Sicily. The last place I planned on going to this year. Then I saw an invitation to the International Wine Tourism Conference being held in Catania, Sicily. As I had made the decision earlier in the year to revive my travel career and focus on wine travel, it made sense to attend.
I’m very glad I did. Not only was Sicily a fascinating destination, but I made valuable contacts with people from around the world who specialize in niche wine tourism in their countries. As the only Canadian attending the conference, I was sought out by a number of tour operators eager to show me their itineraries.
Once the conference portion of the week was done, we were invited to participate in some regional touring primarily around the Mount Etna region. This area of Sicily has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, due to its unique terroir, climate, and cultural sites. It is one of the highest grape growing regions in the world, with vines growing above 3500 feet above sea level. We visited several wineries high up the slopes of the active volcano, which continues to erupt regularly. The wineries are producing wines and olives in between the chestnut forests, orange and lemon groves. Many wineries date back to the 1700’s and continue to be proudly family owned and operated. Grape growing and wine making in Sicily in fact date back to the 6th century BC when the Greeks and Romans settled the island. The rich volcanic soil containing a high content of sand even prevented the outbreak of Phylloxera, which wiped out most of Europe’s vines in the late 1800’s. Sicily, particularly Mount Etna region, being spared, have some of the oldest vines in the world; many over a century old and some reaching the 200 year mark, a rarity indeed.
The wines of the Etna region are primarily dry red and white wines but also include a few rosato (rosè) wines. Etna Rosso (Etna red) DOC wines are blended wines. By regulation they must have a minimum of 80 percent Nerello Mascalese (neh rel’ loh mahs’ kah ley’ zeh), a little-known indigenous variety that is produced only in the Mount Etna region. It is a deeply colored, thick-skinned variety that contributes gritty tannins and vibrant acidity to the Etna Rosso blend. The minor partner in the blend is another indigenous red variety, Nerello Cappuccio (neh rel’ loh cah pooch’ cho) which must comprise at least 10 but no more than 20 percent of the total with other local red or even, surprisingly, white grapes making up the difference. The Nerello Cappuccio contributes spicy aromas, red berry flavors and perhaps a touch of elegance to the Etna Rosso blend.
The Etna Bianco (Etna white) wines must have a minimum of 60 percent Carricante, a little-known, indigenous white variety that is grown exclusively in the Etna region. While 40 percent of the blend can consist of other authorized local white varieties, some of the best Etna Bianco wines are made entirely of Carricante. Often produced from grapes grown at the very highest reaches of the Etna DOC zone, Carricante-based wines can be lean, crisp and acidic. Other Carricante wines can be more full-bodied with a creamier texture and the wine’s trademark acidity balanced with generous fruit flavors.
We tasted a number of different wines from the region. They are restrained, yet intense and most definitely food pairing wines. Sipped with local olives, cheese and sausages or local eggplant and pasta dishes they were very pleasant indeed.
We do get some lovely Nero D’Avola wines from Western Sicily but sadly, not many of the Etna DOC wines make their way to Canada yet. For now the only way to enjoy them is in Sicily under the smouldering, brooding volcano, Mount Etna.
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