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Soaring Sicily, Vol. One: The Whites
By Michael Franz
Oct 13, 2020
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There’s a saying that, “if you hang around long enough, you’ll see almost everything,” and that’s coming true regarding wine from Sicily.  When I started writing about wine for The Washington Post in 1994, most remarks about Sicilian wine were not even up to the level of jokes, seeming more often like slurs.  As a case in point, I can still recall a conversation from the early 2000s in the Chianti district when a producer accused one of his neighbors of adulterating his wines by adding cheap, high alcohol juice from Sicily.  He exclaimed, “I’ve seen the tanker trucks roll in during the night…it is a scandal…you write for the newspaper that took down Nixon…you need to write about this!”  Of course, I wasn’t going to do any such thing without proof, but today I can say this:  That slightly unhinged guy should now be complaining if his neighbor is adding Sicilian juice to his Chianti Classicos because he’d probably be enhancing their quality.

It is truly astonishing how fast and how high the wines of Sicily have risen in both quality and reputation.  I’ve got plenty to say about the quality below (and again next month), but regarding reputation, Sicily has gained respect with breathtaking speed for a variety of wines grown in many parts of the island, both white and red, and for ones made from a range of different varieties in several different styles.  Etna in particular has arguably become the single most fashionable and envied appellation in all of the European Union, and again for whites as well as reds.  This is partly because of a backlash against the prices now asked for Burgundy and Bordeaux, but there’s more to it than just that.  Among the Italian wine cognoscenti both here and in Italy these days, if you offer them a Barolo, a Brunello or a glass of Etna Rosso…there’s a good chance they’ll opt for the last of these.

Although Etna Rosso has the strongest tailwind of all Sicilian wines these days, it would be a bad mistake to get fixated on that category to the exclusion of Sicily’s other offerings.  Even within the Etna region, I believe the whites are at least as good overall, and in fact convey the marvelous saline minerality of the volcanic soils even more expressively.  And beyond Etna, some wonderful wines are being made that still offer incredible value, as they don’t yet have the cachet that Etna has recently gained.

I’ll be back next month with recommendations of standout Sicilian reds, but wish to lead off with profiles of exceptional whites, which are even more newsworthy.  You’ll see Etna over-represented in the wines profiled below, but other regions are also included, plus some grapes other than Etna’s marvelous Carricante.  The highest scoring wines appear at the top of the list (with alphabetical order kicking in for wines with the same score), but keep an eye on prices to find top performers that offer especially strong value:

Tornatore, Etna Bianco DOC (Sicily, Italy) “Pietrarizzo” 2018 ($37):  Some wines excel by being splendidly delicious, whereas others distinguish themselves by being enduringly interesting, but very few young white wines achieve both of these feats at the level of this one.  On the delicious side of the equation, this is luxuriously rich and rounded in palate feel, with ripe flavors perked up by immaculately integrated acidity that shows itself more by freshening effect than overt tartness.  As for being interesting, this is arrestingly aromatic, with ripe fruit scents and lovely accents of herbs and grated citrus zest.  The fruit flavors recall tangerines and mandarin oranges, with marvelous purity suggesting that this was vinified from very lightly pressed juice.  The wine’s minerality contributes greatly to its interest, but in a subtly integrated way:  Those who want a real mineral kick in the pants would actually be better off buying this producer’s straight Etna Bianco, which isn’t as “fine” but is even more mineral and every bit as exciting.  95

Alessandro di Camporeale, Sicilia DOC (Sicily, Italy) Catarratto Vigna di Mandranova 2018 ($28):  This is an incredibly impressive example of the Catarratto variety — one that will immediately endear the grape to those who don’t know it, and that will change the minds of those who have only tasted mediocre renditions.  By comparison to the bargain-priced “Benedè” bottling of Catarratto from this same house, this is both more refined (less rustic in texture) and more complex (thanks to 10% of the juice being aged for 8 months in 600-liter French oak casks).  The oak influence is expressed in a very restrained way, with some nice spicy, nutty notes showing in the bouquet, plus a bit of extra grip on the midpalate and in the finish, but without any overtly grainy or astringent feel.  Stated more concisely, the wood treatment is brilliant, with only positive results that seem perfectly attuned to the wine’s weight and fruit sweetness, at least in this vintage.  The fruit character is admirably multi-dimensional, with strains recalling citrus, stone fruit, tropical characters, and even a resemblance to ripe figs.  Medium-plus in body, this could work well with relatively light shellfish or fin fish dishes, but it has enough flavor impact to work just as well with sauteed scallops or lobster, or even pork tenderloin medallions or veal scallops.  94

