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Soaring Sicily, Vol. Two: Remarkable Reds
By Michael Franz
Nov 26, 2020
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As luck would have it, I’m finishing this column and posting it on the USA’s Thanksgiving Day in 2020, a year that has challenged everyone’s ability to maintain thankfulness on a consistent basis.  However, despite a deadly global pandemic and the related shocks to economies around the world—plus the forced separation of families and friends—I have been buoyed during this year by wine’s ability to provide the excitement of discovery and the appreciation of beauty on a daily basis.  And during this surpassingly difficult year, my principal source of excitement and beauty has been the astonishing island of Sicily.

This is my third column on Sicilian wines this year, so we should get straight to the beautiful reds that are the focus of this piece.  If you wish to read about some of the reasons for my astonishment, I’ll simply direct you to my archive of Wine Review Online columns (which can be accessed in reverse chronological order by simply clicking on my photo or name toward the bottom of the WRO “Home” page).

My planned tasting trip to Sicily in May of this year was cancelled due to the pandemic, yet I was still able to taste an extensive selection of wines thanks to my friends in Assovini Sicilia and Sopexa, who shipped wines for me to review.  The great majority of the wines reviewed below were included in that shipment.  Most are from the Etna appellation, which I am studying especially intently (though I’m also enamored with wines from across the island and look forward to further research next year, hopefully in person after vaccines become broadly available).  

Some of the wines profiled below will be difficult to find in the USA, but that is likely to change, as Sicily generally and Etna in particular are among the world’s most fashionable at the moment.  Within Europe, they are perhaps THE hottest at this point, so there’s no doubt that prices will only head upward.  For now, however, even the more expensive wines offer some of the strongest values in the world.  How can that be, you ask?  Well, for example, Burgundy is the only category stylistically comparable to Etna for light, delicate reds featuring exceptional site-specific complexity and minerality.  Cost-wise, red Burgundy of comparable quality is at least twice as expensive as alternatives from Etna, and often much more than twice as expensive.  

Of course, you may prefer the flavor profile of red Burgundy, so my point may not be pertinent to you in particular.  But with that acknowledged, it is also true that Etna Rosso is much more consistent across both producers and vintages, much easier to enjoy while still young, and equally versatile with food.  Those are pretty damned impressive virtues, so I stand by my comparison and urge you to try some of the wines below to determine for yourself how they rank against the world’s elite lighter reds.  And I urge you to do so soon…as they party will be over before long on the prices you’ll see associated with the wines.

They are listed in descending order in terms of points awarded, with alphabetical ordering employed for wines with the same scores.  Prices involve some informed guesswork, so don’t be shocked if you find some actual retail prices that are either somewhat higher or lower.  Almost all of these wines will improve with age, but NONE of them require additional bottle age to be appreciated as long as you enjoy them with food, which is emphatically the Italian way to go.  One last thing:  Don’t overlook the wines that don’t hail from Etna, as they offer even stronger value for now, as they haven’t yet attained the same level of fashionability:

Alessandro di Camporeale (Sicilia Rosso) Syrah “MNRL” 2016 ($42):  My notes from my estate visit during 2019 indicate that I wasn’t shown this wine (from any vintage), which makes no sense, as it is exceptional in quality and sells for nearly twice as much in Europe as the also excellent “Kaid” Syrah from this producer.  In any case, two bottles of the 2016 were shipped to me in late summer 2020.  One was corked but the other was beautiful.  I assume the proprietary name “MNRL” … with some spaces missing … is intended to convey “mineral” but isn’t written out due to concern about copyright litigation.  The wine is indeed mineral in character, but also fruity and savory and spicy with tasteful influence from oak, but the most important point is that all of these characteristics are basically perfect in their proportional presentation.  The overall quality of wines from this house is astonishing on both the white and red side, indicating extremely good growing conditions (inland, with a basically continental climate for Sicily, but up at altitude with significant diurnal swings in temperature) as well as very strong talent in the cellar.  The one good bottle of this I tasted is a threat to the world’s best renditions of Syrah, as it is quite intricate while also being obviously delicious.  95

