Eight labels from Sicily have been wines of the week since the blog started. The only question: Why haven ?t there been more?
Because Sicilian wine may offer the best value in the world, and that includes my much beloved Gascon white blends. Sicilian wines show just how much winemaking has improved throughout the world in the past 20 years, thanks to better technology and improved education. The days of slimy concrete tanks and dirty hoses are almost gone.
As the the Planeta ($8, purchased, 12.5%) demonstrates. I don ?t know why I keep being surprised by the quality of these wines, but I am. It ?s not so much that this is another amazing Sicilian white blend, but that it is so different, without the minerality and austerity of the others. Instead, there is a big dollop of white fruit, surrounded by some white pepper and an almost oily richness. In this, it ?s a Sicilian version of a French Rhone blend.
And why not? The wine is made with grecanico, a traditional Sicilian grape, but also chardonnay and vigonier. The latter is a classic Rhone grape, though not much grown in Sicily. It does its job here. Drink this chilled on its own, or with any summer meal.
The Wine Curmudgeon has run out of adjectives to praise Sicilian wine. Whenever I think it can ?t get any better, it does.
Remember how crazy I was about the Cusumano Nero d ?Avola? The Insolia ($12, purchased, 12.5%) is even better put together. It ?s a white wine made with the Sicilian insolia grape, traditionally used to make marsala. Yet, on its own, the Insolia is an absolutely beautiful wine, one that makes all that $15 and $20 grocery store stuff taste like the boring, dull grape juice that so much of it is.
Look for some lemon fruit and baking spices, but using terms like that shortchanges the wine. The whole is definitely bigger than the parts; this is a rich and full wine that not only pairs with seafood, but that makes you think of seafood as you ?re drinking it. Highly recommended, and if I can find it for $10, it will be in next year ?s $10 Hall of Fame.
One day, perhaps, Sicily will take its place as one of the world ?s great wine regions. The Winestream Media will flock there, and its members will write glowing 94-point reviews about wines made with grapes most people have never heard of. The region ?s winemakers will become celebrities, starring in glossy cover photos and showing up in wine gossip columns.
Until then, let ?s drink the wine and not let anyone else know how well done it is.
Case in point is the Cusumano ($10, purchased), yet another Sicilian wine that is stunning in its combination of value and quality. It ?s made with the nero d ?avola grape, common on the island, and one that gives the wine a dark, plummy and almost earthy character. Which, of course, is not what most of us expect from a $10 red wine. There is no sweet fruit, no winemaking alchemy to take out the tannins and smooth out the acid. You get what the terroir and the grapes offer, and that ?s a drinkable, impressive hearty red wine of the kind not found often enough in California.
Pair this with a red sauce, roast chicken, hamburgers or sausage. And if someone asks you where you got it or how much it cost, mumble your answer so it stays our secret.
The display at the wine shop did its job: ?Sangiovese from Sicily! ? How could the Wine Curmudgeon pass that up?
That ?s because Italian sangiovese usually comes from just one place, Tuscany, and it makes some of the most famous wines in the world. It ?s also not cheap. The Stemmari ($8, purchased), on the other hand, was cheap and comes from a part of the world hardly known for sangiovese. But regular visitors here know how much I appreciate the Sicilian wine renaissance, and Feudo Arancia is a top-notch Sicilian producer.
The Stemmari did not disappoint. No one will ever confuse it with a high-end Chianti or Super Tuscan, two of the best-known Tuscan sangioveses, but it tastes exactly like sangiovese. To be honest, I had my doubts whether it would. The wine is a little short, in that its flavors end abruptly, but what is there is varietally correct ? sour cherries, a little earthiness, a little cedar. It ?s just not as well developed as in a better quality wine.
Which does not imply there is anything wrong with the Stemmari, and especially at this price. You get more than $8 worth. Drink this with any red sauce, pizza, and even burgers. Just don ?t tell a wine snob it ?s from Sicily until after they taste it.
One of the biggest changes in the wine business over the past couple of decades or so has been in cheap wine. When I started doing this, cheap wine was mostly French, and we drank a lot of Beaujolais. Then, in the late ’90s, the Australians arrived, and we started drinking $10 shiraz with cute labels.
In the last 10 years or so, Chile (cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc) and Argentina (malbec) have become known for their cheap wine. Meanwhile, the French are stuck with warehouses of lousy cheap wine that they can’t sell, and the Australians have their own crisis — too many vines and not enough demand, with important producers on the cusp of bankruptcy. Which would seem to mean that the Chileans and Argentines will have cheap wine to themselves for the foreseeable future.
But that’s not necessarily true. Slowly — practically in stealth mode, in fact — Sicilian wine has arrived in the U.S., and it offers better value and better quality than almost any other cheap wine in the world. So why haven’t you heard about Sicilian wine? First, because it’s Italian, and the Italians may be the worst wine marketers in the world. Second, because the wines are made with grapes like nero d’avola and grillo, which most of us have never heard of. Third, most of the island’s grape production was traditionally used to make wine in other parts of Italy, and it’s only in the last couple of decades that the grapes were used to make wine for export.
But the wines are worth looking for, despite those obstacles. After the jump, a few suggestions about what’s available.