In contrast to white Sicilian varieties, where there are a good clutch of native options, for reds really there are two major local varieties, Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese. As recently as the beginning of this century we might have said there was only Nero d’Avola but that has now been joined by Etna’s great (or potentially great) Nerello. Of course there are other important cultivars, especially Frappato and Perricone, but you couldn’t call them major. And above all, in the red camp, the importance of international varieties is hugely important. Even so, Nero d’Avola still leads the way. As you can see in the chart below it towers over all the other varieties but is followed by three well-known, international, cultivars, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Nerello Mascalese is the final variety to be widely planted.
The leading Sicilian red variety has many things going for it. Deep colour which suits the international market, forward blackberry fruit which ranges from simple to savoury, refreshing acidity balancing the medium to high alcohol levels, a fairly soft texture (certainly by Italian standards), decent disease resistance and good yields. Its problems have really been how it has been marketed. Sicily as a whole has struggled to escape being pigeon holed as a source of cheap wine. Nero d’Avola did have a period in the 1990s when it became the favourite wine of supermarket buyers. Sadly, instead of being able to build a reputation for quality on the back of that that popularity it became a byword for cheap and, not always, cheerful, as standards were lowered. In many ways this is a parallel story to the current struggles of Australia to recover from a situation of glut but the difference is that there was also a highly regarded quality sector in Australia to drawn on. While Australia is now investing in rebranding itself upmarket, Nero d’Avola has been left with decent reputation for every day reds and a small sector of very high quality wines which are only known by a few connoisseurs. It was of course this specialist segment that we experienced on our tour of the island in June 2016. We did try to visit the island’s leading cooperative but that did not work out on this occasion.
Fazio, Torri dei Venti, Erice DOC, 2014, 13.5% at €10 a bottle on the shelf is a very good example of a high-quality, good value wine. Deep ruby in colour, complex aromatics with red to black cherry fruit with additional herbal and even balsamic notes, firm but ripe tannins and very good length. The freshness and the aromatics of Nero d’Avola are preserved by careful selection of ripe fruit and a relatively low fermentation temperature. Ageing is 4-6 months in large format oak.
Donnafugata, Sherezade, Sicilia DOC, 2015, 13%, does a similarly good job with its sour plum fruit, spice and light tannic structure. Highly drinkable. 8 days of maceration at 24-26°C, short ageing in stainless steel, bottled …. open and drink!
Planeta, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, 2014, 13%, the classic 60/40% blend. Low temperature (23ºC) fermentation, a fortnight on the skins, aged in stainless steel. Very clean raspberry and strawberry nose, a smoky and almond hint, refreshing acidity, decent length, an elegant and lively red.
We also drank an older vintage from COS at supper on our first evening in Sicily, a 2008, which showed good development and perhaps a bit too much volatile acidity, a winemaking issue rather than inherent to this blend.
Valle dell’Acate, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, 2013, 13%, another 60/40 blend, the majority Nero d’Avola being aged for eight months in oak, the Frapatto in stainless steel. This combination of short ageing in oak preserves the lightness and red-berried nature of the wine, much bolstered of course by the unoaked Frapatto. Moderate tannins if slightly drying tannins. Very good.
Planeta, Nero d’Avola/Nocera, Sicilia DOC, 2014, 12%, an unusual blend of 70% Nero d’Avola and 30% of Nocera, a minor Sicilian variety which flourishes in the rather wetter north-east tip of the island near Messina. This wine will be labelled in due course with the new Mamertino DOC, a sub-zone of Faro. Fermented in stainless steel, maceration on the skins for 14 days, aged in second and third-use barriques. This is a welcome addition to the Nero d’Avola canon on the grounds of its low alcohol, deep colour and spiciness. Ian d’Agata’s comment on Nocera is that it can produce full-bodied, rich, satisfying wines with good acidity and age-worthiness.
If Italy were not blessed with such an array of shining stars in its red wine firmament, top quality Nero d’Avolo would be much better known than it is. But the wine lover should on occasion push past Barolo, Brunello, Chianti Classico and Amarone in order to discover superb wines at relatively modest prices from the south. Even here Nero d’Avola has to compete with Aglianico and the Puglian trio of Nero di Troia, Primitivo and Negroamaro . So you can see the problem but one of the greatest things about wine is the richness of the range on offer. In this line up, Nero d’Avola’s strongest features as a top quality wine are its early drinkability (don’t try that with Aglianico tannins!) and its combination of rich plummy fruit and balancing acidity. By contrast Primitivo and Negroamaro can verge on the flabby. Thus Nero d’Avola’s rich texture, ripe, plummy fruit with a refreshing finish make it highly suitable for drinkers around the world who want wines that can be drunk on release, even if they can also be cellared for further development.
Among the top wines that we tasted were:
Planeta, Santa Cecilia, Noto DOC, 2011, 14%. Although this variety is grown all over the island, its home and quality heartland are in the south eastern corner, around Noto as here. This is a great and widely available example of a very approachable and elegant style of Nero d’Avola with lifted plum, raspberry and blackberry fruit, moderately full-bodied, powerful but lithe. The wine, 100% Nero d’Avola, spends 14 months in second and third year barrels.
Feudo Montoni have two Nero d’Avola crus. Lagnusa, 2013, 13.5%. From 40-year old vines planted at 4,400 plants per hectare, a mixture of bush vines and Guyot-trained. This cru is more black-fruited, with intriguing almond and herbal notes and a candied orange perfume; very complex. Medium-bodied with fine chalky tannins. Vrucara, 2011, 14% by comparison comes from fruit picked from 80-year old bush vines planted at just 2,600 plants per hecatare. Long maceration on the skins and aged mostly in concrete for 45 months, with 15% being aged in new barrels. Medium ruby in colour, silky oak texture has yet to fully integrate with fine, complex fruit. Both red and black fruit on this cru, tied together with a fine acidic and tannic structure. (Ultimate accolade: I bought a case of this on my return to the UK.)
