Thursday, July 18, 2024

White Wines of Sicily

When someone mentions "Sicilian wine," do you think red or white?  Or maybe fortified, like  iconic Marsala, the "Sticky from Sicily."  

For most people, the sensory image of Sicily is a romantic bucolic setting, with rustic food and jugs of local wine.  Sicily is a major island in the Mediterranean, floating off the southern tip of the Italian peninsula, not far from Tunisia, North Africa.  

Geography has a way of influencing life, like the cultural mashup that's common throughout Sicily, but especially in cities like Palermo, Catania  and Messina, where you can hear Arabic and Italian spoken in street markets.

American actor Al Pacino sits with Italian actor Franco Citti holding a rifle at an outdoor table in director Francis Ford Coppola's film, 'The...
                                            Michael Corleone in Sicily                                               

It's not practical for some people to travel to Sicily, so they turn to pop culture as a way to experience life in another country.  In 1974,  fictional life in one rural Sicilian village became part of American pop culture, when a young Michael Corleone danced with his new bride, in "Godfather II," whirling past tables laden with platters of food and jugs of wine.

Popularity of Sicilian white wine was still decades in the future, so the wine at the wedding reception was likely red, although probably not Sicily's popular red wine, Nero d'Avola. 

Today, in traditional rural areas of Sicily, a glass of wine may  be vino bianco, from Grillo, Catarratto, Carricante and Inzolia.  In fact, Sicily produces more white wine than red, with Cataratto the most planted wine grape.  Not only that, but the four major white grapes are very adaptable, appearing together, or in various pairs, in most of Sicily's white wines.

Sicilian wine culture is spread across the island, with a lot of it in the shadow of Mt. Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe.   Throughout the millennia, eruptions of Etna have enriched vineyard soils with deposits of volcanic ash, no where more than in Catania.  On the slopes of Etna, Sicily's two exciting reds -- Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, thrive.  (See "Nero and Nerello," April 11, 2024) 

Sicilia DOC is an island-wide appellation, encompassing more than 20 DOCs.  Cerasuolo di Vittoria, a red blend from the south coast is Sicily's only DOCG wine.  A handful of DOCs have applied for DOCG, but so far none have succeeded 

Among the hopefuls is Etna DOC, one of Italy's earliest DOC wines, approved in 1968.  Etna Bianco, a dry, mineral-laced blend of Carricante, Cataratto and small amounts of Trebbiano and/or Minella Bianca.  The rule for Carricante is 60% to 100%, but how much is up to the winemaker.  The aim, with Carricante, is to extract attractive flavors that suggest ripe pears and apples, with hints of citrus.   

Grillo is an indigenous white grape that has shown promise in Sicily, but is no longer allowed in non-DOC wines.  Grillo is thought to either be native to Sicily or from Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot.  Once used as a base for Marsala, Grillo is high in sugars but it lost out to Cataratto because of its low-level aromatic intensity.   A dry Grillo is light, lemon-scented and nutty with plenty of up-front stone fruit. Fruitier versions remind me of Viognier and Albarino.

Catarratto Grape Variety: Rediscovering Sicily's White Wine

Cataratto is the most planted grape, white or red, in Sicily, but comes second to Trebbiano throughout Italy.  The wide availability makes Cataratto a popular component in blends, like Etna Bianco and Marsala, or with Inzolia.   Planted almost exclusively in western Trapani, Cataratto has been shown through DNA testing to be related to Garganega, the main grape in Soave.

Inzolia can be found in western Sicily and Tuscany, where the grape is called Ansonica.  Inzolia (also spelled "Insolia") is valued for its aromatic qualities and is usually paired with Grillo in Marsala, bottled as a varietal or blended with Cataratto.

Sicilian wine, except maybe for Nero d'Avola, may be scarce in your local market, but these wines have good distribution: Donnafugata, Planeta, Idda, Passopisciaro, Tenuta delle Terre Nere,  Tenuta Regaleali.

End Note:  At one time or another, all of these Sicilian white grapes have been used in Marsala, the iconic fortified Sicilian wine.  Traditionally made from Grillo and Inzolia, Marsala now includes high percentages of Cataratto. Modern Marsala comes in three styles: sweet Fine, medium Superiore and drier Vergine.  (A more detailed look at Marsala, Madeira and Malaga, the trio of Mediterranean classic dessert wines, is coming August 23.)


Next post: Pacific Northwest Wine: An Overview

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Thursday, July 11, 2024

French or American Oak? Part 2

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"French or American Oak?" (June 20) drew a number of responses, from winemakers and wine consumers. The replies indicated a desire by winemakers to clarify the issue, while also showing that consumers want to know more about the relationship between wine and oak.

