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Sicily: The Next Big Thing (February 19, 2010)

There are two questions that wine writers invariably get asked. The first is: "Can you recommend a good wine that's under $10?" (Yes, but it's getting increasingly hard – and that's for another column since the question usually comes from doctors and lawyers.) The second question is: "What is 'The Next Big Thing'?"

The average North American wine consumer tends to be fickle. He or she tires easily of the "Flavour of the Month" and looks for new taste sensations. By "The Next Big Thing" they mean "What emerging region will be supplying our market with good quality wines at affordable prices?" Five years ago I would have said it was Chile, then a year later South Africa, followed by the new regions of Spain, like Yecla and Jumilla; last year it was Argentina (consumers were emptying the shelves of Fuzion Malbec Shiraz by the case, but you can only stomach so many fruit bombs).

From the evidence of a tasting I attended last November I predict that the next big thing will be Sicilian wines, both red and white, as well as their dessert offerings. You may not have considered Sicily – the football at the toe of Italy's boot – as a wine destination either literally or figuratively, but it's time to take another look. There are, incidentally, 650 wineries there, 55 of which are co-operatives.

Recommended Sicilian Producers:

Tasca d'Almerita
Fuedo Maccari
Feudo Montoni
Tenuta delle Terre Nere

Here's a tip how to find if any of these producers' products are available in your market: look up your local liquor board's info line number and ask which importing agency brings in the wines from a given Sicilian producer. In Ontario the number is 1-800-ONT-LCBO (Toronto area: 416-365-5900). In British Columbia: 604-252-3000. In Quebec: 1-866-873-2020 (Montreal area: 514-254-2020).

If you were to name one wine coming from Sicily, it would probably be Marsala, that sweet, syrupy confection that spends more time in the kitchen pantry than it does in the wine cabinet. It's produced from the indigenous white grape varieties, Grillo, Catarratto or Inzolia, and fortified to 20 per cent alcohol. If you have ever actually tasted Marsala it was probably as the liquid ingredient in zabaglione, the simple Italian dessert made by whipping up egg yolks, sugar and the wine to a foam and then served with figs or lady fingers. Easy and delicious. And just to show how versatile this wine can be for the adventuresome chef, try Chicken Marsala, which involves coating flattened chicken breasts with flour, sealing them in a fry pan and then braising them in a mixture of Marsala, butter, olive oil, mushrooms and seasoning. Poor Marsala –when it comes to the glass it's not even on the radar of most wine aficionados, ranking somewhat below port and sherry in the lexicon of preference for fortified wines.

The other historic product of the region is Moscato, with its flavours of honey and orange. In the southeast of the island, around the towns of Siracusa and Noto, these wines abound, but they're also found on the outlying Aeolian island of Lipari off the north coast and in Pantellaria off the west coast. On Pantellaria the local Muscat grape is called, charmingly, Zibibbo and its method of transformation into wine dates back to medieval times. The Zibibbo grapes are left on mats under the sun until they dry out and begin to ferment. This technique is known as appassimento and its most famous application is in the Veneto region for Amarone.

(A quick diversion here to explain why warm growing regions produce higher-alcohol wines than cool regions: direct sunlight builds up sugars in the grape berries by photosynthesis. The greater the intensity of sunlight during a vine's growing season, the more sugar will accumulate in the juice of the berries. Sugar is converted directly into alcohol and carbonic gas by the action of yeast, so the more sugar in the bunches at the time of harvest, the higher the alcohol in the wine if fermented to dryness. That's why wines grown in hot regions like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where the regulations demand a minimum of 13.5% alcohol by volume, are more powerful than the 12% Pinot Noirs grown in the cooler Burgundy region. Even more dramatic in terms of alcohol levels are the Rieslings of the Mosel, which can have a little as 7.5% alcohol.)

My Top Ten Dream Wines from Sicily

Feudo Montoni Nero d'Avola Selezione Speciale "Vrucara"

Fuedo Maccari Nero d'Avola Saia

Planeta Syrah

Tenuta delle Terre Nere Prephylloxera La Vigna di Don Peppino

Donnafugata Passito di Pantelleria Ben Ryé

Firriato Nero d'Avola Syrah Santagostino Baglio Soria

Morante Nero d'Avola Don Antonio

Planeta Chardonnay

Tasca d'Almerita Rosso del Conte

Cusumano Nero d'Avola Sàgana

But, given the sliding popularity of sweet, high-alcohol beverages, Marsala and Moscatel are not the wines that will be the next big thing from Sicily. Dry white and red wines will be. What makes this island of 9,925 square miles such an interesting place to grow wine is the number of grapes varieties that are unique to the place and the range of microclimates to be found here. This volcanic island with a 4,000-year tradition of winemaking has as much vineyard surface as Australia and twice as much as the fabled Piemonte. The Sangiovese grape that produces Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is said to have originated in Sicily as a cross between Ciliegiolo and Calabrese Montenuovo.

From sea level to the highest point of Mount Etna (10,902 feet or 3350 metres), Sicily is more a continent than an island in terms of its climate variation. The first harvest, for example, for Chardonnay, takes place during the first ten days of August, and the last, for the vineyards on the slopes of Mount Etna at 750 metres, can stretch until the beginning of November. The only flat land is a fringe around Sicily's 600-mile coast line. The interior is all mountains. While it is blisteringly hot during the day in summer, at night the mercury can drop 12°–15° Celsius. This precipitous drop in temperature ensures the grapes will have good acidity as well as high sugar levels, making for a well balanced wine.

For years Sicily was known for its bruisingly alcoholic red wines that were shipped north to flesh out the body and add colour to table wines in anemic vintages in other regions. Today, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay grown in Sicily are winning medals in global competitions; but these international varieties account for only 15 per cent of what is actually in the ground here. The native grape varieties of ancient heritage that are grown nowhere else in the world are what give the island its distinction. The red Nero d'Avola, Frappato and Nerello Mascalese are wines that can age as long and as gracefully as red Bordeaux. The indigenous Grillo, Catarratto and Inzolia are producing white wines that are both full of flavour and surprisingly elegant, whether vinified as single varietals or blended with Chardonnay or Viognier. And the best news is that the prices are within the pocket books of the average consumer.




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