The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Expert Picks: COS and Montecarrubo

Two expert selections from Brian Maurice

Brian_2Over the course of this long winter (which I think has finally come to an end), there were often times that I envisioned myself on an island. And what better Island to put yourself on than Sicily? It’s a place rich in history (both Greek and Italian), culture, architecture, cuisine and, of course, great wine. The two wines that I have chosen today both come from the Mediterranean Island of Sicily but are worlds apart in style. The first is produced from indigenous varietals in a very natural way and the second, utilizing a varietal that made its way from the northern Rhone, is produced in a much more international style. However different, both wines are equally extraordinary.

COS Pithos 2010 $39.50

This rustic blend of 60-percent Nero d’Avola and 40-percent Frappato is vinified in 250 and 400 liter terracotta amphoras for seven months. The nose is packed with aromas of ripe cherry and strawberry that are followed by a spicy earthiness. It is an incredibly versatile style of wine that is both elegant and structured, with a complex palate of pure red fruit, game, bright floral notes and spice. This wine is the perfect accompaniment for everything from pizza to perfectly grilled meats.

Montecarrubo Rosso 2008 $74.99

Syrah grown on the volcanic island of Sicily and produced by legendary winemaker Peter Vinding-Diers makes for an interesting scenario. The wine is an incredibly enticing interpretation of the varietal exhibiting a brash mineral quality with fresh aromas of red berries, crushed herbs and wild flowers. It is rich and unctuous on the palate with flavors of raspberry jam, lavender and tapenade. It is savage yet refined, offering a very intricate drinking experience that leaves you wanting more.

Sicilia’s Fraught History and Fantastic Future

A look at the stunning island whose wines are as hot as its climate

The hilly countryside around Caltanissetta, in central Sicily, image from Wikipedia.

The hilly countryside around Caltanissetta, in central Sicily, image from Wikipedia.

Sicilia probably has its biggest recognition for its dessert wine category, most notably Marsala. Recently, however, Sicilia has shown itself to be a star in small-production wines of every category.

In the twentieth century, Sicilia was bound by its cooperatives. While there are many excellent cooperatives, the ones that defined Sicilia privileged quantity over quality. In recent decades, however, the region began to foster small, independent producers, people who were drawn by the island’s natural rugged beauty and rich multicultural background (comprised of Arabian, Norman, and Aragonese influences). The investments generated by the tourism industry inspired the regional pride of wine growers and encouraged independent wine production.

Sicilia’s private labels have given rise to its current fashionable status–well, the labels combined with Siclia’s natural gifts. While the hottest and driest of Italy’s regions, Sicilia’s Mediterranean climate is tempered by the presence of the Apennine Mountains. Its unique climate, in fact, enables it to deliver remarkable consistency across vintages, particularly because it’s dry in spring, one of the contributing factors to vintage variance.

Catarratto, a grape exclusive to Sicilia dominates the region’s whites. A prime constituent in Marsala, when cultivated as opposed to being merely “grown,” it can deliver a rather full-bodied wine accented by spice. It mainly features in blends produced under the Alcamo DOC, which accords the indigenous Inzolia and Grecanico greater presence. While the aromatic and fruity Inzolia and Grecanico, a variety high in acidity, do appear as solo varietals, many producers feel that their individual attributes show best in a blend. Chardonnay, Sicilia’s reigning international celebrity, delivers its voluptuous character in grandiose style in Sicilia’s intense heat. Most bottlings are unabashed New World depictions, offering the concentration that is principally associated with the productions of California and Australia.

The indigenous Nero d’Avola grape leads in the reds category. Like the white Cataratto, it is essentially an exclusive to Sicilia. Although Nerello Mascalese and Frappato have grown in popularity, the seemingly charmed Nero d’Avola has acquired an international following. All of these grapes appear both in monovarietal and blended bottlings, sometimes with Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah. (This international crew grows well in Sicilia.) Probably most famously, Nero d’Avola pairs up with fellow indigenous varietal Frappato to create the potent red Cerasuolo di Vittoria, the region’s only DOCG.

Sicilia may not be only known for its Marsala, but it certainly hasn’t left the wine behind. Marsal, has enjoyed a comeback among connoisseurs, who particularly enjoy those classed as Vergine/Solera—the longest aged of the Marsalas—with their complex flavors earning them positioning among the finest fortified wines in Europe. While these are always dry, DOC regulations permit sweet styles as well as various aging parameters. Moscato di Pantelleria, one of Italy’s most seductive sweet wines, comes from  the island of Pantelleria and derives from the Moscato grape, which is known as Zibibbo in Sicilia.