Tenuta di Fessina (Etna Rosso Riserva) “Il Musmesci” 2014 ($50, Vineyard Brands):  Etna is the source of some of Italy’s most complex red wines, with a palpable minerality that can make the wines almost spellbinding.  And yet, even in that context, this is an especially intricate red that results from an excellent vineyard site and very careful, patient work in the cellar.  Sourced from 90-year-old vines (mostly Nerello Mascalese) in a terraced amphitheater situated between two lava flows, it is medium-bodied and substantial, but really more about detail than power or punch.  Its élevage is conducted first in big casks, then for about a year in barriques before being bottled and held for four years prior to release.  Consequently, this is the current release of this Riserva, and it really benefited from the late release, showing beautifully interlaced notes derived from perfectly ripened fruit, judicious utilization of wood, and some nascent tertiary notes from time in bottle.  Savory and subtle but still fresh, this is fully ready to enjoy now, but will likely attain even greater complexity over the next five years.  95

Terra Costantino (Etna Rosso Riserva) “Contrada Blandano” 2016 ($38):  Made predominantly from very old vines in site averaging 1,500 feet in elevation, this is a classic Etna blend of 90% Nerello Mascalese and 10% Nerello Cappuccio.  Organic and unfiltered, with a notable but still reserved dose of oak, the wine speaks much more of the site than cellar (and thankfully so… everybody has a cellar, but how many have 100+ year-old vines on an active volcano?).  Medium-bodied on account of its density, but really only lightly pigmented, this is sneaky in its seriousness because nothing is initially overwhelming: not the appearance, nor the bouquet, nor the initial flavors, nor the palate weight, nor the oak, nor the structure.  And yet, all of these aspects are excellent in their rather reserved way, as are virtuoso players in an orchestra, and this ends up seeming not only harmonious in overall profile, but also symphonic in its multi-dimensional complexity.  Although it is quite inviting in texture, thanks to silky tannins and reserved oak, this still has years to go before hitting its apogee, during which time its fruit will recede a bit and its minerality will become more prominent.  And as it has fruit to surrender while gaining in mineral complexity, the smart money will hold this one, though it doesn’t need holding.  A thing of beauty.  95

Tornatore (Etna Rosso) “Trimarchisa” 2016 ($49):  This is an undeniably gorgeous wine, and though I hesitate to seem high-handed or arrogant about the matter, if you disagree, you need to see a physician.  It is light in both color and overall weight, but it really delivers with subtle but authoritative aromas (with a bit of fruity perfume along with nascent savory and mineral notes) and flavors (red fruit notes predominating) along with virtually perfect textural balance between soft, sweet roundness and gently firm structure.  There’s really nothing else in the whole world of red wine that matches this profile: red Burgundy of comparable quality is much tighter and more tannic in its youth; New World Pinot is almost always heavier and fruitier, and the very best Grenache/Garnacha doesn’t have as much minerality or as much textural definition.  Wines like this explain why Etna has arguably become the hottest appellation in Europe among the global wine cognoscenti, and with apologies for the lame volcano allusion, this is a serious warning that you’d better buy in soon before prices explode through the roof.  95

