“Sicily is a land of contrasts, with a tremendous heritage of old vines. The old vines remind us that Sicily has true biodiversity, and these varieties perfectly reveal the complexity of the appellations of the island while being particularly well-suited to the Mediterranean climate.”
Jean-Luc Etievent, co-founder of Wine Mosaic
In Sicily, the cultivation of grapes for winemaking goes back to the 8th Century BC when the Greeks first set foot on the island. It continued with the landing of the Phoenicians and Romans, as wine became one of Sicily’s most in demand products for trade.
By the beginning of the 20th Century, however, the wines of Sicily were mostly forgotten. The indigenous grapes…Nero d’Avola, Frappato, Grillo, Greganico, and many more…were all but unknown off the island or in a few areas in Italy.
The memory I have of Sicilian wine, from when I first discovered the joy of the grape, is of overly sweet plonk in oversize plastic jugs.
Then, in the mid-Eighties, a Sicilian family began to do new things to old, indigenous grapes. They studied the terrain and climate of the island and planted internationally-known grape varieties in the areas where they believed they would perform best. They helped launch a renaissance that has put Sicily firmly on the world map of wine. That family was Planeta di Santa Cecilia and, this week, we celebrated the wonderful wines they are producing at One Night In Palermo, a dinner in San Miguel de Allende.
The site for One Night In Palermo was the obvious one, La Cucina di Afrodita, the restaurant set in the lower foothills outside of San Miguel run by Sicilian chef Laura Buccheri.
The secret to the success of Planeta wines is, I believe, their implementation of modern, innovative techniques without forgetting the heritage of Sicilian traditions in winemaking. Diego Planeta, the head of the winery, planted the first grapes in 1985. He planted Chardonnay and he planted indigenous grapes that had been all but forgotten even in Sicily.
Paulina Anex-dit-Chenaud, who represents the Planeta winery in Mexico and did the matching of the wines to Chef Laura’s menu, told me, “To research local grape varieties, the family relied on ancient books telling stories of wines which were once the wealth of the island. They journeyed throughout Sicily, from Menfi to Vittoria, then to Noto, to Etna and finally to Capo Milazzo. With the idea of producing each wine in the most appropriate terrain, they went to each area and listened to the local residents to help determine the suitability of each of the local terroirs.”
Planeta now has estates in six different regions of Sicily and, at One Night In Palermo, we sampled wines from half of them.
As the guests arrived at the dinner, they were handed a glass of La Segreta Il Bianco (La Europea, $205) from Planeta’s vineyard in Ulmo, at the western end of the island.
“I chose La Segreta because I was confident it would work as an aperitif as well as an accompaniment to the fresh goat cheeses and jams”, said Paulina Anex-dit-Chenaud.
La Segreta combines the indigenous Grecanico grape with Chardonnay and Viognier, grapes associated mostly with France, and Fiano which originated in Southern Italy. La Segreta is fresh and fruity and, at its very reasonable price would make a great everyday white. And Paulina was correct, it was a good match with the fresh-baked foccaccia, cheeses and jams.
I thought Paulina’s next pairing was her boldest one. Two tartares, one of salmon, one of tuna, would strongly suggest a white wine. Paulina chose a red.
Planeta Cerasuolo di Vittoria (La Europea, $336) combines two indigenous grape varieties, Nero d’Avola and Frappato in a 60/40 ratio. Cherries were the dominant aroma and flavor in the wine and, even though I’ve drank more than my share of wines made from Nero d’Avola, I felt that I was realizing for the first time that native Sicilian grape varieties deserved so much more attention and respect than they receive.
In 1995, Planeta did their first commercial bottling of a wine. They chose a grape that would put them in competition with the biggest and best in the world of wine. Planeta Chardonnay (La Europea, $642) would be compared with the renowned whites of Burgundy. It was a bold move and, today, Planeta Chardonnay is the iconic white of Sicily.
The pasta it was paired with had an unusual cream sauce made from pumpkin grown on Le Cucina di Afrodita’s property that contrasted well with the peach, honey and peaty flavors of the wine.
I asked the extremely knowledgable Paulina Anex-dit-Chenaud how she thought Planeta compared with the best French and Californian Chardonnays.
“In Burgundy, many of the wines made from Chardonnay have a steely, green apple acidity and an earthy, wet-stone flavor. In California, they have a toasty, buttery, vanilla flavor”, said Paulina. “What makes Sicilian Chardonnays and, in particular, the Chardonnay from Planeta unique is they fit somewhere in between the new and old world tastes and that makes them very special.”
If Planeta Chardonnay is Sicily’s iconic white, Planeta Santa Cecilia (La Europea, $705), made of 100% Nero d’Avola, is Sicily’s icon red.
It is one of the fruitiest, spiciest reds I’ve ever tasted. It is a wine that experts would call elegant. It comes from Noto, at the southernmost end of the island, where it is believed that the Nero d’Avola grape originated.
I asked Paulina Anex-dit-Chenaud if she thought, someday, Nero d’Avola could be as popular as more celebrated Italian wine grapes such as Barbera, Montepulciano and Sangiovese.
“It certainly deserves to be”, said Paulina, “because it’s very different.”
“There is the taste of fresh fruits at first, then the aftertaste of dried fruits. The flavors go from black cherry to prune and that is quite unique. There are certainly similarities with new world Shiraz with plum and peppery flavors and it is extremely full-bodied like Shiraz or Syrah.”
There are a lot of reds that would work with beef tenderloin in a porcini mushroom sauce. Planeta Santa Cecilia Nero d’Avola would be near the top.
Moscato has become the world’s favorite sweet white wine. And mine. Planeta Passito di Noto (La Europea, $642, 500 ml) takes the Moscato Bianco grape one step further. Using the appassimento method of air drying the grapes for six weeks, the flavors become deeper, richer, and more complex.
“It’s that and the unique terroir of Noto that gives it that richness”, said Paulina Anex-dit-Chenaud.
We had a choice of two desserts at One Night In Palermo. For me, there was no choice. Laura Buccheri’s bianco e nero is one of San Miguel de Allende’s very best desserts and is irresistible. The taste of mangos, apricots, orange zest and honey from Planeta Passito di Noto harmonized with the hazelnut and chocolate flavors of the bianco e nero.
I don’t think there’s another region in Italy…perhaps in the world…showing more promise in the development and production of wine than Sicily. There are now hundreds of producers harvesting more than 20 indigenous grapes and Planeta is at the forefront. One of the few frustrations of living in San Miguel is the lack of access we have to most of the world’s best wines. We are fortunate that almost every wine that Planeta produces is conveniently available to us here at La Europea.
La Cucina di Afrodita is located just outside of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open for dinner on Saturdays and lunch on Sundays. For reservations or to be placed on their mailing list, email firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 415 124 2435. La Europea is located at Calle Conde de Canal 13 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.