Given the extensive nature of the co-op scene until the 1980s, Sicilia’s fine wine was defined almost solely by two estates Corvo-Duca di Salaparuta and Conte Tasca d’Almerita (Regaleali). They did especially well by Nero d’Avola, and their signature bottlings are now classics. Many producers, such as Spadafora, value its collaboration with the international family, setting it up with several partners in their portfolios (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah). Sicilia’s most lauded wine, however, is a single-varietal expression of an international white varietal—the heady, decadent, and otherworldly Planeta Chardonnay. The late, great Marco De Bartoli’s artisanal renderings of Marsala are without equal, particularly his Vecchio Samperi bottling. His Moscato di Pantelleria, Bukkuram, is also revered.

Sicilia has a long history of making wine—historical records indicate Sicilian wine dating back to the twelfth century, BCE. However, this history has been torn, tangled and rent asunder by conquering, phylloxera, and financial woe. These days, Sicilia is on the rise, in no small part because of small, often family-owned-and-operated estates, who understand the value of this volcanic soil land and its unique microclimates. Estates like COS, a trio of friends who craft traditional blends of indigenous grapes; Palari, who worked to reimagine the ancient wine Faro, one of Italy’s smallest but most important DOC regions; and Montecarrubo, the child of master winemaker Peter Vinding-Diers, have done much to make Sicilian wine great again.

A land this storied, this unusual and this perfect for winemaking could hardly be kept down for long. Still, it’s high time to celebrate Sicilia and all that this island offers.

Expert Picks: COS and Paolo Scavino

Two expert selections from Will Di Nunzio

Today, I chose two wines from two Italian producers, one in the North and one in the South, and I’m a big fan of both. Everyday drinking wines from the South are some of the best in Italy, and where is better than Piemonte to find a collectible for less than $100?

COS Pithos 2010 $39.50

Azienda Agricola COS lies in one of the oldest wine-producing regions of Italy, Vittoria in Sicilia, where the modern estate was founded in 1980 by three friends: Giambattista Cilia, Giusto Occhipinti and Cirino Strano. Striving to recreate wines that were once made decades before, the trio turned biodynamic in 2000 and age their wines, like the Pithos (meaning storage pot in Greek) in large clay amphorae. This Nero d’Avola (60%) and Frappato (40%) blend offers us a bouquet of violets and black fruits with good structure from the Nero d’Avola and bright acidity, red fruits balancing out the tannins for a perfectly smooth wine. A real treat!

Paolo Scavino Barolo Carobric 2007 $99.99

Scavino was one of the first to change his production methods of Barolo introducing barriques to age his wines, thus beginning the modern movement of Barolo. Many of the sons of great winemakers believed that the future of Barolo was to make a wine that could be ready to drink in 10-15 years, rather than the traditionally produced wines that required 20-30 years. The introduction of French oak barrels rocked the region and shocked the wine world, but a balance was found. Scavino realized that in order to make a great wine he needed both barrique (to soften it up) and Slavonia oak (to keep the firm structure typical of Barolo). Bric del Fiasc, one of Scavino’s cru Barolos, offers incredible structure, rich concentration and a beautiful combination of black fruits, spices and chocolate. Though it’ll be ready to drink in a few years, I tasted this wine when first released and even then it was the most approachable of the 2007s from Scavino.

Summer in Sicilia in Your Wineglass

Three wines that’ll transport you to a windswept isle

Peter Vinding-Diers' Sicilian estate Montecarrubo

Spring is here. Before you know it, it will be June, and the solstice will mark the first day of summer. Looking forward to the changing weather, I have started to prep my wine fridge adding wines that I think would be enjoyable in the coming months–wines that are easy and fresh but still have plenty of structure. And thus I’ve been looking to Sicily.

Sicily is producing some very interesting and exciting wines, which makes sense if you look at history. According to classic mythology, Dionysus (Bacchus to Italians) was the God who brought pleasure to humankind, and wine to Sicily. Sicily has more vineyards than any of the other Italian regions, competing with Apulia for first place as the largest wine producer.

For over 2,500 years Sicily has been a significant centre of viticulture in the Mediterranean. Consistent bright sunshine and reliably moderate rainfall is ideal for grape vines destined to produce fruit for wine. Add the island’s soils and the hilly landscape to this ideal weather, and you have a spectacular terroir that is almost perfect for growing not only vines but also olives and citrus fruits. It’s not surprising that Sicilian producers are doing serious work, nor is it surprising that most of them choose to work with indigenous grapes like Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio.

