Travelling far north to the south

To the south of Europe, that is – pretty nearly as far south as it goes, in Sicily. If I looked out my window, and could see through a building or two (and then though some unfortunate clouds), there would be Mount Etna glowering darkly, though with a crest of snow.

The city of Catania is architecturally more remarkably beautiful than I was expecting – the historic centre of it at least; I believe it’s pretty grim on the outskirts, but that applies to all these lovely old Italian cities. On ancient foundations, Catania was largely rebuilt following destruction in two late 17th-century disasters: first a terrible eruption of the volcano, and then, a few decades later, an even more destructive earthquake.

But the rebuilding was done with some excellent town planning, and a good deal of first rate Baroque architecture. The number of grand buildings – palazzi and churches – and high quality decorative artistry are remarkable for an area (the whole south of Italy for that matter) that was to become so much a provincial, impoverished backwater. Back then, the church and the aristocracy were even more proficient at grinding money out of the hugely impoverished people than the mafia-state politics-big business partnerships of more recent times. The beauty was founded on misery.

But I’m here partly for the wine, of course, not the politics. Specifically here in Catania for now, to more easily explore a little of the vineyards on Etna’s slopes – one of the more exciting of Sicily’s wine areas. In some ways, Sicily is not unlike South Africa: a large warm-country producer of mostly bulk wine, with increasing improvements here and there, some of them very exciting.

Sicily’s big advantage (if you’re looking beyond the comfort zone of cabernet, merlot, chardonnay, sauvignon and shiraz) is its native grape varieties. And how well they would do in the Cape – nero d’Avola, nerello and all. And what an indictment on theiron rule of the KWV over South African wine for so many years that they did nothing about exploring the possibilities of importing these grapes. Who cared that the Mediterranean was the obvious place to look for grapes suited to Cape conditions? No, rather remember our Geisenheim training and bring in some German varieties and crossings – kerner rather than negroamaro or sangiovese!

In my not many days so far in this northerly South  – first in Naples, now in Sicily – I’ve been drinking fairly modest examples of wines made from the local grapes, and regretting even more that we don’t have them to add to our palette back home. First, from the south of the mainland, a (red) Negroamara 2008 and a (white) Falanghina 2010, both from the good producer Feudi di San Gregorio.

Both were really good buys – the Falanghina at 10 Euros (a bit less than R100) particularly good: a fairly robust wine, with both floral and fruit characters and a delcious freshness; it reminded me this time of grenache blanc (like the example from The Foundry I recently wrote about).

Favourite red thus far was a bottle of Cerasuolo di Vittoria – one of Sicily’s most prestigious areas, producing a red blended from nero d’Avola and frappato. My bottle – bought in the thick of Catania’s wonderful street market – cost only 5 Euros (the producer is Nicosia, which I know nothing about). It was fresh, lively and delicious (lots of cherry), properly dry and with no imposition of oak flavour;  I’m afraid I would have great difficulty in coming up with something of equivalent quality – let alone interest – in South Africa at that price. It’s a troubling thought, and I’m not sure why. We can do it with white wine (especially chenin), but not red.

A not entirely different story with the two bottles I bought today, a little more expensive (about 8 Euros each), though from a bigger-brand producer, Firriato. I’ve sipped at both – modest-level wines grown on the slopes of Etna, probably mostly from old bushvines: a Rosso 2008 and a Bianco 2010. The white, largely from the carricante grape, is dry delicately perfumed and lightly flavourful, with a long ruby-grapefruit finish, fresh acid and moderate alcohol (13% on the label). I’d love to try it in a Swartland blend with chenin! But if I had to have one or the other at this price, I think I’d settle for a Swartland or Stellenbosch chenin.

The Etna Rosso, from nerello mascalese and nerello cappuccio, was also notably fresh, with good acidity and less of the aggressive tannin my very limited experience of these grapes has led me to expect. But tomorrow I go in search of some more Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Perhaps I’ll even find some at tonight’s trattoria.


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