Tasting the Wines of Sicily

Paul Blow
Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey

A few years ago I visited Sicily and found myself amazed and enchanted by the incredible diversity of its land and the beauty of its truly unique wines. I was recently transported back to this experience by reading Robert Camuto's excellent and evocative book about the wines of Sicily, Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey. Camuto had even visited several of the same producers I did—COS, Andrea Franchetti, Frank Cornelissen, Marco di Grazia, Arianna Occhipinti—as well as many, many more. His book—half wine book, half travelogue—is entertaining and enlightening and will certainly pique your interest in visiting Sicily and drinking Sicilian wines.

Recently, over some incredible Sicilian wines at A16 restaurant in San Francisco, I talked with Camuto to get some of the backstory.

How do you characterize the wine of Sicily?
It's really diverse. It's mostly a white wine region, which is astonishing considering it's on the latitude of northern Africa. There are interesting, minerally, crisp whites for the most part. Catarratto is the most planted grape in Sicily, and it makes some fine, drinkable white wines. But the most interesting white wine grape, I think, is Carricante, grown around Mount Etna, which has even more finesse and potential for aging.

Of the reds, the red wines of Mount Etna, made from a grape called Nerello Mascalese, show a lot of elegance; to me it's the most fascinating wine region of Sicily. There's been a lot of comparison; some studies have shown that the terroir is similar to Piedmont of northern Italy. Also great is Cerasuolo di Vittoria, which I think is sort of an underrated wine. And then you have Nero d'Avola; there are a lot of bad, heavy ones, but there are also some really interesting expressions.

Sicily is also one of the largest wine producers in the world. How does it go from being a massive source of bulk wines to a fine wine area of exotic, indigenous varieties?
I think that people like the Planeta family [whose winery is a large producer that made its reputation with international varieties] were an important part of the development of Sicily and its wines. What you learn from the Planetas of the world is they were just trying to make quality wines. Thirty years ago you couldn't go to New York and San Francisco and say, "I've got a great wine that's made from Frappato" or "It has no sulfur in it," like you can today. People were not receptive to that message. It was really an evolution of people who first had to prove, "OK, we can make good Chardonnay and Cabernet." Those were things people understood at that time. Now, people listen when they show up with interesting local varieties made in unusual ways like in amphorae or without sulfur.

I was surprised at how much there was in your book about the Mafia.
I think what's really interesting is that since 1992 and the assassinations of [Italian magistrates Giovanni] Falcone and [Paolo] Borsellino, you've really seen a transformation of the society. I think it took a lot of courage for people to stand up to the Mafia.

But as [wine producer] Marco di Bartoli says, there's another Mafia now; it's called the Italian state. And if you look at what the Mafia's evolved into, many of the violent elements are now in prison, but the politicians remain. You ask where's the Mafia now; I think it's evolved into things like finance around the world. The Mafia's evolved into an organization that's probably more interested in being part of the state and siphoning funds from Europe. The largest recipient of ag subsidies in Europe is a bank in Milan. Nobody can explain why. Mario Puzo said it's easier to steal $1 million with a lawyer with a briefcase than 100 guys with guns.

Did you expect to write that much on the Mafia when you sat down to write a wine book?
Not really. But what I found really interesting was the Libera Terra movement. They're taking old Mafia lands and turning them to social cooperative uses. The Mafia held lots of vineyards, but looked at them in a way that's not too different from here in America: a way to show off, to show wealth. And they weren't really obviously as serious a winemaking operation. Now the wines from the movement, Centopassi, are being sold in Italian supermarkets.

Your first book, Corkscrewed: Adventures in the New French Wine Country, was a travelogue of French wines. What are the most salient differences you noted between French and Sicilian winemaking culture?
Well, I think there are a couple of differences. France has a really strong culture of the vigneron, the independent winemaker, sort of the hardheaded, not-going-to-change-for-anything mentality. Whereas I think in general Italians and Sicilians have been much more content to try to please the market and outsiders. So if someone comes and says, "This is the way you should make wine to sell it in our country," by using more oak or planting Cabernet Sauvignon, they'll say, "Fine."

In the market, I think that's sort of at once an advantage of that Sicilian hospitality, but also a disadvantage now in that people are interested in authentic, original products. I think it's an interesting dynamic. It's true everyone likes the traditional sticking to your guns, but you have to first have people interested in your place for that to be of value. Now people are interested in Sicily and that terroir, and there's a market for that authenticity, whereas 30 to 40 years ago Italian food and wine was just spaghetti and Chianti.

Another difference was in doing research. In France your average first appointment might last two hours, and in Sicily it might be two days. You'll eat meals with them, hang out with their families and their dogs. There's a much slower pace.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.