Recent years have seen an explosion of small Sicilian wineries. For decades, Sicilian winemakers were relegated to producing grapes, must or wine, that supplied the Marsala industry or were used to fortify weak French or northern Italian wines. In the 90’s, however, some forward-looking producers began to make their own varietal wines for an increasingly sophisticated consumer market. These wineries now produce some of Sicily’s best wines. And I love them, their boldness, and their vision.

I’ve chosen three of my favorites, wines I’m definitely adding to my fridge. Great everyday drinkers, these wines make food sing, and if you’re a fan of a wine with a touch of wildness, you won’t want to miss out on these Sicilian gems. (Some of these wines are pre-arrival; email us at info@italianwinemerchants, and we’ll let you know when they arrive.)

Palari Rosso Del Soprano 2008 (Nerello Mascalese, Nocera, Cappuccio, Galatena)

There is a lot going on in here. The first sniff when poured out of the bottle was a great combination of red berries. As the wine opened it becomes earthier with soil-driven minerals. On the palate it is nice and fresh with sweet spice and cherry and a nice slightly chewy finish.  This wine comes from northeastern Sicily, in the province of Messina and grown at 1400 feet above sea level. Made from a wild blend of indigenous grape varieties Nerello Mascalese, Nocera, Cappuccio, Galatena

COS Frappato 2010 (Frappato)

I can drink this wine by the bucketful. COS was established in 1980 by three friends and the estate pays homage to Sicilia’s native grapes, cultivating wines from Frappato di Vittoria, Nero d’Avola, Inzolia, and Grecanico. The color is bright ruby red. The nose is full of strawberries and has a slight touch of candied orange peel and spice. It has a very silky texture. The tannins and acidity give it a nice depth. This wine is unoaked, complex and layered–juicy and delicious. The grape variety Frappato has been around on the island of Sicily quite a while and it is often blended with Nero d’Avola. DNA studies have suggested a parent–offspring relationship between Frappato and Sangiovese, though this wine tastes nothing like Sangiovese.

Valle dell’Acate Zagra  (60 percent Grillo and 40 percent Insolia)

I really enjoy this white. It’s medium-bodied, with aromas of flowers, and citrus fruit. Bone dry, deep and intensely flavored, with an incredible balance.  This blend is aged for four months in stainless steel before being bottled. On the palate the wine is dry and fresh, with great acid balance and a clean note of summer fruit.

Quintarelli, Tignanello, and Solaia, oh my!

Jordan can’t help but love his job

This week, the second floor of IWM has felt like the NYS stock exchange in the midst of a feeding frenzy.  Between our offers on the new releases of Giuseppe Quintarelli, Tenuta dell Ornellaia Masseto, and Aldo Conterno’s Granbussia, our phones and computers have been singing like a Southern Baptist gospel choir on Easter Sunday. Looking back at my week of wine fulfillments, I see an impressive list of juice flowing out of the cellar door, and for today’s blog I thought you might enjoy a survey of some of the glory.

This week there has been a huge run on the Galardi Terra di Lavoro 2008 – a hugely reviewed and rated Agliancio and Piedirosso wine that needs at least five more years in the cellar before its anticipated maturity.  We flew through an allocation of Gaja Ca’Marcanda Magari 2006, selling out in less than 72 hours.  The Amarone of Giuseppe Quintarelli is always a hot item, but we’ve seen a renewed and wider interest in his more affordable offerings, the white Bianco Secco and easy-drinking Primofiore.  Beyond this, we seem to have trouble keeping the Sicilian wines of COS on the shelves, constantly re-stocking on the popular Nero di Lupo, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, and white Rami (Inzolia).  Fontodi Flaccianello has been available in multiple vintages, not only the current and incredible ‘06, ‘07, and ‘08, but in limited quantities we’ve had ‘99 and ‘95 vintages that are drinking like a dream.

Tucked away in our beautiful cellar are always a few bottles that I like to call “stragglers,” specialty items where only a very few bottles available.  At present that list includes things like one 1990 Antinori Tignanello, four 1986 Antinori Solaia, two 1987 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, and eight bottles of 1967 Gaja Barbaresco.  It is always a stunning moment to see these bottles, let alone the rare chance to consume one.  That bottle of ‘90 Tig would make one heck of a 21st birthday present if you know anyone with a November or December birthday.

Our job is to provide you with exceptional insight and advice while pairing you with the wine that most fits your tasting profile and budget, and wow do we have options. We just want to give the best to all you wine lovers and to make your next glass nothing short of spectacular.

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