During a recent Italian wine kick, my husband and I opened two different Nero d’Avolas, both from the same vintage, for two different meals. This grape, native to Sicily, is one of the most widely planted red varieties on this arid, volcanic island. The quality of Nero d’Avola has been improving as producers there work on figuring out the best clones, sites and soils, and my colleague James Suckling believes it has the potential to make great wines—structured, complex and full of distinctive character. While the grape stands on its own, many producers blend it with international varieties, such as Syrah, which also do well in Sicily’s hot climate.
The first we tried was the Morgante Nero d’Avola Sicilia 2006, served one night with lamb with rosemary in a tomato sauce over rigatoni. A mouthful of pure plum and blackberry fruit, the wine’s fresh acidity stood up to the tomato sauce, while the finish echoed the dish’s dash of oregano and sage with savory, herbal notes of its own. Sourced from hillside vineyards in southern Sicily’s Agrigento province, the wine is vinified in stainless-steel tanks and spends only three months maturing in oak.
A few nights later, eager to explore another style of Nero d’Avola, we opened the Firriato Sicilia Santagostino Baglio Soria 2006 with a pizza topped with sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms and olives. A blend of 50 percent Syrah that spends about eight months in oak barrels, this version comes from the Trapani area in the northwest corner of the island. It was also marked by Nero d’Avola's characteristic high acidity—indeed the finish was mouth-tingling—but the bright, high-toned berry and plum fruit was mingled with a pleasant mix of lightly earthy and mineral flavors and a big dash of the black pepper for which Syrah is known. Great with the pizza, it also would have been a fine match for a more sophisticated meal.
Distinctively different, both wines were 90 points for me, non-blind. The Morgante is a great value (only $17 when I bought it in 2008) while the Firriato (which I found on sale for $21) has greater production and wider availability, thereby earning it a spot on our Top 100 of 2008. Either one makes a great introduction to this unique Italian grape.
WineSpectator.com members: Read the original blind-tasting reviews for Morgante Nero d'Avola Sicilia 2006 (90, $18) and Firriato Nero d'Avola-Syrah Sicilia Santagostino Baglio Soria 2006 (91, $28, Top 100 of 2008, Rank: 50).