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Innovation and tradition - up-and-comers and pioneers

For many experts, the metamorphosis of Sicilian wine is strongly associated with the name Planeta, and this in two respects. Firstly, because senior Diego Planeta, as president of Settesoli and above all during his time as president of the regional wine institute "Istituto Regionale della Vite e del Vino" (1985-1992), contributed significantly to the all-important change in mentality through his far-sighted policies. Like his Settesoli comrades, he swore in the winegrowers seeking advice to a strict quality programme in the vineyard and cellar and pushed empirical research. The institute itself conducted countless experiments with international and autochthonous grape varieties in the most diverse locations. The positive results opened up a completely new perspective for many winegrowers and made an important contribution to the quality turnaround in Sicilian viticulture.

And secondly, the winery run by Alessio, Santi and Francesca is perhaps the most avant-garde winery in Sicily in the last 10 years, which now enjoys an international reputation. In the mid-eighties, Alessio began with experimental plantings with the aim of producing top quality wines. The meteoric breakthrough came just 10 years later. First with flagships from international and increasingly with local varieties. The cantina near Menfi, situated on the idyllic Lago di Arancio, won one award after another. For the "Wine Spectator" (2002), the Cantina belongs to the best 100 wineries in the world. And the "Gambero Rosso" named the winery "Best Winery of the Year" as early as 1999.

The Cantina of Planeta on Lago di Arancio in Ulmo near Menfi

In 2003, this coveted award went to another Sicilian shooting star - the Cusumano winery from Butera, near Palermo. While it could not be found in any leading wine guide just a few years ago, it is now one of the top Sicilian wineries. The varietal-typical, pure-toned "Sàgana" impressively shows that the local hero, alongside the two Nero d'Avola blends "Bènuara" (with Syrah) and "Noà" (with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon), always has its firm place at the top of the consistently good and affordable programme of this young, rapidly growing winery.

More and more wineries are following this philosophy of consistent innovation and quality, and the results are already impressive: Sicilian wines now occupy top positions in the wine rankings. While in 1999 only 5 wines from Sicily received the three-glass top award of the "Gambero Rosso", in the latest 2005 edition there are already 15 - among them are 6 pure Nero d'Avola, two others as blends. The "Sicilians" also receive top marks in the other Italian wine guides. "Duemilavini", for example, the wine guide of the Italian Sommelier Union A.I.S., awards 13 Sicilians the highest five-grape distinction.

Among the most recent up-and-comers are names such as Firriato or the Zonin winery Feudo Principi di Butera. Both shine with the recently awarded single-vineyard three-glass wines "Harmonium" and "Deliella". As with many of the aforementioned top wineries, Firriato is also worth a look at the often very inexpensive wines of the second series, such as the "Chiaramonte" or the "Santagostino Baglio Soria Rosso" blended with Syrah. But even wineries that are not so well known in this country bottle excellent Nero d'Avola collections, either pure or as a blend, often for less money: for example, Abbazia Santa Anastasia, which is also known for its "Litra" (Cabernet Sauvignon), Fatascià or Gulfi with their different-tasting Nero d'Avola from the best cru sites in Pachino. And also wineries that almost exclusively buy in grapes, such as Maggio Vini ("Amongae") or small family wineries like Curto (including "Eloro Curto Rosso" from the Pachino area) show that good Nero d'Avola does not have to be expensive. In addition to those already mentioned, there are a number of important wineries such as Spadafora, Valle dell'Acate, Benanti, Calatrasi, Rapitalà, Fazio Wines, Rallo, Pellegrino and the wineries of the old-established Sicilian landed gentry, Tasca d'Almerita and Duca di Salaparuta, which have always been known for high quality. The latter estate was one of the first to bottle a single-varietal Nero d'Avola with its "Duca Enrico". This was just allowed to celebrate a great three-glass comeback in its highly praised 2001 version. With their world-famous brands "Regaleali" and "Corvo", both traditional houses are the real pioneers of quality-oriented Sicilian export wines. Tasca d'Almerita also focused on quality very early on. The winery, which has belonged to the Tasca family since 1830, began exporting the world-famous "Regaleali" as early as the 1980s. Today, in addition to the excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, it shines in the reds with an equal "Rosso del Conte" (90% Nero d'Avola from 40-year-old vines from the best cru sites in "Alberello" cultivation) as well as Nero d'Avola wines blended with international varieties such as "Cyngus" and "Camastra".

Another pioneer of this young winemaking elite is the innovative COS winery, which with its top Nero d'Avola products and the appellation wine "Cerasuolo di Vittoria" relies almost exclusively on autochthonous grape varieties on around 25 hectares.

