Sicilian wine provided all the southern Italian warmth and attitude you could hope for at the kick off event of our 2013/14 Boston blind tasting series. Frappato arancini, panelle, escarole and bean soup, hand made orecchiette, and Sicilian green olive tapenade with fresh ricotta had little chance of upstaging these overly expressive wines. While the menu featured food to sooth the Italian soul, cibo dell’anima, these Mediterranean influenced wines went one step further, delivering little pieces of the island and its volcanic topography to our doorstep. Rocks, heat, expressive perfumes, tannin, acidity and value flowed.
If you love Italian wine, it is getting harder to ignore Sicily. While the island has more vineyards than any other wine growing region in Italy, little artisinal wine was produced over the last century amidst overproduction and a significant sweet wine sensibility. Now if you look and search, you can cash in on the unmistakable renaissance. Our group of 18 tasters sampled a dozen wines, six from the mountainous volcanic Etna region and six others from around the island. We tasted each set of six blind and in separate peer flights.
‘10 Occhipinti Siccagno $35
’10 Marabino $15
’12 Lamoresca Nerocapitano $25
’10 Cos IGT Pithos $30
’11 Cos Frappato $25
’08 Romeo Castello Vigo, Etna $40
’09 Romeo Castello Allegracore, Etna $18
’10 Vino di Anna, Etna $30
’03 Calabretta, Etna $24
’11 Graci Rosso, Etna $23
’12 Lamoresca Mascalese, Sicily/Etna $40
The first flight of wines rely on the region’s indigenous light and fruity Frappato and more structured and spicy Nero d’Avola grapes. The Occhipinti Siccagno and Marabino are 100% Nero d’Avola, the Lamoresca Nerocapitano and Cos Frappato 100% Frappato, and the Lamoresca Rosso a blend of primarily both varieties. The iconic Cos Pithos hails from Sicily’s only official DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, a blend of Frappato and Nero d’Avola. Cos ferments this wine in amphorae which helps feature the fruity profiles of this age worthy wine. The second flight of Etna wines are primarily Nerello Mascalese fruit with small amounts of Nerello Cappuccio for blending. Cooler altitudinal climate and rugged topography suits these varieties. In our blind tasting lineup, only the Lamoresca Mascalese blends varieties from outside Etna along with Nerello Mascalese.
There are some general characteristics worth noting before any mention of the tasters’ favorites of this Sicilian wine tasting. First and foremost, they represent serious values and will stretch fine wine budgets. If you taste these wines and then compare the prices to last week’s group of wines in the Robert Parker and Napa overview, you will get excited. Price points top out at $40 and get as low as $15. Secondly, cherry, strawberry, floral, and gamey aromatics run through my Frappato and Nero d’Avola tasting notes like a thread. So does freshness, mouthwatering acidity, and pleasingly smooth mouthfeels. The best of the wines had it all while the one or two less riveting examples produced slightly annoying heat and wimpier finishes. Unfortunately, the bottle of Occhipinti was bad, smelling and tasting like gluey rubber.
The Etna wines were markedly more serious. Tobacco, mint, coffee, earth, smoke, and/or anise aromas appear in more than a few tasting notes. Gorgeous mouthfeels of great richness, leaning towards international styling in profile, follow the melange of complex aromatics. Every one of these wines showcases strict tannins and alluring acidity. The Etna wines are far more complex than those in the first flight where freshness and brightness steal the show.
Interestingly enough, as blind tastings can sometimes inform, the least expensive wines were landslide favorites. In Flight I, the 2010 Marabino stole the show for $15. It offered more intense berry flavors than any other, and while the aromatics are more restrained at first pour (open the bottle a couple hours in advance, the floral aromatics eventually show off), there is remarkable richness framed by bracing acidity that puts the wine in complete balance. It’s a delicious bottle of wine to remind all of us there are serious showcase wines on the market to knock your socks off for less than $20. The 2012 Lamoresca Necrocapitano and 2010 Cos Pithos were also favored and are recommended in that order.
As wine fortune would have it, the least expensive Etna wine also rose to the top of its peer group flight. The 2011 Graci Rosso stood taller than any other. With smoke and tobacco leaf aromatics, it all added up to the most intense and pleasing nose with richness, classiness, complexity, and manageable tannins. The wine produced massive bursts of flavor without ever seeming precocious. It is a serious and compelling mouthful of sexy fine wine. I immediately ordered another case of it and will serve it somewhere in the midst of this year’s Thanksgiving feast. Also look for the 2009 Romeo Castello Alegracore as well as the cellar aged, late released 2003 Calabretta. Both are gorgeous in their own ways and would have tied as top wines of the flight if the Graci were absent.
I married a Sicilian girl 28 years ago. I would stick with the theme and propose to these wines if I were single today. How’s that for an endorsement? If I were building a cellar from scratch today, there would be plenty of Sicilian wines for near term drinking and mid term cellaring. One day in the not too distant future, I imagine these Etna wines will price out between $40 and $75, and they will still be values despite the inflation. Most importantly, they are nothing short of thrilling to drink.
Note: Recently Eric Asimov suggested these Sicilian wines were worth the hunt in his New York Times column. The piece is worth reading and underscores the findings of our Boston blind tasting.