Kimberlee Nicholls, winemaker for Markham Vineyard, in the Napa Valley, reminded me of an important difference between French and American oaks, that I didn't mention.  Paul Vandenberg, winemaker and winery owner for Paradisos del Sol Winery, in Washington's Yakima Valley, made a pitch for older barrels in lieu of trendy concrete eggs.  And Marvin Mai, an avid wine consumer from Santa Rosa, California, wants to know about sustainable forestry and if oak chips, used in a concrete egg, have the same impact on wine as does wine aging in an oak barrel. 

Knowing more about the wine you drink can help in making wine buys.  So, here's a follow-up to the June post on French or American oak, with more information...  

On sustainability: The entire process, from the forest to the cellar, has been a personal interest, since I sipped my first wine.  Thus, I believe one way to answer Marvin Mai's question about sustainability, is to first think of how long it takes for an oak tree to grow.  In France, as trees transition for decades through the growth process, the government monitors  the cycle from planting a new sapling to harvesting a mature tree.  In the United States, a sustainable forest growth plan, follows a similar plan, insuring there will always be trees to harvest.  

On the benefits to wine of oak contact: Kimberlee Nicholls explains that oak aging allows the introduction of oxygen into wine, softening tannin and mouthfeel.  "When not using barrels, the introduction of oak is possible through the use of oak chips or oak stave inserts in tanks, to create a softening of the flavor profile," she explains. 

Paul Vandenberg  believes there is a more practical benefit.  "Barrels replaced ceramics as storage and transportation vessels because they are much lighter and more durable when moved. Until recently, new barrels were not used for the highest quality wines. When  American winemakers realized that barrel fermentation and aging were key to white Burgundy (Chardonnay), we started importing barrels."

On the use of concrete eggs:  Vandenberg had this to say: "The use of 'eggs' is stupid and an expensive return to the technology of a time before the use of barrels, and is a response to immature barrels." Then, he adds this about wine held in concrete eggs, "My limited tasting experience suggests to me that stupid, expensive, heavy, space hog ceramic vessels offer no advantage, except, of course, the 'cool' factor, which is strictly PR."

Nicholls does not use concrete eggs at Markham, but she has a couple of concrete tanks, that she uses "only for white wine to enhance the wine's minerality."

There is, however, an "armored" egg in use at Rodney Strong Vineyards.  On "Wine Industry Network," Justin Seidenfeld, reports the fermentation egg in the Rodney Strong cellar is half stainless steel and half French oak, which he says "creates natural mixing and cooling, for a "fuller, richer wine." 

On the advantage of older barrels and barrel neutrality:  Vandenberg prefers barrels that are more than 10 years old, preferably 20-plus.  "A barrel is not neutral until it is well past 10 years old."  In a lighter vein, he reflects, "for a barrel at least 30 years old, the difference between French oak and American oak is weight of the barrel.  As I get older, I prefer Quercus Europe because they are lighter."  He is in agreement with California winemaker Clark Smith, who addresses the subject of using older barrels in his book, "Post Modern Winemaking." 

On the milling of oak for wine barrels: Nicholls points out that the big difference between French and American oak is the way the barrels are milled. "Due to its cell structure, French oak must be cut with the grain, while American oak is typically quarter sawed.  This means less waste on the (American oak) log itself, which probably speaks to the cost difference between the two oaks." 

On the use of oak alternatives:  "I'm not a fan of oak chips," says Nicholls,"because  they have so much oxygen that you need to counteract with more SO2."  Vandenberg, also not a fan of oak adjuncts, as he calls them, says, "They are primarily about aromatic extract; I gave them up years ago."    

Oak is, by far, the worldwide wood of choice for use with wine.  It wasn't always that way. In the 7th century BCE, merchants in Armenia shipped wine in palm wood barrels.  It would be thousands of years before the arrival of oak.  In the intervening years, winemakers  used locally grown woods, including  ash, redwood, acacia, chestnut, cypress, evergreen beech, and pine.  Oak ultimately became the favorite, for its relative ease in forming barrels and, most importantly, the seasoning from oak, is far superior to that of other woods.

The relationship that exists between the contribution of oak to fermenting and maturing wine is complex and extensive. Thus, a detailed coverage of the subject, in two short articles, is impossible.  Hopefully, the information and opinions above and in the June 20, 2024 posting, will help readers of this blog toward a greater enjoyment of wine.

Next posting: Sicilian White Wine

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Thursday, July 4, 2024

Finger Lakes

             Pleasant Valley Wine Company

Geography influences nearly every wine-buying decision we make. This is especially true for wine shoppers on the West Coast who are hampered by geography when they try to buy wine from the Finger Lakes region of New York state.

