Finding Nero (Part I)
On our last venture to Sicily four years ago, my wife and I had an interesting discussion with Chiara Planeta at the family’s Ulmo winery. At the time Sicily was being touted as the “new California”, which in my opinion was damning it with erroneous praise. That the island was shedding its history of being a source of massive quantities of fermented juice was undeniable. Chiara felt that Sicily was entering an exciting and crucial period from which it could move forward with vision and concerted effort or revert to the inertia of business as usual. There was no mistaking which path she would prefer, or that comparisons to the Golden State were unwarranted and unwanted. Sicily would become a “new Sicily” on its own terms.
Driving the meandering and often sign-less roads of southeastern Sicily requires patience and an innate sense of direction to fill in the gaps when the robotic voice of technology informs you it is “recalculating”. A sense of humor is also good to pack. I was reminded of Yogi Berra’s observation – “When you come to the fork in the road, take it”- as we sat deciding which divergent goat path would take us reasonably close to where we wanted to go. The reward for intrepid navigation was spending time with three small scale winemakers in the Eloro-Pachino region, an area of low rolling hills and coastal plains that fan out from the Baroque city of Noto to the sea.
If there is a birthplace of Nero d’Avola, it is here in the Val di Noto, south of the town that gave the “black grape” its name. It was singled out for selection by farmers centuries ago, long before increasing demand spread it across the island. If any parallel can be drawn to California it would be that Nero has become Sicily’s signature varietal, easily recognizable and readily available – like Cabernet. You can find Nero d’Avola juice bottled in Trentino. The grape’s inherent characteristics have, quite frankly, been diminished by too many sub-standard bottles.
The winemakers we met share a commitment to preserving their territorial heritage in order to make Nero d’Avola and other wines that truly represent their place of origin. They are caretakers who understand that they must give to the land in order to receive from it the prime material they need. For Francesca Curto, Massimo Padova, and Corrado and Valeria Gurrieri there’s a well- marked road to quality and authenticity.
With a welcoming wave and a smile, Francesca Curto bounds down the worn stone steps of Tenuta Sulla to greet us. Her family has farmed this soil since 1670. Their story is that of countless Sicilian vignaoli – wine was made as a matter of course but not considered commercially viable until the 1990s. The azienda’s hillside between Ispica and Rosolini provides a panoramic scope of the rugged, sparse beauty of this less traveled corner of the island.
I’d become aware of Francesca through Robert Camuto’s excellent Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey, and mentally bookmarked her as someone to contact if I ever returned to Sicily. She proved to be amiable, passionate, and resolutely Sicilian. One of the things I wanted to ask Francesca was her position as a female winemaker in a traditionally patriarchal society, whether anything had changed since Camuto wrote about her five years ago. She pauses before answering, “For women of my generation I think it has become easier, a little. When I started I was not certain that what I said would be accepted. Now maybe people look at me as a winemaker, not just some woman who makes wine.”
She leads us through buildings fragrant with the must of fermentation that have been repurposed to house the necessities of a modern winery. As we stroll, Francesca greets her workers with the casual politeness common to Sicilians and makes sure to introduce them to us, unspoken recognition of their importance to the farm’s operation.
We enter the tasting room and Francesca guides us to a table set with plates of focaccia, bread, and her mother’s black olives coated with the farm’s oil. She apologizes for her inadequate use of English, yet in the next sentence tells us, “Sicilians are naturally diffident because of our history…it takes time for us to open up, to trust.” We assure her that the Sicilians we’ve encountered have been anything but, and that her use of a word most Americans don’t drop into a conversation requires no apology. I ask if her wines are diffident and she replies “We’ll see.”
Our tasting glosses over the technical points of winemaking, which Francesca says are kept simple in order to present the wine as it should be, to allow it to tell its story. She asks what the Nero d’Avola Eloro DOC 2013 is telling me. My reply that it smells briny, like sea water, draws a quizzical look, so I try to peg it more specifically as salinity, to which she nods. For what is a basic, uncomplicated wine it is clean and pleasantly fruity, no added frills from cellar manipulation. Next Francesca pours the single vineyard Fontanelle 2009, a Nero from the Pachino area. It’s not opening up to her satisfaction, and with time growing short she re-corks the bottle and tells me to take it, try it later, and let her know what we think. Before we depart she wants us to sample Dulce Natum 2013, a Moscato di Noto dessert wine that is marginally sweet, with a honeyed texture and bracing acidity that gives it a refreshing lift similar to the passito wines from the island of Pantelleria. A perfect finish, literally and figuratively. Hours have flown by, and Francesca has graciously accommodated us during a routinely busy day. We exchange arrividercis and drive down a bumpy service road to our next stop.
Later that evening we revisit the Fontanelle. The passing hours have brought out darker fruit aromas and flavors, and it has developed suave elegance, with noticeable structure and a sense that there’s more to come with time. The finish is warm and complex but maintains its focus and vigor. The lady really does know her wine.
Stay tuned for Part II of Frank’s journey.