I find myself annoyed often when I’m abroad and things are so delicious and I can’t figure out why the heck food and drink don’t taste as good in the States. Yes, I suppose a solid argument could be made about how during vacation, your nervous system is more relaxed and your taste receptors are more sensitive and blah blah blah. But I can honestly say that whatever sciencey explanation you came up with, it wouldn’t be right when it comes to Sicily. Sicilian produce, food, and wine are all just better than we have here. We could try to figure out the nuances as to why Sicily makes such bomb food, or debate ad nauseam the true meaning of terroir and what makes the fertile soil of Sicily just so dang good at growing stuff. I think we could just accept it. Sicilians have been growing the good stuff for so long they have it perfected.
Here’s what we know… Back in the 8th century, when the Vikings were first figuring out how to construct a seafaring boat and the Mayans were enjoying pyramid life, the Greeks brought grapes to the largest island in the Mediterranean and began stomping out the island’s first wines. For well over a thousand years, Sicilians have been figuring out what grapes do best where in the island’s diverse topography. Not to mention that since Sicily is an island and grapes aren’t the best swimmers, many of the grape varieties on the island are found nowhere else on earth.
Sicilian wine is good. Sicilian wine is bizarre. Sicilian wine is absolutely singular in a world that can too often seek uniformity in the en vogue flavor profile du jour. That sentence is also approximately 10,000 times more pretentious than Sicilian wine will ever be.
So let’s talk Sicilian grapes. These ain’t your mama’s zinfandels.
This is Sicily’s most known, most planted, and most versatile grape. The woman at the Planeta winery told me that less expensive bottles tend toward a cherry and plum taste and fancier bottles will take on more dark chocolate and coffee like flavors. So, maybe that helps you? For me, Nero d’Avola is just the perfect red wine to drink when you want a solid bottle of red. It goes well with food. It’s balanced, not too plummy or ripe and has that delightful faint scent of cow-dung. Most Nero d’Avolas I tried weren’t trying to be anything more than just a dang solid wine.
If you head out to grab a Sicilian wine at most wine shops in America, chances are you’ll find Nero d’Avola first. Just buy it and drink it and don’t make it a big thing.
CATARRATTO, GRILLO, AND INZOLIA
These are the three grapes that make the royal triangle of Sicily’s white wine world. Driving down the mostly agricultural (and very pot-hole filled) back roads of Sicily, you’re gifted with a veritable bouquet garni of scents. At times rosemary will waft through the open windows, then a grove of bergamot, maybe something floral you can’t quite put your finger on until you look to find the source and see the little almonds growing on flowering trees — ah yes, almond blossoms. All of these scents somehow infuse themselves into the white wines made with this trio of grapes. They’re citrus forward with the minerality of a quickly flowing stream complete with just enough nuttiness to round them out.
Sicilian summers are hot and these white wines are served cold. It’s a match made in heaven (which probably could be argued looks a lot like Sicily).
THE ETNA GRAPES
Awwww snap. This is where it gets good. Mount Etna rules over the east coast of the island like the a beautiful and somewhat temperamental Eye of Sauron. The soil around the still active volcano is dark, sandy, drains super well, and is filled with deep nutrients. It’s home to some of the most exceptional wines I’ve ever had the honor of sipping. Look for blends of Nerello Mascalese and Neretto Cappuccio, or the amazing white wine grape Carricante. The reds are known as Etna Rosso and if you’re a Burgundy fan, find yourself a bottle stat. They’re complex without being overwrought, earthy without being dirty, and absolutely perfect for your next Sicilian cookout. Honestly, if I knew I was going to have one last glass of wine before I died, I’d make it an Etna Rosso.
Before our trip, I’d read up on Sicilian wines and tried a few but nothing could prepare for how it felt to sit on the balcony in front of our Abbazia sipping on a glass of Neretto Cappuccio watching the sun set over the rolling Sicilian hillside. With every country we visit a whole new world of flavors opens up to me. Whether it’s food, wine, or a local liquor my own palate gets more refined. More importantly however, I get introduced to flavors that bliss me out in a way I couldn’t imagine before making the trip. Food focused travel has become my way of making sure my palate never gets calcified, that I never become the person that will only eat the same five things from the big box grocery store down the street. With every trip, every new spice, every new representation of terroir, my life gets forever richer. Give us this day our daily plane ticket, and yeah, throw in whatever bread is coming out of the local bakery, whatever rice is being grown nearby, whatever strangely spicy curry dish is coming off the wok, and whatever it is that Sicilian farmer is pouring out of the bottle.