Cerasuolo is a cuvée of Nero d'Avola (max. 60%) and the likewise indigenous Frappato grape (min. 40%) and produces a very original, tart-fruity red wine whose aromatic bouquet is reminiscent of cherries, raspberries and wild strawberries. At the same time, the light-footed, tannic Frappato - which is somewhat similar to Nebbiolo - brings in the aromatic-smoky note.

The two "lateral entrants" and self-taught winemakers Giusto Occhipinti and Giambattista Cilia are constantly breaking new ground in their constant exploration of the interaction between vine and terroir. In doing so, the two architects rely on biodynamic methods and do without anything that could distort the original character of the wines. Here, the wines have always been fermented spontaneously, and in some of them they even refrain from using sulphurous acid. Recently, they have also started to use terracotta amphorae for their Cerasuolo "Pythos". The result is a wine with a mineral character, which in its 03 version has an unmistakable character with intense cherry and slightly salty notes reminiscent of fine anchovies and capers. But also the other wines show the philosophy of the house described by Occhipinti to produce independent wines "which express their respective origin in the vineyard as authentically as possible".

The Settesoli% Menfi cooperative winery
But large-volume cooperative wineries such as the Cantina Sociale di Trapani and the even larger Settesoli have also made a quantum leap. Settesoli - once almost exclusively a supplier of standardised barrels - began bottling its own wines in 1983. Today, the cooperative giant produces remarkable wines with an excellent price-pleasure ratio in its top line "Mandrarossa" and enjoys unprecedented demand. "The whole world wants Sicily," says Li Petri of Settesoli about the positive Sicilian trend. How else could he sell his roughly 15 million bottles of annual production?

Another rising star in recent years is the Morgante winery, a small family-run business from Grotte, a stone's throw from the famous "Valle dei Templi" temples near Agrigento. The remote and idyllic farm is located at an altitude of about 400 metres. The vineyards extend up to 550 metres above sea level. The only grape variety used is Nero d'Avola, which produces very round, elegant wines here on clay and chalky soils that bring out fine chocolaty notes alongside red and black berries. Only two wines are vinified here: the simple "Morgante" with an excellent price-pleasure ratio and the "Don Antonio", made from old vines and lower yields per hectare (4t/ha), which has caused a sensation far beyond Italy's borders. It was not until 1994 that the Morgante family began vinifying their own grapes. The engagement of star oenologist Riccardo Cotarella in 1997 proved to be a great stroke of luck. Since then, the wines have received top ratings, not only in Italy. Robert Parker's Wine Advovate, for example, gives the 1999 wine a whopping 92 points (10-30-01/Issue 137) and writes enthusiastically: "The finest wine I have ever tasted from the Nero d'Avola grape". But at Morgante in tranquil Grotte, they are modest about the reasons for their success: "We decided to focus on quality with our best grape material and want to bring out the typicality of Nero d'Avola in the best possible way. Together with an experienced oenologist, this has paid off faster than expected," says Carmelo Morgante.

The barrique cellar of Donnafugata% Marsala
Further west in Marsala, where Sicily is at its most Arabic, another shooting star with a far-reaching tradition has been causing a furore for some years now. And not only because of the nightly and well-staged harvest and the artistic labels. The Donnafugata winery impresses with a clear vision of quality and sophisticated marketing. The name and symbol was given by Queen Maria Carolina of Habsburg-Lorraine (Donnafugata = fleeing woman) who fled from Naples to escape the Napoleonic army. The vineyards are situated between 300 and 600 metres above sea level in the enchanting Belice Valley near the village of Contessa Entellina. In the case of "Mille e una Notte" (90% from Nero d'Avola), not only the name, but also its Mediterranean fruit and spice notes are reminiscent of the nearby Orient. Asked about the future of the island's wines, the enterprising and culturally versatile landlady Josè Rallo is self-confident. "We want to be present on the most beautiful tables in the world and transport our message of Sicilian quality wine with our unique climate and territory to the world". In the wine, "the intense smells and aromas of our nature as well as our Sicilian passion should be expressed."With her legendary "Mille e una Notte", she has already been able to convince many wine critics of this: the Italian wine guide "I Vini di Veronelli" awarded the 2000 wine a whopping 93 points. And the jazz-singing signora is sure that the great success of the Nero d'Avola will arouse even more curiosity for other Sicilian grape varieties.

Future with potential

The success of Nero d'Avola and the international grape varieties that feel very much at home in Sicily have impressively shown what Sicily is capable of oenologically if it consistently focuses on quality. And the potential is great: around 80% of the total wine production still does not find its way into the bottle. But the number of those who focus on quality is growing steadily. "We are only at the beginning of our development potential today," is a phrase heard in many places. If, in addition, the origin typicality of Nero d'Avola and its still little-noted and well-known DOC areas can be made even clearer, the current positive Sicilian trend, led by the rediscovered autochthonous varieties, could become a long-term "Made in Sicily" quality label.

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