Cortese estate, Sicily
With the O’Briens Italian Wine Sale continuing until 18th March there is at least 20% off all Italian wines. This offers the perfect opportunity to explore some of the lesser-known regions of the largest wine producing country in the world for the past two years. This week I will look at some of the exciting wines coming out of one of the great cultural crossroads of the world: Sicily.
As the largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily has proved a vital strategic location throughout history and has been invaded and settled by most of the powerful Mediterranean cultures from Phoenicians and Romans to Byzantines and Arabs. The legacy of three millennia of conquest and immigration is a unique cultural legacy on Sicily, complete with a vibrant food and wine tradition.
Sicily’s Topography & Climate
The island of Sicily is dominated by the influence of Mount Etna: one of the most active volcanoes in the world and the largest in Europe outside the Caucasus. Its frequent eruptions have created a unique dark, rich volcanic soil in the eastern part of the island, ideal for viticulture. The Hyblaean mountains dominate the southern portion of the island, whilst the vineyards to the west of the island follow the hilly coastline- it is from here we get the famous fortified Marsala wine.
Sicily has a classic Mediterranean climate- long hot dry summers with ample sunshine, followed by short, wet, moderate winters. These perfect growing conditions have seen grapes cultivated on Sicily since the ancient Phoenicians brought vines to the island.
The heat and low rainfall mean there is very little risk of mildew and rot on the island, facilitating an increasing number of organically certified vineyards. During the summer the scorching Sirocco winds can blow up from Africa to bake the island. To help moderate this heat many of the best vineyard sites are planted at altitude.
Grapes in Sicily
There is archaeological evidence that shows Sicilians drinking wine as far back as the 17th BC and today Sicily is the second largest wine producing region in Italy with a whopping 330,000 acres under vine (roughly the same as all of South Africa), producing over 800 million litres of wine per year!
With this long tradition, varied terroir and huge output it is unsurprising that Sicily has a wide variety of grape varieties growing across the island. Alongside international varieties such as Chardonnay, Syrah and Grenache there are numerous native varieties that are garnering international recognition for Sicilian wines. Amongst these are Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese and Perricone for red wines, Carricante, Catararatto and Grillo for white wines.
Sicilian Wines in O’Briens
It would be hard to include a list of Sicilian wines without including Nero d’Avola, which has been cultivated on the island for centuries. It is the most widely planted red grape variety and accounts for about 20% of all vineyards on the island. For much of its history Nero d’Avola was used as a blending variety but there has been recent growing interest in single-variety wines produced from the grape.
In youth it is vibrant and plummy, while more complex examples offer chocolate and dark raspberry flavours. The best wines tend to be grown at higher elevations where the cooler temperature will moderate alcohol and give a gentler ripening season.
This is Sicily’s ‘Black Gold’ and has been a quiet favourite amongst our staff and customers since it landed on our shelves 18 months ago. Last weekend it grabbed the attention it deserved when the famous wine critic, Oz Clarke and celebrity chef, James Martin, raved about Nero Oro on ITV’s Saturday Kitchen.
Some of the grapes for this wine are allowed to hang on the vine long in to the warm Sicilian Autumn, slightly raisining them. Other grapes are dried in air-conditioned rooms in the same manner as Amarone grapes I discussed here in last week’s blog. This loss of water weight (10-15%) concentrates the flavours and sugars in the grape.
The resulting wine is rich and concentrated with an intense bouquet of cherry, damson and blackcurrants. The palate is powerful, yet approachable with a rich intensity and great depth of fruit flavours. Absolutely delicious! A bottle will be open in all of our stores until Sunday if you want to try it for yourself?
Nero d’Avola Food Match:
This is a very food-friendly wine that would pair wonderfully with a wide range of foods from tomato-based pasta dishes to rich red meat stews. But why not try the deliciously simple Sicilian delicacy made with fried aubergine- Pasta Alla Norma.
This grape is named after a small village in the foothills of Mount Etna and when planted at higher altitudes the variety flourishes. The difference between day and night temperatures (diurnal swing) on hillsides allows for a balanced and even ripening of this grape.
The vines for this wine are grown at 400 metres and are certified organic, allowing the natural fresh fruit flavours shine. It is bright ruby in colour with fine and complex aromas of red fruits and spice. There is no oak contact to allow the bright red berry flavours come to the fore: but 6-8 moths lees ageing adds a delicious rich texture. An excellent wine for the price and shows the potential quality of Sicilian wines when the correct grape variety is planted in the perfect location. If you like richer Pinot Noir you will love Cortese Nerello Mascalese.
Nerello Mascalese Food Match:
Sicily was a major crossroads for trade between Europe, Africa and the Near East, so herbs and spices play a significant role in their cuisine. The soft fruit flavours of this wine would match well with any meat marinaded in spices such as Turmeric, Coriander, Nutmeg etc.
The Catarrato grape is Sicily’s most widely-planted grape variety. Much of this production is for bulk wine and Marsala but when the correct variety is used and planted in an ideal location it can make a wine of real quality.
The Cortese version is made from the rarer Catarrato Lucido clone and is certified organic. This clone produces small bunches of high-quality berries and is planted at 400 metres above sea level. This altitude retains a refreshing acidity and fruit profile. Unoaked and aged for 5 months on the fine lees gives this wine a characterful bouquet of jasmine, aromatic herbs and nutmeg. On the palate there is a strong mineral backbone, balanced by lively acidity, almond and stone fruit flavours. If you think all Sicilian white wine is light and thin, try this complex and textured wine- it will change your mind.
Catarrato Food Match:
Arancini are deep fried rice balls and Sicily’s most famous food export. With a rich texture from the risotto rice and mozzarella these need a similarly rich white wine to match. The Cortese Catarrato Lucido would be ideal.
The O’Briens Italian Wine Sale continues in-store until March 18th, so drop in to your local store where there are over 90 Italian wines with at least 20% Off. Our helpful staff will gladly help you pick out the perfect Sicilian wine.
Please note: All prices correct at time of publication. For the most up to date prices please contact your local store or online www.obrienswine.ie. Enjoy alcohol responsibly.