors that island’s unique character.  Over the centuries, Sicily has been invaded and colonized by the Greeks, the Arabs, the Spanish, and the French, to name just a few.  These diverse cultures have all have left their unique marks on the island--Catholic churches built by Arab workers look like mosques from the outside.  Monuments to Spanish kings dot the streets of Palermo. 

Much like the invaders, Sicilian wines are diverse and have arrived on our shores in waves.  Etna Rosso, wines made chiefly from a blend Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio planted on the slopes of Etna, transmit the flavors of that volcanic terroir with extraordinary elegance.  They’re often referred to as Sicily’s Burgundy because of their finesse.  Ten years ago, those wines were rarely seen in the U.S.  Now, it’s hard to find a wine list in an Italian restaurant without at least one.  (Those unfamiliar with the category should try one--technically not DOC Etna Rosso, but rather DOC Sicilia--from Tascante, an outpost of the well-regarded Regaleali producer.)  Carricante, a white grape grown around Etna, is poised to be the next “hot” wine from Sicily.

Wineries such as Planeta have shown the heights that can be achieved with Nero d’Avola, Sicily’s most important indigenous red grape, which they bottle under the proprietary name, Santa Cecilia.  Planeta also makes a sensational white wine from Fiano, a grape native to Campania, but which Sicilians consider “foreign” because it comes from the mainland. 

None of the examples I’ve cited above are inexpensive.  Tascante will set you back at least $40, Planeta’s Santa Cecilia, or their Fiano, labeled Cometa, $35.

What receives less attention, but is equally or even more remarkable, is the slew of high-quality wines at stunningly attractive prices that come from Sicily.  Similar to the upper end wines, these bargain wines have appeared in the last few decades.  In the past, Sicily was focused on quantity, not quality, producing concentrated must to be exported--what the French dubbed “vin de medicin,” because it helped to “cure” the anemic wines often produced in more northern climes.  The locally produced finished wines weren’t any better.  Thirty years ago, visiting a local cooperative during my first trip to Sicily, I found their wines, though inexpensive, oxidized and undrinkable though the locals seemed to enjoy that style. That philosophy changed with another wave of invaders:  Foreign investment--for Sicilians that can mean money from the Trentino as well as Australia.  Today, tasting the bargain-priced range from Stemmari is illuminating and makes you want to back up the car and to buy them by the case.

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Stemmari is the product of a vision and the money to execute it. 

Let’s start with the money.  Enter Trentino-based Mezzacorona, the world’s largest producer of Pinot Grigio, as measured by value, according to chief winemaker, Lucio Matricardi.  In the late 1990s, they established Stemmari by purchasing two estates, comprising a total of about 1,600 acres, one near Sambuca in Sicilia, near the coast about an hour south of Palermo, and one in the southeast, near Ragusa.  Mezzacorona is accustomed to managing vast vineyards, including more than 6,000 acres in Trentino.  They ripped out the existing vineyards, which had been planted in the traditional high yielding pergola style, and basically started from scratch with replanting, employing the more modern--and low-yielding--Guyot system.

Matricardi explains that Sicily is not one uniform vineyard, but rather a vast “continent of vineyards” with different climatic conditions, soils, and elevations.  Matricardi emphasizes that Stemmari plants grape varieties where, by their analysis, they will do best.  Sambuca is a good area for reds, while their other estate is better suited for whites, he explains.  Although they have international varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, Matricardi says they want to be “the ambassador for Sicily” and are focusing on Nero d’Avola and Grillo, two of the island’s autochthonous varieties.  He believes the local varieties are the “face of Sicily.”  In Sambuca, they’ve built a state-of-the-art gravity flow winery.  In total they’ve invested a staggering $150 millions dollars betting on their vision, according to a representative of the winery.

Stemmari’s vision is to satisfy the average consumer by making inexpensive, but solid, wines that over-deliver.  Matricardi unabashedly proclaims that the philosophy of Mezzocorona is, “Two wallets--the consumer’s and the producer’s.” I don’t know about the producer’s wallet, but I do know that Stemmari’s wines will please customers’ wallets because they do, indeed, over-deliver for their price.  They are not the “knock your socks off” or “compelling” wines that grab the critics’ attention.  But Stemmari is not interested in producing those kind of high-end or cult wines.  Indeed, their most expensive wines from Sicily sell for $14.  Their aim is to produce stunning $10-a-bottle wines.  (Frequently, the wines retail for less.  A quick check of wine-searcher.com shows that Stemmari Grillo and Nero d’Avola average about $7.)

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Stemmari’s approach with Grillo exemplifies their vision.  Matricardi calls Grillo a, “White grape in a red dress,” because of its thick tannin-containing skin and its propensity to make a big wine.  He explains, “We need to tame the generosity of Sicily” and make a more delicate Grillo.  Formerly, the grape was used primarily for making Marsala because the fortification process made it drinkable.  Matricardi stresses that it is important to know what style of wine you want to make. He continues, “In this (Sicilian) climate, you can do what you want.”  Grillo can make wine that’s either delicate or powerful--and anything in between--depending on viticultural practices.  Based on Mezzocaronna’s vast experience with the Pinot Grigio market, Matricardi believes customers are moving toward lighter foods and wines in general.  He even notes that Starbucks has introduced a lighter blend of coffee.  Hence, Stemmari has adjusted viticultural practices--variety-specific planting and harvesting earlier--techniques that help produce a lighter, less powerful Grillo.  They aim for a lemony, white peachy character to their Grillo, not a big ripe style of wine.

Matricardi refers to Nero d’Avola as a chameleon because it produces a vastly different wine depending on where planted.  He notes that the grape originated in the southeastern part of Sicily, but now is planted all over the island, producing many different styles of wine from light and fruity to more dense and concentrated depending mostly on the soil. Though Stemmari prefers making lighter, more delicate and less alcoholic Nero d’Avola, they are experimenting with an appassimento process--drying grapes before fermentation--with that grape in an attempt to add depth with heaviness.  Early trials are very promising.

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Stemmari, Nero d’Avola, 2014 (90, $10): Stemmari’s Nero d’Avola delivers savory nuances of herbs and olives, which make a lovely counterpoint to the bright red fruit elements.  What makes it especially attractive is the price. Mid-weight and balanced, with mild tannins, it would be a perfect choice for current drinking with pasta or seafood with a robust putanesca sauce.

Stemmari, Grillo, 2014 (88, $10):  This one delivers an emblematic, ever so slightly bitter, saline component that makes it a delightful match for hearty seafood in a tomato-based sauce.  Its clean, bracing acidity allows it to hold up throughout a meal, even against robust dishes. Your palate does not tire of it, which is an extraordinary accomplishment for a wine of this price.

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Email me your thoughts about Sicilian wines at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

October 12, 2016