Alessandro di Camporeale (Sicilia Rosso) Nero d’Avola “Donnatà” 2018 ($20):  I couldn’t believe how good this wine was when I tasted the 2017 at the estate in May of 2019, but I stuck to my guns and scored it at 93—the highest score I’ve ever given to a wine based on Nero d’Avola.  To digress in candor, one never quite knows whether the setting or one’s mood can permit perfect objectivity, and though I’ve been reviewing wines for more than 25 years, I still respect that fact, and remain guarded as a result.  Well, as it turns out, the 2018 is at least as good, and I tasted it in quarantine lockdown in my kitchen (rather than at the beautiful estate) after bottles had been shipped across the Atlantic in mid-summer.  As I tasted the 2017 from magnum, whereas this was a 750 ml bottle that had just been badly jostled, I can’t quite compare them directly, but I am sure that this is – again – at least as good, if not better, as I now judge it to be.  It shows even better acidity than the 2017, which brightens the black- and blue-toned fruit beautifully, resulting in a wine that shows the gutsy core of Nero d’Avola in an amazingly fresh and bright profile.  Subtle savory, leathery accents lend depth and complexity, and super-fine tannins provide grip but also accentuate – thanks to their fine grain – the impression of “fine-ness.”  This is so far removed from what I usually taste out of bottles reading “Nero d’Avola” that I feel obliged to liken it to something else for the benefit of readers, and – believe it or not, I’d liken it to…Côte-Rôtie.  This is especially unlikely because this estate also makes great Syrah, and this wine tastes more like Côte-Rôtie than does the Syrah.  But, as it turns out, that’s mostly because the Syrah tastes more like Hermitage.  94

Alessandro di Camporeale (Sicilia Rosso) Syrah “Kaid” 2017 ($26):  I was floored by this wine from the 2016 vintage when tasting it in Sicily in May of 2019, and though this vintage is different in style, it is every bit as good, and even richer and sexier for near-term drinking.  2017 was a hot year in this part of Sicily (not all of which is as hot as one would imagine, based on latitude), and this shows a ripe, muscular profile as a result, but is still admirably fresh and balanced.  The bouquet isn’t notably floral (as cool climate Syrah can be), but shows fruit notes up top, including a mélange of blue, black and red notes that make for a quite compelling combination.  Rich and rounded in feel but not heavy, with quite subdued woodspice aromas and flavors and no overt wood tannins in the finish, it packs a subtle punch in which both the adjective and the verb deserve equal emphasis.  It tips a bit toward the Old World style of this variety more than toward Washington or California, and likewise a bit more toward Victoria than Barossa or McLaren Vale in Aussie context…but it really resembles a northern Rhône style above all.  93

Planeta, Mamertino DOC (Sicily, Italy) 2016 ($38, Palm Bay International):  This terrific wine is a blend of 60% Nero d’Avola, 40% Nocera, grown at sea level near the northeastern tip of Sicily.  Nocera isn’t well known internationally, but it is a high-quality cultivar, noted for thick skins that contribute color and structure as well as acidity that contributes to freshness.  Grown on the single vineyard site of La Baronia, it is matured in large casks, which is a cellar treatment that softens the wine more than firming it with wood tannins or overt toasty notes.  The aromas and flavors are predominantly fruit-driven, with notes of bed and blue berries melding nicely with suggestions of red cherries and subtle woodspice.  Very nicely proportioned and already quite harmonious, this is ready to rip, either on its own or with a wide variety of moderately robust foods.  93

Vivera (Etna Rosso) “Martinella” 2014 ($28):  Very complex and interesting at this stage in its development, this impressive wine is presumably at or near the current release vintage, as this was a press sample sent to me this summer by the producer through Assovini Sicilia.  Still fresh in terms of both fruit (red toned) and acidity but now showing nice tertiary characters, it is appropriately light in body for Etna but with plenty of flavor impact thanks to unobtrusively fine-grained tannins.  It also helps that the wine shows virtually no overt wood character at all, with the tannins bolstered only by quite prominent mineral notes in the finish.  93

