By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 13 May 2017
One of the most memorable holiday lunches I have had was in Sicily in a tiny bar on the old harbour in Palermo.
Far from the tourist trail, the peeling paint and plastic tables did not look promising, but the bar was humming with locals which is always a good sign – all tucking noisily into plates of calamari (squid) and pesce spada (swordfish) fresh off the boats into the grill pan, washed down with the local nutty Grillo wine served in small tumblers.
Grillo is one of Sicily’s native grapes which has been making quite a comeback of late in the UK as a seafood accompaniment, just as I had enjoyed it on Palermo harbour. It is one of the island’s most planted and highest quality grapes, with over 4000 hectares grown around Trapani in the north west [pictured above], previously used exclusively for Marsala – which has fallen out of fashion.
Now top Marsala producers like Marco de Bortoli or the Rallo family of Donnafugata are using Grillo to make fresh vibrant table wines which have caught the attention of UK supermarket wine buyers, who are promoting Grillo as a versatile ‘food’ wine. Marks & Spencer increased sales of this wine last year with their Italian meal deal from 55,000 bottles to 120,000 bottles.
“Grillo is a very easily appreciated grape variety”, says Emma Dawson MW, M&S wine buyer. “It has the ability to combine a rich tropical fruit palate, with a fresh zesty quality and a mineral sea salt character that enables it to stay lively on the palate”.
Tastewise, it reminds me of a combination of Spanish Albarino and Italian Garganega with its peach, honeyed and citric notes. But Grillo also has a distinctive nuttiness and herbaceousness with plenty of weight and texture – alcohol levels are usually around 13% – making it better served with food (particularly grilled seafood) than as an aperitif.
Grillo was created in Sicily from a natural cross between Zibibbo (Muscat of Alexandria) and Catarratto Bianco grapes – and it was widely planted after phylloxera to replace Catarratto due to its vigour and high yields. Grillo does have a touch of the floral character and sweetness inherited from its Muscat parent.
“Grillo was used for Marsala because it can reach high levels of sugar in the Sicilian heat and is prone to oxidation which suits Marsala production very well”, says Philip Contini of Italian wine specialist Valvona & Crolla. “Today thanks to modern winemaking technology and refrigeration, wineries have full control of the winemaking process and are able to produce modern versions of Grillo which are dry, light and refreshing with clean citric fruits and grassy aromas”, says Contini.
Our tasting showed the diversity of Grillo. At its simplest form in Aldi’s £5 blend of Grillo and Sauvignon Blanc, it tastes pretty much like other crisp dry Italian whites. More serious efforts from Donnafugata and Marco de Bartoli are deliciously rich and weighty, tasting rather like white Rhones, but they do need to be served alongside food – preferably a bowl of squid ink pasta.
GRILLO TASTE TEST
GRILLO & SAUVIGNON BLANC NV Castelllore (13%; £4.99 Aldi) STAR VALUE Usually the lack of a vintage on a label is not very promising – but I was pleasantly surprised by this light spritzy Aldi blend. 85% Grillo from late picked coastal grapes gives it vibrant lemon, touch of creaminess and nutty undertones, whilst 15% Sauvignon Blanc adds vibrancy and grassy notes.
GRILLO 2016 Cantina Paolini (12%; £6.50 The Wine Society) Made by a large co-operative of 1000 growers spread from Marsala to Marzara dello Vallo. This is light dry zippy and fresh, more delicate than others in the tasting, but tasters found it a touch confected.
ALLUMEA GRILLO 2015 (13%; £6.99/£7.99 Majestic Wine) STAR VALUE For the price you get more fruit concentration and depth for your money. Herb and tangerine aromas with a rich textured palate, this is a very characterful Grillo. Better served with grilled fish than as an aperitif.
GRILLO VINO BIOLOGICO 2016 (13%; £8 Marks & Spencer) A touch higher in alcohol than the last M&S Grillo wine I tasted; the grapes harvested slightly later so that sugars could build up. Hints of honey with pear and Sicilian orange notes, a touch of oiliness on the palate with a refreshing bitter twist. Zippy enough to serve as aperitif or with seafood, duck or summer salad.
SURSUR GRILLO 2015 Donnafugata (12.5%; £13.95 Valvona & Crolla, Edinburgh) STAR BUY Another unoaked Grillo, made by Marsala master Antonio Rallo. Very popular with tasters who loved the peach, herbs and honey aromas with a delicious lemon-lime flavour, herby palate & good depth of fruit. Pretty label of a woman fleeing across a meadow gives it a spring-like feel.
GRAPPOLO DEL GRILLO 2013 Marco de Bartoli (12%; £23.25 Berry Bros & Rudd) This is Grillo in a very different guise, vinified in 10 hectolitre fusti casks fermented using wild yeasts, this is Grillo at its most intense and characterful from the most reputable Trapani producers who grow Grillo on sandy limestone soils. Tasters loved it as a ‘seafood wine’, but sadly not the price.
Join Rose’s Hidden Gems of Italy with charcuterie wine tasting in Edinburgh Friday 16 June £45 www.rosemurraybrown.com