If wines were a game, Sicily's reds would be most-improved player
While the weather is still cold, keep an eye out for Nero d'Avola from Sicily.
For a very long time, Sicily was known as a place that made massive quantities of mediocre wine. When we were young, we tended to find Sicilian wines at neighborhood Italian restaurants, and we remember the reds as somewhat harsh and the whites as oxidized (and, of course, we cooked with Marsala). But that has changed dramatically in the past decade or so as a new generation of committed winemakers has focused more on quality and less on quantity.
To get an idea of the pace of improvement, consider that in the 2001 edition of "The World Atlas of Wine," Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson wrote: "The Italian wine establishment … has at last woken up to the enormous potential" of Sicily -- and, in the 2007 edition, write that Sicily "could now claim to be Italy's most vital and improved wine region." Indeed, more good Sicilian wines are showing up on the shelves all the time, and some of Sicily's indigenous grapes are beginning to have an impact, especially its signature red, Nero d'Avola (neh-ro dah-vo-lah).
We have noticed Nero d'Avola at some stores and on wine lists for some time now, but we had never conducted a broad blind tasting because there weren't enough of them widely available throughout the country. That also has changed, so we ordered a broad sample from stores in four states. We stuck with recent vintages, because those are most common. We did not set a price limit, but most cost less than $20, and quite a few cost less than $10.
While some Sicilian reds are blends that contain Nero d'Avola, we kept the tasting focused by buying only wines actually labeled Nero d'Avola. As always, we were not looking for "Sicily's best Nero" but were simply trying to get an idea of the quality of the wines, overall, that you are likely to see on shelves.
The answer: Go buy one -- now.
Wine after wine was interesting, highly drinkable and distinctive. The wines were dark purple, with blackberries and herbs such as tarragon and rosemary on the nose, sometimes along with a bit of lilac. They also at times offered hints of black pepper. All of that reminded us of wines made from Syrah in the Rhone Valley of France. Many of these also had a nice lemony crispness, the result of good acidity, that gave them special life and lift, and fairly soft tannins, which made them easy to drink. In other words, these were often wines that were, as we described one, "gutsy and brawny but not heavy." That's a pretty neat trick, especially for wines at this price range. Indeed, four of our seven favorites (Terre del Nero d'Avola 2005, Caleo (Il Conti 2006, Faunus 2005, Pinocchio (Mario di Dievole) 2006) cost less than $10. At that price, these could be excellent house reds, always on hand and pleasing with a wide variety of foods. In fact, we marveled at the ability of these winemakers to produce wines of such consistent character and charm at prices that were a fraction of so-so American Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignons.
Notably, while many of these wines had a great deal in common, we also enjoyed finding plenty of individuality among the group -- with some wines offering a bit of rustic rawness, some a bit of smoothness, some a grapier taste than others, while some had hints of the kind of structure we associate with Bordeaux. It was fun to taste wines that were clearly related but kept their own character, so night after night we looked forward to sampling these purple gems.
The best of our blind tasting, unfortunately, was the most expensive wine of the bunch: Planeta "Santa Cecilia" 2004, which cost $39.99. Planeta has become a famous name among Sicilian wines, and when we tasted this wine, we could understand why. It was elegant, with tremendous balance, real tastes of the earth and an almost chocolatey smoothness coating its distinctive tastes of blackberries, blueberries and herbs. The importer, Palm Bay International of Port Washington, N.Y., says more than 6,000 cases were made, of which 700 were imported and distributed in 17 states.
We can also understand why some fans of Nero d'Avola might consider the Planeta not quite as genuine as some of our other favorites, which offered more aggressive tastes of pepper and ripe fruit. Our best value, Terre del Nero d'Avola from Rossetti, for instance, was notable for its vibrancy and life and the way it just about pricked our noses with its pepper. For $9.95, this is a value that's hard to beat -- and with any kind of roast meat, this would taste even better. The importer, Winebow of New York City, says 30,000 cases were made, and 2,704 were imported and distributed in 13 states.
Not every store will have Nero yet, but keep looking because it is becoming more widely available all the time. These would be great with lamb and with all sorts of lusty foods -- spaghetti with anchovies, potato and cheese croquettes, eggplant parmesan, even swordfish simmered in spiced tomato sauce.
Way back in 1999, we wrote about a gutsy red wine that was just beginning to show up at wine stores nationwide. Now that wine, Malbec from Argentina, is widely available and very popular. Our guess is that Nero d'Avola, with its combination of easy drinkability, food-friendliness, interesting character and good value, will follow that same happy arc.