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Black Is the New Black (October 12, 2011)

Golf has one for men and one for women; and so does tennis. So why not wine? I'm talking about a world ranking system for grape varieties, white (ladies), black (men). You could see what wine style is trending and what is losing consumer favour.

If such a league table were to exist, there would be two red grapes that would be currently climbing out of obscurity. Both are indigenous Sicilian varieties and both sound like escapees from the Commedia dell'Arte: Nero d'Avola and Nerello Mascalese.

Nero d'Avola translates as "black from Avola," a town on the south-east coast of the island, not far from Siracusa. Although the grape, the most widely planted red variety in Sicily, was first propagated around Avola, ironically, you won't find it in this area anymore.

For years the dark, high-alcohol wines made from Nero d'Avola were shipped off the island to provide backbone and colour for the bulk wines of Italy's northern provinces and, if truth be told, those of other European counties. Surprisingly, even today, only 15 per cent of the island's total wine production is actually bottled there, the lion's share being tankered out for blending or bottling abroad.

We are beginning to see Nero d'Avola wines trickling into our market, but these are generally – shall we say – "introductory wines" that are purchased by liquor boards on price rather than quality. Many of these wines have been blended with a percentage of international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah to give them a recognition factor in the global marketplace. But as 100 per cent varietals they exhibit some of the flavour characteristics of New World Shiraz with a signature minerality and a ripeness of tannins. Producers of fine Nero d'Avola to look for are Donnafugata Mille e una Notte Contessa Entellina, Duca di Salaparuta Duca Enrico, Giuseppe Milazzo Maria Constanza Rosso, Planeta Santa Cecilia, Regaleali Tasca d'Almerita Lauri and Valle d'Acate Il Moro. Nero d'Avola, incidentally, is also a constituent grape in rubino (ruby) Marsala.

Such is the growing reputation of Nero d'Avola that some Australian producers have visited Sicily with the idea of planting the varietal down under. They certainly have the climate for it.

While most Sicilian wines bear the denomination DOC Sicilia rather than lesser known regional names like Bivongi, Faro and Menfi, there is growing recognition for the Etna DOC. Which is not surprising since most people have heard of Mt. Etna, Europe's highest and only active volcano, whose summit reaches 3330 meters. This otherworldly growing region, which covers the volcano's eastern slope, was the first DOC to be created in Sicily (in August 1968), a full nine months before the more famous region of Marsala on the opposite side of the island. Here you will find some of the highest vineyards in the world, where the harvest doesn't even begin until mid-October.

The region, with its black volcanic soil, is famous for its uniquely flavoured white wines made from Carricante (at Benanti I drank a wine called Pietramarina, which is made from 100-year-old bush vines). It also produces some very elegant red wines from two clones of Nerello – Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio. Like the Carricante vines, these are generally untrellised, planted and trained ad alberello, like small trees.

DNA testing in 2008 showed a distinct family relationship between Nerello and Sangiovese. The wine produced from these grapes is not unlike red Burgundy. Top producers of Nerello-based wines are Benanti, Cos, Cottanera, Murgo, Palari and Tenuta del Terre Nere (Marco de Grazia).

So if you want a break from Shiraz and Malbec, to say nothing of Cabernet and Merlot, try M & N.




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