SICILIAN BARGAINS

by Rose Murray Brown MW  Published in The Scotsman 15 August 2015

Sicily is one of my favourite holiday destinations, such a fascinating fusion of different cultures – but the wines I have sampled on my many visits there have for a long time not lived up to expectations.  Now – I am pleased to see – Sicily is fast becoming Europe’s hotspot for brilliant bargain reds.

I first visited the island 30 years ago, when Sicily was better known as a main supplier of bulk wine to the chillier north.  I remember visiting a small handful of producers back then and being impressed by the wealth of native white and red grapes, but not by the quality of their rather rustic reds and inelegant whites.

Sicily has vast tracts of vineyards (almost as large as Australia) planted with their own fascinating native grapes, which have for years been channeled into those blends to bolster northern wines.  Since then progress has been slow, but local wine producers pioneered by families like the Planetas in western Sicily, are now gaining confidence and have realized they have a treasure trove of native grapes which we now want to explore.

From the high altitude vineyards of Mount Etna, to the south coast around Syracuse and the windswept island of Pantelleria (a great source of sensational sweet Muscat) – Sicily has an amazing array of styles on offer. 

In my opinion, most progress has been made with their reds. Two red varieties which particularly stand out as offering fantastically good value for money – are Nero d’Avola and Frappato – the King and Queen of Sicilian red grapes.

Nero d’Avola is the widest planted red grape on the island – originating from Avola, 25km south of Syracuse – first mentioned back in 1696 when it was known as Calavrisi.  Nero d’Avola is the muscular masculine heavyweight amongst reds with a deep black red colour (hence its name ‘nero’), high alcohol, sweet chocolate notes, firm tannins with plenty of ageing potential (although most sold here are young). 

Nero d’Avola’s characteristic liquorice and spicy flavours and full bodied style would suit those who usually drink Malbec or Syrah.  I believe the Australians are now experimenting with this grape in Clare Valley, McLaren Vale and King Valley in areas where Shiraz does well – so we may find its fame spreading down-under soon.

Frappato is one of my recent discoveries on the island.  It has such a fabulous freshness with vibrant acidity – a lighter more feminine style of wine – with a succulent strawberry flavour, floral, very fruity – quite Pinot Noir-like in its elegance (it is a thin skinned grape) but with a certain underlying pepperiness.  So it lives up to its name – meaning ‘fruitful’ as it can smell and taste really grapey.

Frappato originates from a similar area to Nero d’Avola.  Believed to originate from Vittoria in the province of Ragusa in southern Sicily – it may be related to Sangiovese and most probably to Calabria’s wonderful Gaglioppo.  You might well have encountered it in Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOC (Planeta do a very good example sold by Valvona & Crolla at £14.95) – but we are now seeing single varietal Frappato wines emerging from Cantine Rallo, Nicosia, Avide, Planeta and more.

So now is the time to explore Sicily – as you can now find both these varietal wines stocked in UK wine merchants and supermarkets – at very attractive prices all those we tasted were under £18 – most under £10 – and the cheapest at just £4.79.  The Nero d’Avolas tend to be much better bargains as there is more of this grape planted – and it is an easier grape to make into sweet gluggable inexpensive wine, whereas Frappato is a more delicate grape to handle.

“The latest Sicilian harvest in 2014 is one to watch”, says Sebastian Payne, wine buyer for The Wine Society.  “Whilst the rest of Italy had a very tricky 2014 vintage, the far south had a surprisingly good one”, says Payne.  He was so impressed with the young vibrant 2014s he has launched a special Sicilian offer.


                   
TASTE TEST:

NERO D’AVOLA

The Venturer Series Nero d’Avola 2013 (£4.79 Aldi)
Alcohol 13%

Hard to beat this one on price – it is a bit too sweet with very forward upfront black cherry fruits, but it does have an underlying pepperiness and plenty of rich ripe fruit for your money.  Suit those who like Malbec.  Bargain at the price. 

Oriano Nero Nero d’Avola 2011 (£5.49 Majestic Wine)
Alcohol 13%

Lots of damson black fruits here, hints of pepper with a savoury finish – reminded tasters of a brambly Shiraz – but not quite as heavyweight.  Easy juicy quaffer, decent price – but not the best in the tasting.       

Nero d’Avola ‘La Ferla’ 2013 Canicatto Co-op (£6.50 The Wine Society)
Alcohol 13%

Spicy liquorice notes here with very sweet upfront cherry fruits, smooth tannins, unoaked  – could benefit for a good hour in the decanter to entice out its aroma even more.  Made by the enterprising Canicatto co-operative near Agrigento with fruit blended from sandy limestone soils in vineyards near Palermo, Agrigento and Caltanissetta.  Suit those who usually like Malbec or Syrah.  Very decent price.  STAR VALUE BUY

Nero d’Avola 2014 Vigneti Zabu (£9.99 Aitken Wines, Dundee; Henderson Wines; Valvona & Crolla; The Fine Wine Company, Edinburgh; Woodwinters, Bridge of Allan & Edinburgh)
Alcohol 14%

Much more spice, sweet chocolate and very juicy fruit.  Soft supple, good modern winemaking, organic too.  This hails from young vineyards planted near Lake Arancio in Sambuca di Sicilia, the wine made by guru Valentino Sciotti (also known for Gran Sasso and Vesevo wines) – a name to watch in Italy.  STAR BUY


NERO D’AVOLA & FRAPPATO BLEND
                                              
Inycon Nero d’Avola / Frappato 2013 (£7.99 Waitrose)
Alcohol 13%

Proof that these two grapes work well in a blend with the voluptuous muscular fruits of Nero d’Avola freshened by the vibrancy of Frappato.  Rich raspberry and blueberry fruits and soft smooth tannins – try this south west Sicilian blend in a match with pasta al forno.


FRAPPATO

Frappato di Sicilia ‘Fondo Filara’ 2014 Nicosia (£7.95 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com)
Alcohol 13%

Light subtle aromas of raspberry and blueberry fruits, very sappy, nervy and highly acidic on the palate – with a minerality which reminded me of Spain’s Mencia grape.  This hails from near the distinctive mountain town of Enna.

Frappato 2013 Planeta (£16.50 www.winedirect.co.uk; Valvona & Crolla)
Alcohol 13.5%

This was my first Frappato discovery – made by the dynamic forward thinking Planeta family.  Vines are planted on the red sands of Vittoria – the wine made by Alessio Planeta in a fruit forward New World style – but this is an enchanting wine with floral notes and juicy red fruits. 

Frappato 2012 Cos (£17.95 www.buonvino.co.uk; www.ewwines.co.uk)
Alcohol 12%

One of Vittoria’s top ranking wineries – all natural winemaking using 400 litre clay amphorae – this winery was set up by three schoolfriends Giambattista Cilia, Giusto Occhipinti and Pinuccia Strano (hence the COS name) in the 1980s.  A lovely gentle elegant Frappato with sappy fruits, orange peel and cherry notes.   STAR BUY

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