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Something Enticing in Sicily

Posted: Apr 25, 2008 3:32pm ET

My girlfriend was not happy. She was sitting next to me yesterday while I was looking at something on the Internet when an e-mail arrived on my MacBook Air. The subject line read: “Hotties from Sicily.”

“What’s this?” she said, with a slightly perturbed smile, and then smacked me on the shoulder.

“It’s some wines that I tasted last week in the office,” I said.

She didn’t look amused or convinced. I assured her a number of times that they were tasting notes, and they had absolutely nothing to do with the pleasures of the flesh, or anything else of that nature. She finally understood after looking at my tasting notes. But the incident made me laugh.

Last weekend, I tasted about 130 reds from Sicily in blind tastings in my office in Tuscany. I still believe that Sicily has a long way to go to make great wines, particularly with local grape varieties. But there are some hopeful things happening at the moment. One is that the reds from Tenuta delle Terre Nere, a small estate producing wines near the volcano of Etna, are a big move forward for the island.

I have not been to the estate myself, though I plan to go this year, but it’s producing some exciting handcrafted wines from old vines in a very precise way. Some of the wines from Terre Nere have fine aromatic qualities as well as silky fruit and tannin structures that are reminiscent of premier cru Burgundies from such appellations as Gevrey-Chambertin or Morey St.-Denis.

Brothers Iano, 59, and Marco de Grazia, 55, who also own and run the wine export company of Marco di Grazia in Florence, are the creators of the estate. With a little over 37 acres of vineyards, they have divided the parcels into seven distinct terroirs. For the moment, four are bottled separately as reds, with the rest going into Etna red and whites.

I did not really care all that much for earlier vintages from the estate. The first year I tasted, 2002, was good quality, but nothing special. And the note is in our database. I tasted the 2003 unofficially for the magazine a couple of years ago and it was flawed. I never tried the 2004 or 2005.

But Marco and Iano apparently have been working like dogs in their vineyards and cellar, and the fratelli are now making some excellent wines, especially their latest release of reds from 2006. Their old-vine (pre-phylloxera) 2006 La Vigna di Don Peppino and Etna Calderara Sottana are outstanding quality. I also like the other 2006 reds: Etna Guardiola, Etna Feudo di Mezzo Il Quadro delle Rose, and the blended Etna. All reds are made with Nerello Mascalese, with some Nerello Mantellato or Nerello Cappuccio. A good hearty white is also made under the simple Etna appellation of Carricante.

My tasting coordinator Jo Cooke spoke to Marco a couple of days ago, and he said that place was a mess when they bought it in 2004. They had a lot of tidying up to do in the vineyard as well as improvements in the cellar. "I knew the vineyards had potential, but I never thought I could get this high quality," he said.

I can’t wait for new vintages from Terre Nere.

