Calgary Wine Life: Sicilian Master Class @ Theatre Junction Grand

31 10 2013

Quick:  name a Sicilian wine producer.  Did you say Planeta?  Me too.  Name another one.  To my embarrassment, I couldn’t.  My list of known Sicilian producers ends at one.  This fairly sizeable void in my wine knowledge is particularly galling because, believe it or not, Sicily is the biggest wine-producing region in Italy:  it actually produces more wine per year than Australia, more than Chile and Bordeaux combined.  So why does it continue to have such a low profile?  Because, up until recently, the wine produced was not generally of high quality and was often sold off in bulk to other parts of the country instead of bottled on its own.  Even now, less than 20% of Sicily’s annual production is bottled for individual sale, and only 5% or so comes from a legally designated DOC region.  But there is currently a quality revolution underway in Sicily, one that has been brewing since the 1980s and that has seen many longstanding producers forego high yields and the sale of their crops by the ton in favour of more meticulous growing and winemaking practices and the creation of better wines under their own labels.  This week I got the chance to witness this transformation midstream.

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The Italian Trade Commission hosted a large trade tasting downtown at the Theatre Junction Grand featuring a huge host of wineries from all over the country, and right before it started, upstairs in the Grand’s stunning third floor studio, 11 producers from Sicily strutted their stuff in a Master Class tasting designed to open people’s eyes to the wines of the region.  None of the 11 wines we tasted are currently carried anywhere in Alberta, although hopefully events like this will soon change that.  10 of the 11 wines featured varietals indigenous to Sicily and rarely found elsewhere, the most well-known of which is likely the easy-drinking red Nero d’Avola (and multiple others of which I had never heard of before, despite personally owning multiple books solely dedicated to types of grape varieties.  Obviously I have to read more carefully.)  I’m going to focus on my favourite wines of the Master Class, bottles that I would welcome seeing in Calgary wine shops, although all of the wines tasted made quite respectable showings.  Here are my top 5, in the order in which I tasted them:

#1:  2012 Ottoventi Bianco

I, like most people, tend to inherently distrust grapes I’ve never heard of, as if my lack of knowledge proved their inferiority.  This prejudice was really put to the test with this white from Cantina Ottoventi, as it was a blend of 3 indigenous varietals that were mostly mysteries to me:  Sicilian staples Catarratto, Grillo and Zibibbo (the last otherwise known as Muscat of Alexandria).  But holy crap was it good.  It was deceivingly quiet at first, with a pale straw colour and a slightly introverted, musky nose of melon/canteloupe, lychee and a clean note I can best describe as “fresh rain”.  But it hit a crescendo on the palate, vivid and alive with a sweeping and pure acid structure and a remarkably delineated set of flavours, part mineral (bath salts), part fruit (Granny Smith apples), part secondary notes (grass, rubber), all held together with an icy crystalline precision that stayed true long after I swallowed.  The whole thing exuded a sense of quiet restrained power, calm on the outside but a whirlwind of energy within.  I loved it – clearly the top white of the class.

89-90+ points

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#2:  2011 Le Terre del Gattopardo Donna Lola Insolia

I’ll let you guess which of the above words is the grape variety.  Did you say Gattopardo?  You’re right!  But not really.  This white was 100% Insolia, a grape to which I had been completely oblivious up to this point but which I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.  It was, in every way, an individual.  The wine was a blatantly darker colour than the other whites on display, a deep gold with swirling oily lines across the surface.  It featured an impressive array of flavours that flipped between white wine standbys and utter insanity:  banana, citrus, hazelnut, mineral, oatmeal, vanilla.  It was full-bodied but not at all heavy and actually somewhat delicate, and as the wine sat and warmed up in the glass, the flavours grew increasingly intense.  A pleasantly warming alcohol lingered a bit on the finish.  The whole thing was a bit of a science experiment for me, but I loved sitting down to something totally and utterly unique.  Great fun.

85-86+ points

#3:  2010 Milazzo Fancello Rosso

Moving to the reds, I couldn’t keep this wine off the list because it set two personal records for me:  (1) it was the blend consisting of the most different grapes I had ever tried (19 different grapes in one wine!) and (2) it was probably the single fruitiest wine I can remember.  First, the blend:  although the Fancello is 50% made up of Sicily’s favourite red son Nero d’Avola, the other 50% is a mix of 18 other indigenous and international varietals…why not, I guess?  Second, the fruit:  I don’t mean that the wine was overpowering or unbalanced in fruit flavour, but every time I tried to jot down a tasting note about what was going on in the glass, I just got caught up in the purity and exuberance of the fruit beaming out of it.  The nose is the absolute essence of “cherry”, the palate unadulterated strawberry and cranberry.  There’s other stuff going on, hints of black pepper, flowers and Thrills gum, piquant acidity, and soft dusty tannins, but you won’t remember those in the morning.  You’ll remember FRUIT.  A fantastic weeknight warrior wine.

86-87 points

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#4:  2008 Mimmo Paone Mamertino di Milazzo

The oldest table wine we tried, this was also the most different in style from the others.  A blend of Nero d’Avola and fellow Sicilian red grape Nocera, this was much more serious and traditional, with a solemnly grandiose, almost baroque feel to it.  Totally transparent even at the core, the wine was pure garnet in colour and featured a magnificent nose filled with fireside, Port-like notes:  maple, charcoal, baked/stewed red fruit, smoke, molasses.  It then took a sharp turn as soon as it hit the tongue, becoming much more meaty and savoury, dropping any hint of sweetness or fruit (both of which were the hallmark of the other Nero d’Avola-based wines we tried) and powering up surprisingly grippy tannins that caught me by surprise after 5 years of bottle age.  While far drier and earthier than the other Sicilian reds at the tasting, it also showed the most promise of ageability and complexity, and I have no doubt that it would be significantly enhanced if tried with food.  Much less playful and clearly meant for contemplation.

87-88+ points

#5:  2008 Baglio dei Fenicotteri Prim’Amore Passito di Noto

Dessert!  The best of this Master Class was definitely saved for last with this passito-style fortified (17.5% abv) stunner made from estate-grown Moscato di Noto grapes.  The grapes were harvested ultra-ripe, then left to dehydrate and shrivel on straw mats in order to concentrate their sugars and flavours (the passito method) before being vinified.  Before the sugars were fully converted to alcohol during fermentation, the wine was spiked with a neutral grape-based spirit, which halted the fermentation process (thus retaining much of the grapes’ natural sugar) and increased the alcohol level of the resulting wine, leaving us with a sweet but potent dessert elixir.  And wow did this one rock.  It was a deep burnished orange-gold colour, with an ever-changing array of aromas, ranging from spiced orange and peach to white flowers and marmalade to Sharpie markers and burnt sugar.  Rubber/chemical and almond notes joined the chorus as the wine sharpened itself on the palate before easing into an extremely long and pleasantly warming finish.  Just when the taste profile started to resemble a dessert wine that I’d tried before, something shifted and the wine reasserted its uniqueness.  I would drink this every night after the kids go to bed if I could.

92-93+ points

Inertia can be a frustrating monster to overcome, and it’s far from easy for a group of wines made out of nearly unknown grapes in a totally unheralded wine region to get consumer attention halfway around the world.  But tastings like this, designed to bring both the history and the future of Sicilian viticulture to new audiences, will hopefully go a long way towards creating new markets for these distinct and intriguing wines.  I can’t buy any of my top 5 picks above at my local boutique shop, but maybe over the next few months I’ll be able to stock up.  The wines have to be simultaneously adventurous and relatable to break into a new market, and I think these ones can strike that balance.

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