Terra Costantino (Etna Rosso) “de Aetna” 2018 ($26): I loved the last vintage of this that I tasted, and love this one too, on account of its phenomenal gracefulness and gorgeous fruit.  The higher-end “Contrada Blandano” 2016 is the more “serious” and “impressive” of the two reds from this house, but this remains in the running with its stable mate on account of its exceptional purity and relatively uncomplicated deliciousness.  The lead notes are all about red fruit — red cherry and raspberry — but there are some nice emerging complexities of wild herbs in the bouquet as well as nicely measured mineral flavors that carry through to the finish, which is rounded and soft but still structured by super-fine tannins and the mineral residue.  The mouthfeel is so tender, rounded, and cushioned by ripe fruit flavors that it is easy to underestimate how structured the wine actually is, and by extension, how long it will likely improve and then hold.  I suspect it will improve for 5 years, but that few bottles will live long enough to prove me right or wrong — that’s how delicious this is right now.   92

Terra Costantino (Vino Rosso, Sicilia) “Rasola” 2019 ($23):  This is made from old vine Contrada Blandano grown up on Etna between 450 and 550 meters above sea level, and it is just wickedly fun.  Juicy, open red fruit flavors recall perfect pie cherries and wild strawberries, with a light but noticeable mineral undertone but no apparent oak and nothing to mess with the lovely, pure fruit.  As though we might need help getting the idea, they even sell this in a clear glass bottle, though it is not a rosé.  I loved it on its own when writing this, and then loved it all over again when trying to relax after a stressful day with a simple steak taco sprinkled with pepper jack cheese…and the wine’s exuberant fruitiness was just perfect with the spicy cheese.  This may not be a wine to study, but then, I’ve spent plenty of time studying over the years.  This is for gulping and grinning, and that’s exactly what it made me do.  The price here is all guesswork, as the came to me as a press sample from the producer through Assovini Sicilia, and I can’t find anything about the wine being sold anywhere in the world.  I’d like to think that they just give the stuff away, to keep from spoiling all the fun provided by the wine, but that’s surely a vain hope.  92

Torre Mora (Etna Rosso) “Scalunera” 2017 ($24):  This is a taut, still tight Etna Rosso, with less overt ripeness than most and more structure too, whether because of the physical presence of acidity and tannin, or in sensory terms because these are “covered” less by sweet, open fruit.  But don’t count this out…it does loosen up with air, and it does seem to be built for the long haul despite being surprisingly inexpensive based on the prices listed for it worldwide.  The price is especially mystifying because of premium packaging in a serious bottle emblazoned with a wonderfully interesting artistic label.  No doubt the price will rise before long, given the updraft now underway for the appellation’s status.  91

Planeta (Sicilia Vittoria DOC) Frappato 2017 ($24, Palm Bay International):  Frappato is definitely to everyone’s taste, even when crafted by an exemplary producer like Planeta, as it is strikingly tart and bright, rather like vinified cranberry juice.  I find that profile works very well for al fresco dining during the hot months of the year, so this review is being published at a time that’s disadvantageous for the wine, but keep this in mind.  For the more forward-thinking acid freaks out there, you could certainly buy some of this now with next summer in mind, as there is exactly no chance that this will lose its sharp edge between now and then.  The wine’s tannins are appropriately light and fine grained to work with its other proportions, and though the finish is definitely tart, it won’t seem sour or austere to most tasters.  Still, if you are a lover of, say, Malbec from Argentina, this is probably not your thing, and you should pass this up in the retail aisle and leave it for…me!  90

Torre Mora (Sicilia Rosso) “Cauru” 2019 ($20):  I can’t find any of this on offer at retail in the USA, but the estate is owned by Piccini, which has a notable presence, so I’d imagine this will appear before too long.  The 2019 was still quite awkward when tasted during autumn 2020, but it has impressive aspects and will likely come together and, if it does, it will offer excellent value if priced near what it sells for in Europe.  A blend of 85% Nerello Mascalese and 15% Nerello Cappuccio, it shows quite good stuffing in terms of fruit for an entry-level Etna Rosso, but is tart, grippy and a bit bitter at this stage of development.  Predictably enough, it is better behaved when paired with food, which smooths out the structural edges and lets the glossy mid-palate fruit come to the fore.  If you see it and find it priced near my guess of $20, buy it…as odds are you’ll be quite pleased with it in a couple of years.  90

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