Bryan Bucari
Baton Rouge, LA —  April 26, 2008 9:09am ET
James, is this just a slap in the face to the person who commented last blog about you not finding anything new??? Whatever it might be, its great to hear about the exciting progress that Sicily is making and the wineries that apparently "everyone has heard of" (HAHA).
James Mccusker
Okemos, MI —  April 26, 2008 11:19am ET
James, thanks for the info on your latest discoveries in Sicily. My wife and I have been in Florence since February and have had great fun educating ourselves about the wines of Italy (the best way possible: by trying lots of wines!). We've sampled a number of Nero d'Avolas from various wineries in Sicily, but I was wondering what other varietals that are "off the beaten track", so-to-speak, that you find especially exciting from Sicily (or elsewhere in Italy, for that matter)?
Katherine Brown
North Carolina —  April 26, 2008 5:41pm ET
James, you mentioned the old vines were "pre-phylloxera"; roughly, how old does that make them and I wonder if they were a lucky discovery on the property, or did the brothers de Grazia know of them when they bought. Also, what sort of shape are the vines in? Were they wholly protected from the phylloxera by virtue of their being on an island, or are they now affected and just low-yielding?
James Suckling
 —  April 26, 2008 7:48pm ET
I will check on Monday for you. As I wrote, I have not been there yet...
Tara Tan Kitaoka.
TOKYO, JAPAN. —  April 28, 2008 3:15am ET
Dear James,As much as I like u , I am very sorry to say thatyr dicovering of sicily is nothing new to me, I am very sorry, I have to agree with Bryan.I have travelled 20 years at least for 2 months ayear to lots of wineries in Italy, in 1995, I finished my trips to sicily and upgrading them once every year.Yes, from north to south to east to west.Yr discovery with the grazia's is just a American/Italian negociant , who control the barlolos boys with his brother , iano .mark's who's new wife is a sicilian with whom he has a young son brought a property in that area. If I am not wrong that was 3-4 years ago.As much as I want to agree with u, this case isnot interesting at all.There are much more real sicilians that make great wines and who are real proud of their heritage. It will be refreshing, if u could staywith real wine makers, not someone who trys to play god to buyers around the world.The grazia's , I meant.Have a great time with yr girl friend in sicilymore near to ragusa.Looking forward to more real wine-makers from a great writer like u.By the way, are u a great friend of mark ???.
James Suckling
 —  April 28, 2008 8:55am ET
What's your problem? My blog has nothing to do with you... Moreover, I started going to Sicily in 1983. So I am hardly discovering it for the first time. There's a lot going on around Etna at the moment, as you apparently already know. And Marco and his brother are just one winery doing something interesting. How about giving me a few names of Sicilian wines that turn you on, instead of always criticizing? I was in Tokyo last year and I was surprised how poor the selection of Italian wines was. How do you source your stuff or do you just live part of the year in Italy?
Bryan Bucari
Baton Rouge, LA —  April 28, 2008 11:06am ET
I was actually making a joke about the person from the last blog, not an attack on James... sorry if you didn't catch my sarcasm.
Tim Froggatt
April 28, 2008 12:26pm ET
James,I have just returned from visiting the Principi di Butera winery in Sicily and was very impressed. I hope you get the opportunity to visit them/ taste their wines - especially the 2007 Insolia. The winery is owned by Zonin family and they have spared no expense upgrading. For something different their Riesi DOC is delicious. Ciao.
Renato Luise
Switzerland —  April 28, 2008 12:35pm ET
Dear Katherine and Jamesbeing a recent distributor of Terre Nere's wines here in Switzerlad I hope I can answer the question on pre-phylloxera.The plants in questions are 150 years old and were part of the property which Marco de Grazia has bougth. The reasons why these plants resisted to the attacks of phylloxera is that the terrain is sandy, made of small particles of lava eroded by wind, rain etc. Regarding the question if Marco was aware of these very old plants when acquiring the property I tend to believe the answer is yes. A last comment to say that the prephylloxera wine is only produced in very limited quantities (I guess something like 1,000 bottles); the other crus of Marco are non 'pied-franc' still made with very old plants (up to 80 years), delicious and much more interesting in commercial terms.
James Suckling
 —  April 28, 2008 1:06pm ET
Tim. I went to Principi de Butera a couple of years ago. The facility is impressive but the wines are a little underwhelming.
James Suckling
 —  April 28, 2008 1:07pm ET
Renato. Grazie tanto!
Tony Wood
Brighton U.K. —  April 28, 2008 1:55pm ET
Hi James, Turn on Sicilian wines- Passopisciaro Passopisciaro,Passopisciaro Franchetti, Benanti Etna Rosso Serra della Contessa,Benanti Lamoremio, Benanti Superiore Pietramarina. Anything byMorgante-near Agrigento southern Sicily,consultant RiccardoCotarella.If your looking for company/guide-I've got a few days owed! Have you tasted the Dettori wines of Sardinia?
James Suckling
 —  April 28, 2008 2:21pm ET
Tony. Thanks for the comment. I have tasted all those wines except for Franchettis. I have always liked Benanti's wines but they can seem a little thin and simple at times. I went to the Morgante winery about four years ago, and I always enjoy their Nero d'Avolas.
Katherine Brown
North Carolina —  April 28, 2008 2:58pm ET
Renato, thank you so much! I am a bit of an agri-history geek and the whole phylloxera thing is intensely interesting.
Tony Wood
Brighton U.K. —  April 28, 2008 4:28pm ET
James, Morgante's Nero d'Avolas is great wine-cheap as chips-not long bin life. Now the Nero d'Avola Don Antonio-named after the brothersfather-needs a few bottle years,should be well worth the wait.
James Suckling
 —  April 28, 2008 4:29pm ET
I agree...
James Mccusker
Okemos, MI —  April 29, 2008 2:37am ET
The Morgante Don Antonio is actually the first Nero d'Avola I tried since arriving here in Florence. I agree with Tony: very impressive for the price. James, I've been studying Bastianich and Lynch's book "Vino Italiano" and have read a little bit about nerello mascalese. Can you recommend a good producer?
Michael Fiore
Michigan —  April 29, 2008 11:05am ET
James, I'm fairly new to Sicilian wines. Any particular vintages we should look for (or avoid)? Have you tasted wines from Cos (Pojo di Lupo, Nero d'Avola)?
Charles Fairbanks
San Francisco —  April 29, 2008 8:21pm ET
James, as always I find your blog articles intriguing and informative. On the subject of native Sicilian varietals, a wine that recently caught my attention (at the Gambero Rosso pouring in San Francisco) was the Donnafugata "Mill e una notte." Knowing little about the producer and region, your insight and opinion would be appreciated. All the best and many thanks!
Renato Luise
Switzerland —  June 3, 2008 8:48am ET
Dear JamesI saw today published the scores for the Calderara Sottana, the Guardiola and the Prephylloxera. What about the Feudo di Mezzo? What do you think about this wine? To my tasting the Feudo di Mezzo is the readiest of the 4th crus, may be less racy the the Calderara Sottana but very smooth. Finally what about the base Ros¿rom Terre Nere? I found it excellent, it is not a cru however for short term drinking is great as well as very affordable.Thank-you in advanceyoursrenato
Jo Cooke
Tuscany —  June 4, 2008 3:55am ET
Dear Renato,

James is off line today and asked me to reply to your post. Yes, he tasted the Feudo di Mezzo as well and I think he would agree with you that its softer tannins make it the more approachable of the crus from Terre Nere.

As for the Rose, James will be tasting that shortly, in a blind tasting of Roses, so he won't be able to be influenced by your favorable comments :-)

Best wishes,

Jo Cooke

Tasting Coordinator

Wine Spectator - European Bureau

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