Easterners don't have the same problem.  California wine is readily available in most markets in the east and mid-west.  Less so, perhaps, for Pacific Northwest wines.

So, perhaps some information on the Finger Lakes and what wines to look for might generate interest in this historic New York wine region, among Left Coast wine drinkers. 

Thousands of years ago, glaciers formed a series of 11 lakes in central New York state that  became known as the Finger Lakes for their long narrow shapes.  The most prominent are Seneca Lake, Cayuga Lake and Keuka Lake.  In 1982, the Finger Lakes wine region was given an AVA, followed by sub-AVAs for Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake.

According to the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance (FLWA) there are 130 wineries along the Finger Lakes, making a variety of wines from native, hybrid and European vinifera grapes. Riesling, the second most widely planted grape in the lake region, is presently made by 200 Finger Lakes wineries.                

Today, Riesling and other vinifera grapes, are more common in Finger Lakes vineyards.  The FLWA says these are the top-10 grapes in Finger Lakes vineyards: Concord, Riesling, Catawba, Niagara, Aurore, Elvira, Chardonnay, Cayuga White, Cabernet Franc and Baco Noir. (Vinifera grapes are in bold)

At one time, the town of Hammondsport, on Keuka Lake, was considered the wine capitol of the region, partly because it was the site of historic Taylor Winery and Pleasant Valley Wine Company.

Both companies became known for their sparkling wines (then called "champagne"), made from native grapes.  So close was the association with the Champagne region of France, that the rail stop, near the Pleasant Valley Wine Company, was named Rheims, after the famous city in Champagne.               

According to Leon Adams, in his book, "The Wines of America," in the late 19th century, the proprietors of the Pleasant Valley Wine Company, presented a sparkling wine, made from Delaware and Catawba grapes, at a meeting of the local growers association, prompting one attendee to proclaim, "Truly, this will be the great champagne of the West!"  Although the remark was meant to refer to the continent "west" of Europe, it gave Great Western sparkling wine its name, and eventually the New York bubbly went on to win awards in Paris and London.

It must have been a shocking experience for those European tasters.  Eastern grapes, especially Vitis labrusca, but also some hybrids, have what is pejoratively described as a "foxy" character.  Baco Noir and other red hybrids can smell and taste "foxy," while the Seyvals usually are free of that character. 

A foxy smell is organic and wild, like animal fur. Curiously, some compare the foxy scent to that of wild strawberry, or fraise des bois, an aroma most people find pleasant.

Wine drinkers, familiar with the smell and taste of vinifera wines, find wine made from Vitis labrusca and Vitis riparia grapes alien, even off-putting.  It's a major reason eastern wines are scarce and a hard sell in the west.  And it took years for growers in the Finger Lakes, and other states east of the Mississippi, to learn how to bring vinifera grapes through the harder New York winters

An aside.  On my first wine trip to the Finger Lakes, my photographer and I visited a few wineries that were pouring mostly hybrid wines, including Baco Noir and Seyval Blanc.  Coming from California, I was used to drinking vinifera wine, like Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc so, the eastern wines were, at the very least, unusual.  

But something we noticed, in the tasting rooms we visited, was even more unusual. At Great Western, the tasting room staff had Concord grape juice for the visiting children. While the adults were offered samples of hybrid wines and Riesling, the staff understood that to keep dad and mom concentrating on the wines, they had to distract their child from demanding the parent's attention.

We saw this sensible and impressive marketing idea at other Finger Lakes wineries, and I wondered why this simple tool was not being used in California.

Besides Riesling, Finger Lakes vineyards have other vinifera grapes, like Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc.  And interest in hybrid grapes continues, the most common being American Hybrids (Isabella, Noah) and French Hybrids (Seyvel Blanc, Villard Noir). Hybrids had a growth spurt in the 1990s and continue to be popular with many wine drinkers, where the wines are sold.  And, there still is a demand for native wines like Cayuga White,  Catawba, Niagara and Concord, noted for their "foxy" character.  

Search your local wine shops for hybrid and native wines from the Finger Lakes, or ask your wine merchant to order them.  


Correction: In the June 28 post on Australian Cabernet Sauvignon, I had a lapse of memory.  I've been to Western Australia and should have remembered that Perth, the capital city of WA, is closer to Margaret River than Adelaide, days away to the east, across the Nullarbor Plain.  My thanks to Robin Shaw for pointing out the error and my apologies to the residents of Western Australia for my faulty geography.

Next post: French or American Oak Part 2

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