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Sicily keeps getting better

SICILY produces a lot of wine, nearly as much as Portugal, but it’s largely nothing to write home about.

SICILY produces a lot of wine, nearly as much as Portugal, but it’s largely nothing to write home about.

For generations, Sicilian wine growers have prized quantity above quality. But Sicily can do much better, as Francesca Planeta showed when she came to Newcastle last week to take part in Jesmond Dene House’s Festival of Food and Wine.

Her family have owned vineyards on the island since 1600. Her father Diego sold grapes to the local co-op, as his father had done, and eventually became its president. A little over 20 years ago “he realised that something had to be done to change Sicily’s bad image. Sicily has a climate like the New World. And so we set out on an adventure,” Francesca explains.

This first meant trying out international grape varieties like Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and from 1985 to experiment with local varieties.

Although he raised standards at the co-op, the Planeta family decided that the only way to make fine wine was to do it entirely themselves. “In 1994, we decided to do some trial fermentations of Chardonnay. There were jars fermenting away all around the house, in the bedrooms and the kitchen,” Francesca recalls.

“We liked the results and sent a few bottles to our UK agent, who entered it in a competition run by Wine Magazine. It was voted the top Italian Chardonnay, beating some really famous names. This success gave us the courage to start our new business and continue our adventure. Since then, our Chardonnay has become an icon for Planeta.” The 2006 Chardonnay is a huge, spectacular wine, packed with rich buttery, pineapple flavoured fruit, balanced by tangy lemon-like acidity and rounded off by a long toasty aftertaste.

The family now owns 390 hectares of vines in different parts of the island. “Since 1995 when we launched Planeta wines officially, we’ve greatly expanded our vineyards and we’ve built new facilities to make different styles of wine. I call them ‘boutique wineries’ because each is relatively small and is surrounded by its own vineyards. We try to do the best we can in the vineyards and the least possible to the grapes once they’re in the winery.

“Technology doesn’t make great wine. Our latest venture is just below Mount Etna planted with a local variety called Nerello Mascalese. We’ll sell the first wine in two or three years,” Francesca says. In their vineyards in Vittoria and Noto in the south of the island, they’ve also specialised in indigenous varieties. The local black grape Nero d’Avola from Noto makes a stunning wine sold as ‘Santa Cecilia’. It’s a revelation – a genuinely great wine, with immense complexity and elegance. Moscato from the same vineyard is also very good. One happy diner I spoke to after a typically Sicilian lunch cooked by the Planeta’s own chef, Daniele Mereu, was convinced that it ranked amongst the very finest dessert wines of the world, and I won’t gainsay him.

Nero d’Avola features in another fine red, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, blended with a light, fruity little number called Frappato. In 2005, Cerasuolo di Vittoria became the first and only Sicilian wine to be granted Italy’s top quality standard of DOCG. Unoaked and packed with spicy, intense cherry fruit, it’s pure delight. And as we discovered, it works very well as a partner to oily fish like sea bass. It’s soft enough to be served refreshingly cool.

About half of the production of the Planeta wineries is exported, and half of this is of international varieties. Although I was bowled over, mainly by the quality of the wine made from indigenous varieties, Francesca insists that the international varieties go native when planted in Sicily’s unique soils. She’s particularly proud of their new Syrah Rosé – a lovely perfumed wine that smells of strawberry and rhubarb.

Syrah seems to thrive especially well in Sicily. Among their bottling of international red varieties, I certainly prefer it above their Merlot and Bordeaux-like Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc blend, ‘Burdese’. The 2005 is a huge success with layers of black cherry fruit, spiced with black pepper and leather.

Francesca says that although the programme of planting will be complete once the new Etna vineyard comes on stream, the adventure of putting Sicilian wine back on the map has only just begun. They are still experimenting with local white varieties, but are not too impressed with the widely planted trio of Grillo, Catarratto and Inzolia. Greciano (the main ingredient of my wine of the week) is far more interesting and Fiano, native to the area around the Bay of Naples, is very successful.

They’re committed to making the new wineries environmentally sustainable and are working hard to build a wine tourism business in which visitors can explore the relationship between local food and wine. Planeta may have made a huge impact since 1995, but greater things still look set to follow.

Wine of the week

Planeta La Segreta Bianco 2006, £9.95, Tavasso, Newlands Road, Jesmond, Newcastle. Super-stylish Sicilian dry white with loads of clean, spicy, peachy fruit. Soft and lingering it’s great with fish and salads.

 

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