Tenuta di Fessina, Etna Bianco DOC (Sicily, Italy) Carricante “A’Puddara” 2017 ($66, Vineyard Brands):  This is among the most highly regarded renditions of Carricante from Etna, and for good reason, based on its consistently high quality and excellent complexity.  Like the best bottlings from Etna, it somehow manages to seem lean and linear if you choose to regard it that way, but also as substantial and even viscous if you concentrate on its texture rather than its inner energy.  Although it is very generously fruity, it also shows savory and even earthy tones on both the nose and palate, with a strong mineral undertow that provides layered flavors and an exceptionally interesting finish.  Tasted alongside several other top-notch Etna Biancos, this showed that it deserves its reputation as a wine of the highest rank.  94

Generazione Alessandro, Etna Bianco DOC (Sicily, Italy) “trainara” 2018 ($23):  This is exactly the kind of white wine that is helping Etna and Sicily kick in the wine world’s door.  It is terrific when the cork is pulled, stone cold out of the refrigerator, and is even better hours later when totally up to room temperature, and seems completely immune to oxidation, so I’d bet on this to still be bulletproof in another 6 or 8 years.  Scents of fruit and stony, salty minerals ride in tandem in the bouquet, and the same holds true on the palate, with excellent depth of flavor in a medium-bodied profile.  The wine’s density is excellent, but it is still very nimble and fresh thanks to piercing acidity that enlivens it through an extremely persistent, mineral-rich finish.  The wine is offered online by Alessandro di Camporeale, which makes extraordinary wines fairly far to the west of Etna, and the online shop shows the red and white Etna bottlings in a separate section, so I honestly don’t know how the two stand in relation to the wines from the main estate.  What I do know is that this is kick-ass wine that should be causing nightmares in Chablis in view of the price it sells for in Italy.  Please, please, somebody wake up and import these to the USA!  94

Pietradolce, Etna Bianco DOC (Sicily, Italy) “Archineri” 2018 ($43, Empson USA):  Exceedingly complex but still straightforwardly delicious, this is great choice for discovering why Etna is arguably the hottest wine appellation in all of Europe — in terms of interest, not temperature.  This “Archineri” line is a click up from Pietradolce’s very good entry-level Etna Bianco (which has a Rosso stablemate that is also excellent and very attractively priced at $24).  By comparison to the normale Bianco, Archineri shows significantly more richness and palate weight, but it doesn’t come off as “weighty” due to the energizing effect of a bright beam of acidity that rides through the wine’s long finish.  The fruit notes are very complex, offering suggestions of stone fruits, melon and citrus, with undertones of saline mineral flavors that keep this coming off as just another fruity wine, despite all the fruit it offers.  Indeed, in overall profile, this comes off much more as a “wine from rock” than a wine from sun.  Terrific versatility here with any food suitable for white wine, and likewise for any season across the year.  94

Planeta, Sicilia DOC (Sicily, Italy) Carricante “Eruzione 1614” 2017 ($35, Palm Bay International):  Planeta is not only of Sicily’s most impressive wine companies, but one of the world’s as well.  It incorporates five wineries on the island, which is large, admittedly, but not so large that one wouldn’t be tempted to simply build one winery and truck fruit to it during harvest seasons.  However, Planeta is devoted to quality, and that commitment shows clearly in all of the wines.  This bottling is designated as Carricante because that variety comprises 90% of the total, but 10% is Riesling, which contributes more aromatic and flavor complexity than you’d guess based on that percentage number.  Subtle white blossom scents get this off to an alluring start, with notes of stone fruit and citrus accented by suggestions of herbs and minerals, including a notable saline streak.  Extremely focused and fresh, the wine is virtually electrified by a streak of acidity that is almost biting in its intensity, yet neither the mid-palate nor the finish are sour or even overly tart in impression.  Only a few major retailers in the USA are currently offering this vintage for sale, and some are indicating prices notably higher than the importer’s suggested price, but even in the range of $45, this is worth every penny, and more.  94

Terra Costantino, Etna Bianco DOC (Sicily, Italy) “de Aetna” 2018 ($29):  This producer can turns out terrific wines, and this is a case in point.  A blend of 80% Carricante, 15% Catarratto and 5% Minnella, it shows very impressive complexity for a young wine, but also real potential for positive evolution in the years ahead.  The aromas show a touch of wood influence that works very nicely with the citrus and stone fruit notes, and the wine’s prominent minerality show even before the wine hits one’s palate.  It is even more prominent in flavor terms, with the same fruit notes (lemon and apricot in particular) also showing up on the palate, along with plenty of (balanced) acidity and nice primary fruit sweetness.  The mineral notes outlast everything except the acidity in the finish, making this very refreshing but also enduringly interesting.  93

