The first time I visited Sicily was Christmas 2010. We stayed at a seaside villa at the foot of Mt. Etna surrounded by lemon orchards for a week that ended with a blue moon on New Year's Eve. My daughter was twenty months old and she wouldn’t walk. She’d only jump. She jumped through passport control and the Rome airport and for a seven days she jumped around the property's jasmine scented Arabic gardens. I think of that spot every time I taste an Etna Bianco, wines made from carricante, a white grape that has been growing on Etna for a millennium. The property was a visual tasting note, a snapshot of the citrus, slate and saline qualities that make the wine so refreshing and memorable.
We could not visit any of the Etna vineyards on that trip. All were closed for the holidays. Instead, we explored the mountain itself. A local volcanologist led us up to the crater’s rim. It was like walking on the moon, but with a view of the Mediterranean coast. By the time we reached the top, the wind had picked up to twenty miles per hour, the path had narrowed to two feet across, and the gradation of the drop had drawn close to vertical, at which point I fell to my knees and became intimate with Etna's gravelly soil.
As much as any winemaker talk, the trek burnished our ardor for nerello mascalese, the dominant grape in Etna Rosso. Not because the earthy, fruity, structured wines contributed immense pleasure to our post-hike picnic, and several meals before and afterward, but because we had personally experienced the brutal conditions under which these remarkable and nuanced wines flourish. Upon returning home, knowledge of Etna Rosso was a great souvenir, a gift that kept on giving. Bottles of Benanti Etna Rosso that could be had for less than twenty dollars, and once opened evolved in the glass for hours, led to the discovery of the more esoteric wines of Frank Cornelissen, and others.
Still, when it comes to viticulture, DOC Etna is an island unto itself. The grape varieties and conditions on the mountain are unique in Sicily. In fact, bottles of wine from Etna are the only Sicilian wines that are not required to say Sicilia on the label. Around the world, Etna is quite enough. To get a more global sense of island's wine, it is necessary to take a closer look at nero d'avola, the juicy black-skinned grape celebrated for its role in Cerasuolo di Vittoria, particularly by producers such as Arianna Occhipinti and COS, in which nero d'avola supplies the base notes while frappato contributes vivacity and floral aromas.
Every grape variety has a spiritual home, think nebbiolo in Piedmont. For nero d'avola it is DOC Noto in Sicily's Siracusa province. Poised on gently sloping hills in the southernmost corner of the island, a stone’s throw from where the Ionian Sea merges with the Mediterranean, light bathes Noto’s vineyards. Once the ocean floor, the soil is fossil rich, nutrient poor and adept at retaining precious rainfall. Nero d’avola vines struggle to grow in these environs as much as the nerello mascalese vines struggle on Etna. The result is elegant and distinctive wines with dark fruit, sweet tannins and aromas of jasmine and bergamot. Alessio Planeta, a seventeenth generation Sicilian and the winemaker at his family's five wineries on the island, calls nero d’avola from Noto, “the most Burgundian of Sicilian wines.”
For all the majesty of the volcano, even on that first trip, my most vivid memory of Sicily remains the few hours we spent touring Siracusa. It wasn’t the Roman amphitheater or the rare Caravaggio tucked into a small chapel. It was the unmistakable quality of the light, and how looking out from the ancient city to the place where the seas merge, you could feel Sicily’s history as a crossroad of Greek, Roman, Spanish, Catalan and Arabic cultures. There was the sense of being somewhere both deeply European and indelibly connected to continents beyond the horizon.
In the fall of 2015, I returned to Sicily to tour the Planeta's wineries in Menfi, Vittoria, Noto, Etna and Capo di Milazzo. Once again, we started in Etna, where as a safeguard against lava flow the barrel room is outfitted with a tiny window and a telescope trained on the volcano. Once again, we drove two hours south to the province of Siracusa, this time to Noto. Once again, as I got out of the van I was overcome by the beauty of the light in that corner of the world. The glow at dusk made everything look as it were lit for an art film. I picked a ripe olive from a tree and put it in my mouth knowing it hadn’t been cured, yet thought it looked so plump and round, like a plum, it had to taste good. I was terribly wrong.
In the winery, we tasted back vintages of Planeta's Santa Cecilia Nero d'Avola. The wines were silky with flavors of black cherry and smoke, they had aromas of white flowers and tension in the backbone. Over dinner we tried a lovely and slightly more delicate example from the boutique producer Terra delle Sirene. Unfortunately, Noto wines can be difficult to find in the U.S., but tracking them down is worth the effort. Planeta and Gulfi are the two most widely distributed high-quality producers. There are also a number of smaller wineries that can be found at specialty wine shops, a favorite being the Savino Nero Sichilli.