There is a picture on the Feudo Montoni website of a magnificently ripe bunch of Nero d’Avola here.
Firriato, Harmonium 2012, 14.5% is another 100% Nero d’Avola wine, a small production of 7,000 bottles. Aged in a mixture of American and French oak for 15 months, a mixture of first, second and third use. Despite the unusual oak regime, the oak is well integrated and not obtrusive. Lifted red fruit, silky mid-palate, good depth of flavour and slightly coarse tannins.
The Gulfi estate is probably the most famous proponent of Nero d’Avola and the certainly the one to pioneer single-vineyard wines. The winery is near Chiaramente Gulfi, just north of Ragusa, but the company also has vineyards on Etna and, critically, in the Pachino area. The latter is Sicily’s southeastern tip and the very best area for Nero d’Avola. Bill Nesto comments that Nero d’Avola from the best Pachino vineyards makes pungent wines with flavours of ripe tomato sauce, aromatic herbs, dark cherries, tar and saline nuances.
At Gulfi they really like to push things in the vineyard as we found visiting the new, dry-grown, bush vines outside of the winery. It was about 32ºC and that really isn’t hot for mid-afternoon in July in Sicily, but after half an hour we were glad to go inside. They reckon on 4-5% mortality rate with unirrigated vines (rather than 1% with irrigation) but think it is worth it in the long run for low yielding, robust vines. We tasted two of their crus – and by the way the ‘j’ in the cru names is pronounced like an ‘i’:
Neromàccarj, Sicilia IGT, 2010, 14.5% – grown in and named after one of the top Pachino crus, Màccari, from 35-year old vines, dry grown, and therefore limited to a miserly 33 hl/ha. Although this is a big wine with a relatively high alcohol level, on the palate I was struck its silky elegance of the wine, the beautifully-judged intensity, rich but not overwhelming, and by the fine ripe tannins. Outstanding.
Nerobuffaleffi, Sicilia IGT, 2010, 14% – a second Pachino cru characterised by a range of soils in one 2.5ha plot – black clay, limestone and sand. 40-year old vines, this time on wires, very low yields of 30 hl/ha. Very clearly similar in style – great concentration with elegance – this wine is more dark fruited and has firmer tannins. Probably will begin to peak after another five years.
Both wines are given a long time in the winery before release: long maceration on the skins, two years in 500 litre and 225 litre oak, and then two years in bottle before release. That explains why even at the winery they are still on the 2010 vintage and why the wines are ready to drink on release. They will no doubt develop complexity over the next ten years or more.
Given the volume of Syrah, Cabernet and Merlot on the islands and the needs of the Italian market for something a bit different and seen as up-to-date, there are a good number of what we might call Super Sicilian blends. Foreign wine journalists tend to look disapprovingly at these as lacking typicity (‘nonsensical wines’, crazy blends with declared and undeclared Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon) but there is clearly a market for them. The style used to be heavily over-oaked but, as elsewhere, wine makers on Sicily are learning to rein in the oak and let the fruit shine. My stance is that while I tend to prefer the wines made with native grapes on their own (especially in Tuscany!), I am happy to taste and comment on the qualities of these blends.
Donnafugata, Tancredi, Sicilia IGP, 2012, 13.5%: this vintage, like the more recent ones, is two-thirds Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Nero d’Avola with a splash of Tannat. This has been the blend since 2008. It is aged in barriques one third new for 14 months. This is a very good wine in an international style. Ripe Cabernet Sauvignon grown in warm Sicily is held in check by the naturally sharper Nero d’Avola, the fruit is more overt with black plum to the fore, the high toast oak adds some tobacco and cedar notes, all underpinned with powerful ripe tannins.
And to demonstrate that these wines – or at least their predecessors – age well:
Donnafugata, Tancredi, Contessa Entellina DOC, 2000, 14% – pre-2008 the varietal proportions of the wine were reversed, so the majority was Nero d’Avola. At 16 years of age this was a deep garnet in hue and opened up with marked leather and mushroom themes plus a hint of toffee. The fruit was still fresh, a testament to the longevity of Nero d’Avola and the whole beautifully knit together. The tertiary notes, plus red plum fruit, seamlessly supported by a fine, long tannic structure. Genuinely impressive.
Donnafugata, Mille e una notte, 2011, 14%, this being a blend of 60% Nero d’Avola, 30% Syrah and 10% Petit Verdot. The oak ageing is 100% new French oak barriques. A dense a spicy nose, dark berried fruit, vanilla and toast of new oak, classic Nero d’Avola acidity (pH 3.55), a very tight palate with depth which promises much as this wine unfolds over the next decade and some. In its extreme youth the oak is prominent so this really needs to be cellared for five years.
To sum up, Nero d’Avola is a top, top variety with the potential to go head-to-head with other important Italian – and indeed international – varieties. It is extremely versatile. It makes good everyday reds, fine and elegant Cerasuolo blends, some convincing Super Sicilian blends and, most importantly, really top quality, ageable, wines. From the wine selling and marketing point of view, it is highly approachable as a style and relatively easy to pronounce. (On both counts it does much better than Aglianico.) It just needs a concerted push from Sicilians and from adventurous wine drinkers elsewhere to give it the profile it deserves.