Torre Mora, Etna Bianco DOC (Sicily, Italy) “Scalunera” 2019 ($23):  This is a great choice for those who love flavorful but taut wines with lots of acidity and reserved fruit, and a finish with a mineral-laden life of its own within one’s experience of the wine.  The aromas show subtle but very appealing herbal notes as well as suggestions of fresh straw, and also the scent of a ripe lime being sliced.  Medium-bodied, with real substance and flavor impact, it offers delicious flavors recalling ripe figs and cantaloupe, along with a squeeze of that aforementioned lime.  Just when the fruit flavors tail off, the strong mineral finish kicks in, showing a very distinctive and appealing saline streak that offers a firm reminder that Etna’s volcanic soil is ultimately in charge of this wine’s overall profile.  93

Tornatore, Etna Bianco DOC (Sicily, Italy) 2019 ($22):  This is thrilling volcanic wine, which doesn’t mean everyone will love it, but damn, I sure do.  Medium-bodied, but leaning toward full on account of its flavor impact and assertive finish more than just palate weight, this is substantial stuff, yet wonderfully balanced by energetic acidity.  There’s plenty of fruit in both the aromas and flavors, but nothing obvious:  a suggestion of stone fruit, perhaps apricot or tangerine, and certainly some citrus, but nothing palpable like the impression of grapefruit in some renderings of Sauvignon Blanc.  This is worth noting because the wine speaks of rock much more than sun, with very intense minerality that you can actually smell, not just taste on the mid-palate or sense in the finish.  This minerality has an overt saline character this often shows up in wines grown on volcanic soils, as on Santorini, for example.  Indeed, anyone could be forgiven for mistaking this for an Assyrtiko from Santorini, or vice versa, which is high praise for both wines.  This is reasonably priced and fairly available in the USA, as Gallo’s high-end Italian import arm is bringing it in, so see you in the checkout line.  93

Alessandro di Camporeale, Sicilia DOC (Sicily, Italy) Catarratto “Benedè” 2019 ($15):  The Catarratto grape variety is under-estimated due to some overshadowing by Carricante on Etna (where Catrarratto is generally a bit player in blends) as well as its role in the making of Marsala, which can be fantastic but isn’t quite the world’s most fashionable wine at the moment.  However, when cropped sparingly and taken seriously in the cellar, the grape can make terrific, food-friendly wine – and this really lives up to both of those characterizations.  It is medium-bodied, with good palate weight but plenty of freshening acidity.  Both the aromas and flavors recall citrus and melon fruits, with faint notes of straw and dried herbs.  The finish shows lots of Sicily’s famed minerality as well as a hint of (very pleasant) bitterness recalling grated citrus zest.  I’ve loved earlier vintages of this wine, and though they were hard to track down in the USA, the bottles were amazingly inexpensive for a wine that shows real “layered” complexity as well as “sequential” complexity (meaning, different flavors and sensations presented by the wine as one moves from aromas to initial flavors to midpalate and finish).  92

Alessandro di Camporeale, Sicilia DOC (Sicily, Italy) Grillo Vigna di Mandranova 2018 ($20):  Due to the very wet conditions of the growing season during 2018 (at least in the western sections of Sicily), this wine is unusually lean and zesty in this vintage, so don’t assume that other vintages will show the same character.  In most years, it would be bigger, juicier and more tropical in fruit profile, and more akin to the big renditions of Grillo that are more widely available in the USA from Sicily’s various coastal regions.  By contrast, this 2018 is openly fruity but downright prickly with acidity, as it was vinified reductively in stainless steel with 6 months of lees contact.  It shows some citrus rind bitterness in the finish, but that’s beautifully offset by the fresh fruit notes, and the overall effect is both complex and harmonious.  This is an example of a very skilled viticultural and winemaking team making lemonade from a lemon, which is also to say that this is a world class winery deserving of a much higher profile than it enjoys currently in the USA.  92

Alessandro di Camporeale, Sicilia DOC (Sicily, Italy) Grillo Vigna di Mandranova 2019 ($18):  This producer seems to take every variety seriously, and to make everything at a very high level.  If I had tasted more renditions of Grillo like this one, perhaps my expectations would be higher; I’ve had lots of them that seem very nicely suited to sipping thoughtlessly on a patio, but that’s about it.  This, by contrast, is so precise and fine, it just seems incomparably better that what I think of Grillo as being, and like a different thing altogether.  Aromas of white pear and lemon hold true on the palate as well, with flavors showing depth and breadth, but also a driving streak of citrus acidity.  Medium-bodied, with a subtle suggestion of minerality, this seems like a promising candidate for the cellaring, and this will be the very first bottle of Grillo in my cellar.  91