Wines are only one of Siracusa province's many draws. We stayed a day, but given the opportunity it is a region I could spend months exploring. The Late Baroque towns of the Val di Noto are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Rebuilt after being razed by an earthquake in 1693, the majestic stone cities of Noto, Ragusa, Modica, Scicli and Ispica represent the apotheosis of the late-Baroque architecture in Europe.
Pastry chefs the world over covet Noto’s fresh almonds. In the heat of the summer, the almonds find their optimal expression at breakfast as locals begin their day with a cooling granita made from the prized nuts. The best granita comes from Caffé Sicilia on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele in Noto's historic town center.
Along the coast, the picturesque fishing village Marzamemi is home to the restaurant Taverna La Cialoma, where dishes made with local seafood embody the argument for simple preparations and the finest ingredients. If you prefer more artistry, Ragusa has six Micheline starred restaurants.
The region is also celebrated for cherry tomatoes grown in the Pachino commune. The recipe below for Penne with Pesto & Pachino Tomatoes was delicious and full of nostalgia for the summer months when taught to me by the cook at the Etna villa in the dead of winter using supermarket produce. It takes on an entirely new dimension in July and August when tomatoes and basil are fresh and plentiful.
And, of course, there is the lure of the coast....
We left Siracusa for Planeta's Vittoria winery, a historic walled property with mature trees and climbing bougainvillea located in the center of the island's southern coast, in a rundown area dominated by an energy plant and industrial agriculture. It was the harvest, and the winemaker Arianna Occhipinti joined us for a pizza dinner with her picking crew, a combination of artists and aspiring oenologists from across Europe who had moved in with her for the month because they admire her aesthetics and the purity of her work. As soon as she arrived, she took Alessio aside. She was worried about the rate of fermentation in the Occhipinti SP68, which was unusually slow. As they huddled, it was evident that the local winemaking community was collaborative and tight knit. After the pizza party, we tried to stay up to see the super blood moon. It seemed the perfect counterpoint to the blue moon I'd witnessed on New Year's Eve at the foot of Mt. Etna five years earlier. Moons remind us to be receptive, the special ones even more so. Both trips were far too brief, but the impressions gleaned had opened my eyes, my soul, to Sicily’s history and rhythms, the idea that it is many places and embodies a multitude of ideas and traditions, depending on where on the island you stand, and through whose prism you look. Most of all, it fostered a longing to return and a sense that once experienced, this is an island that stays with you in your bones.
10 Wines Sicily
Serves six to eight as a first course
The bite of fresh pesto, the sweet tomatoes and the nuttiness of the grated cheese take on a creamy texture when emulsified by the heat of the penne. Any high quality cherry tomato will be delicious in this recipe, but if you have access to Pachino cherry tomatoes, by all means use them.
- 2 1/2 lb cherry tomatoes, quartered
- 1 1/2 lb penne pasta
- 1/2 medium white onion, grated
- 1 clove garlic, grated
- 4 cups fresh basil leaves, loosely packed
- 1/3 cup pine nuts
- 1/2 tsp black pepper, ground
- 1/2 tsp red (chili) pepper flakes
- 1 tsp Kosher salt
- 1 cup olive oil
- 1 cup parmesan, grated
- 1/4 cup pecorino, grated
- 1/4 cup almonds, toasted and crushed
Place the quartered cherry tomatoes in a large mixing bowl. Grate the onion and garlic over the tomatoes and gently toss. To make the pesto, quickly soak the basil leaves in cool water and pat dry with a paper towel. In the bowl of the food processor with a sharp metal blade, combine the basil, pine nuts, black pepper, red pepper and salt along with half a cup of olive oil and half a cup of grated Parmesan. Pulse the mixture three to four seconds at a time to avoid blackening. Scrape the edges of the bowl with a wooden spoon. Add half remaining olive oil, pulse and repeat until you achieve a uniform creamy consistency. Pour the pesto over the tomato mixture. Add the remaining Parmesan and Pecorino. Gently toss and let stand for thirty to sixty minutes.
Bring a pot of salted water to a rolling boil and add the penne. When the pasta is al dente, remove it from the pot with a slotted spoon or pour it into a colander. Place half the pesto in the bottom of a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add the pasta and gently toss. Add the rest of the pesto to the pot and once again, gently toss. Remove the pan from the heat. Spoon the pasta onto a large shallow platter. Garnish with basil leaves and crushed almonds. Serve warm.