About two decades ago, the Sicilian wine business was made up of bulk wine almost exclusively, most of which was shipped north to Italy's more prestigious wine regions. What Sicilian wine we did see in the U.S. was mainly inexpensive jug wine, plus the ubiquitous Corvo, Rosso or Bianco, available in most neighborhood Italian restaurants.
Corvo is still around today, but a number of new, good-quality Sicilian producers such as Planeta are now making first-rate wine, and restaurants along with consumers are taking note. No longer must you buy an expensive Barolo, Super-Tuscan, or other northern Italian wine if you want to drink top-quality Italian. Southern Italy has joined the ranks of leading wine regions, with Sicily in the front ranks.
Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean and Italy's largest region, has the fourth-largest population in the country. It had traditionally competed with Puglia for the title of Italy's largest wine producer, but recent emphasis on quality has reduced crop size, and now Sicily is clearly second to Puglia in wine production. Although cooperatives still make 75 percent of Sicilian wine, small private producers are on the rise; fifteen years ago, co-ops made 90 percent of the wine.
White wine production still exceeds red wine by nearly three to one -- influenced by the preponderance of fish and seafood in Sicilian cuisine -- but more and more producers are beginning to concentrate on dry reds. Sicily's climate is mainly Mediterranean: hot and dry on the coasts, where most of the people live and most of the wine is made, but temperate and moist in the mountainous interior. About 85 percent of Sicily is mountainous, including the Mount Etna region in the very cool-climate northeastern section.
The three local white grape varieties grown in Sicily are Catarratto, Grillo, and Inzolia; the latter two show promise, especially Grillo. Trebbiano, Grecanico, and, of course, Chardonnay are also popular in Sicily. Sicily's Nero d'Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Frappato, and Perricone lead the red varieties, the latter mainly used in blending. International red varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, are also common.
In my experience, the leading Sicilian wineries producing fine, dry table wine today are, alphabetically: Benanti, Cottanera (both in the Mt. Etna region); COS; Cusumano; Donnafugata; Duca di Salaparuta (who also makes Corvo); Morgante; Palari; Planeta; Rapitalà; Regaleali (a standout from the past); and Valle dell'Acate.
Of these wineries, Planeta is one of Sicily's true rising stars. I wouldn't have made that statement 12 years ago, when I first met Francesca Planeta at Valentino Restaurant in Santa Monica, California, and tasted her wines, as they were making their U.S. debut.
I recall that the Planeta Chardonnay, always their biggest-selling wine, was really dominated by oak, to the point that it certainly was not to my taste. The owner of Valentino, the affable Piero Selvaggio, was beaming with pride for his fellow-Sicilian, the attractive, charming Francesca, as we tasted the wines. Well, Piero, I can tell you now that you have reason to be proud of Planeta. The Chardonnay is no longer oak-dominated; in fact, it's a real beauty.
Francesca is the daughter of Diego Planeta, who runs Sicily's most important cooperative, Settesoli, and who is a pioneer in Sicily's newly emerging, booming wine business. Diego Planeta turned the running of his private winery, Planeta, over to his daughter Francesca and her two cousins, Alessio and Santi Planeta. Alessio is the winemaker, Santi takes care of marketing in Italy, and Francesca handles marketing around the world.
Francesca Planeta studied at a classical school in Palermo, earned a Master's Degree in Communication in London (her mother is English), then earned another Master's degree in Business Communication in Milan.
The three cousins share all major decisions regarding the direction and future of the winery. For example, together they decided to expand their operations into an area in Sicily in which the winery did not have a presence. Even though Planeta has four wineries strategically located throughout winegrowing regions in Sicily, it did not have one in the Mount Etna region. Last year Planeta acquired an estate in the Mount Etna area, and will soon be making wines in what I believe is Sicily's most promising region for great wines.
At a recent wine dinner in New York with Francesca Planeta, I was impressed with the balance of Planeta's wines and the low-key presence of oak, a far cry from the way these wines were even five years ago, and told her so. Francesca replied, 'We try to give our customers what they want. Before, they seemed to like a lot of oak in their wines. Now their tastes have matured, and they don't want to taste the oak any more. Now they prefer lighter wines, more in the style of Pinot Grigio.'
Planeta is currently producing a huge range of wines, both from indigenous and international varieties. At present, at least ten Planeta wines are being imported into the U.S. I had asked that my Planeta tasting focus on indigenous varieties rather than international. I tasted seven Planeta wines, with the one international varietal included in the group being their Chardonnay.
My tasting notes and ratings can be found on the Reviews page.