A Charlottesville wine lover takes on the grapes of Sicily

Not unlike here in Central Virginia, winemakers in Sicily take pride in producing wines specific to the area. File photo Not unlike here in Central Virginia, winemakers in Sicily take pride in producing wines specific to the area. File photo

We all know the “locavore” movement is in full swing, as evidenced by the evolution of restaurant menus across the country, and countless articles and books written about the local food scene. Charlottesville thrives in the midst of farms and locally grown food, and as Virginia gains credibility as a wine destination, our little town also takes local pride in its winemakers. There are few places that produce so many commodities within tight borders as we do, or so I thought.

My husband (I’m still getting used to this term) and I recently took our honeymoon in Sicily, where local pride abounds like I’ve never experienced. We started out in the northern city of Palermo, headed south along the coast, and finally landed at the base of Mount Etna over the span of 10 days. Each town we passed through showcased slightly different riffs on local cuisine, ingredients, and wine. The wine part is very important here, as it is the main reason we ended up in Sicily in the first place. The residents of each area of the island (which can be traversed in about six hours from coast to coast) rely so heavily on what they grow and produce that they are not even aware of what the next town over may have to offer. Each small town may as well be its own island within the island.

When scouring the wine list at a restaurant in Trapani on our first night, we found that the selections were solely from this particular region. One of the wineries holding more than a few spots on the list is Fondo Antico, whose wines I was already familiar with. We actually poured a couple of them at our wedding, so this really brought our trip full circle. Fondo Antica produces excellent wines spanning from nero d’avola, which hails from Sicily and is the most recognized grape from the region, to a passito-style dessert wine.

We had the opportunity to tour the winery and to meet Agostino Adragna, who runs the sales and marketing aspect of the family business. We tasted wines not available in the states, and he kindly sent us off with a few souvenir bottles, which we were giddy to try. One was a Grillo Parlante, a white wine made from the grillo grape, which is also indigenous to the island. This bottling in particular was bright, minerally, and had a ton of gleaming acidity whetting our palates before dinner. Tavola is currently pouring the Fondo Antico nero d’avola by the glass if you’d like a taste without flying across the Atlantic.

Our next destination was a historic town called Modica, which is located just outside the towns of Ragusa and Vittoria, both major producers of reputable wines. A young winemaker named Arianna Occhipinti is making waves in Vittoria where she crafts natural wines, without the use of chemicals or pesticides. She’s a seminal figure for the new generation of wine lovers, and has been making exceptional wines since 2004. She got started in the industry at the age of 16 with her uncle, Giusto Occhipinti, who undisputedly produces some of the best wines in Sicily at his own winery, COS. Her selections include a local specialty called Cerasuolo di Vittoria, which by law is a blend of only frappato and nero d’avola grapes, both of which are native to the area. Frappato is a one of a kind red wine grape that is light in body and color, and has an amazing floral aroma and tart acidity. When blended with nero d’avola which is dark, smoky, and broods warm ripe fruit, it creates a nice blend of these two polar opposites. The Cerasuolo di Vittoria is not available in Charlottesville, but Occhipinti’s SP68 Sicilia Rosso, which is also a blend of nero d’avola and frappato, is available for $29.99 at Mona Lisa Pasta. Her second label  and side project, called Tami, was started with a few friends to introduce simple but good wines to younger wine drinkers at an affordable price. The Tami frapatto 2012 can be purchased at Market Street wine shop (uptown) for $18.99.

Moving further south towards the looming (and recently erupted) Mount Etna, we arrived just outside the sleepy town of Randazzo, surrounded by a grape lined mountain scape. We stayed in a house at the base of the volcano, shrouded with nero d’avola vines that we later learned were sold to nearby winery Tenuta Delle Terre Nere, which is one of the oldest and finest wineries in this area. We had the opportunity to visit the winery, and were given a surprise tour of some of their highest vineyard sites situated at 800 meters. Olive trees and terraced grape vines as far as the eye can see. We even had the pleasure to meet the owner, Marc de Grazia, who additionally runs a wine importing company bearing his name. The grapes of nerello mascalese, nerello cappuccio, nero d’avola, catarratto, and frappato grow rampant, and the wines from the Etna appellation are becoming more recognized in the states. The soils here are carpeted by volcanic rock, stones, and ash, which the vines (some as old as 130 years) love. The wind from the mountains and the salt from the sea intermingle within the grape clusters to create wines that are micro specific to their vineyard site. An affordable choice from Tenuta Delle Terre Nere is the Etna Rosso 2012. It’s a blend of nerello mascalese and nerello cappuccio, and is available at Market Street Wine Shop for $21.99.

The wines from Etna are lean and fierce. They are unlike any other wines from Sicily—but then again, the same can be said of all the others. For an island to have such a drastically diverse landscape and changing micro climates, it makes sense that the wines and foods dwelling in each place would differ. It was made very clear to us that the people of Sicily are not part of the rest of Italy, and that their roots grow deep but stay local—just like Charlottesville.

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