Dining and Drinking
Wines of the Volcano: Mt. Etna Erupts With Complex Flavors
Once Used in Bulk for Farming, Sicilian Wine Is Now Coveted Worldwide
In the Aeneid, the poet Virgil described a horrifying eruption of Sicily's Mount Etna as "shooting out globes of flame, with monster tongues that lick the stars...the molten rock rolls screaming skyward; from the nether deep the fathomless abyss makes ebb and flow."
Most Sicilians would agree with that assessment, yet many others—the island's winemakers among them—count the aftermath of an eruption as a gift of the gods, because the new volcanic soil layers in time become rich in limestone, granite and basalt that imbue the wine grapes with complex flavors. Indeed, the legend is that Bacchus himself brought wine to Sicily. There is now even an Etna appellation for wines grown in the shadows of the volcano.
For centuries, however, Sicilian wine production was built for quantity and not quality. Once made on a mass scale, it was turned into raw alcohol that never saw a wine bottle and was instead used for farming. In the past two decades, however, young, forward-thinking Sicilian winemakers have made enormous strides, both by forming cooperatives of the best wineries and by building on tradition at small, family-owned estates.
A True Wine Region
The island has 23 approved appellations, with many in the eastern region especially affected by Mount Etna, including Faro, Moscato di Noto, Moscato di Siracusa, Cerasuolo di Vittoria and Eloro, while western regions have also enjoyed Etna's dispersion of minerals blown hundreds of miles away, including Regaleali, Alcamo, Riesi and Sambuca.
There's no question that there recently has been a great deal of global interest in these wines, made from once-neglected red grapes such as Nero d'Avola, Nerello Mascalese and Frappato, along with new red imports such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Shiraz. White wines on the island, once oxidized and sulphurous tasting, are now made to be crisp, full of sunny Mediterranean fruit and fine acids from grapes such as Catarratto, Grecanico, Grillo, Inzolia, Zibibbo and Moscato Bianco, with European varietals such as Chardonnay and Viognier recently introduced.
Today, numerous Sicilian wine producers, including Planeta, Duca di Salaparuta, and Regaleali have had considerable success in the world market. Rapitalà Hugonis, a blend of Nero d'Avola and Cabernet Sauvignon, is a very well made, balanced wine whose native Nero d'Avola has plenty of ripe fruit, tamed by the tannin of the Cabernet. I am also impressed by the depth and richness of Donnafugata Mille e una Notte, which is 90 percent Nero d'Avola and 10 percent other varietals, producing a deep purple, very tannic wine with real complexity— from the edge of the palate to the finish. Its lovely name translates to "a thousand and one nights." Two of the most widely exported Sicilian wines are Duca Enrico from the producer Duca di Salaparuta and the Tasca d'Almerita Regaleali Rosso del Conte, both selling above $50.
Tour the Wineries in Style
Interest in the region's wines has grown so much that there are now luxury wine tours of Etna and Taormina, available through Cellar Tours, which include your own driver in a Mercedes-Benz, accommodations and visits to local wineries and restaurants.
The area is rich with fine restaurants and quaint trattorias, where you can and should drink the local wines that go so well with Sicilian specialties such as sweet-and-sour caponata, with stewed eggplant and zucchini; spaghetti alla Norma, with tomato, eggplant and mozzarella; seafood couscous; and cream-stuffed cannoli pastries.
In the city of Catania, don't miss eating right in the fish market itself at Trattoria La Paglia. In Messina, Ristorante Piero is known for its stuffed, baked pastas. In Taormina—of which the locals say, "If you want to know what Taormina is like, think of paradise, then think harder"—the maccheroni alla Norma is the specialty at Ristorante al Feudo, and La Torinese is a wine shop piled high with shelves of Sicilian wines to take home.
On American Tables
Once home, you may well be enthralled enough with Sicilian wines to want to ferret them out in the U.S., and fortunately, you'll find a good array of them in some of the best Italian restaurants here. The hot New York restaurant L'Artusi has offered an Etna Rosso Calderara Sottana to accompany spaghetti with garlic and chili peppers or squid ink fettuccine "nero" with rock shrimp.
In Houston, at one of America's finest restaurants, Tony's, owner Tony Vallone infuses dishes such as lamb shank braised in Marsala wine with memories of his Sicilian grandmother's cooking, to be enjoyed with a bottle of Planeta Santa Cecilia Nero d'Avola.
No one has been more of a cheerleader for Italian wines in general and Sicilian wines in particular than native son Piero Selvaggio, born in Modica, who has owned Valentino in Santa Monica, California, for four decades (as well as, now, a younger branch in Las Vegas).
Among the many thousands of bottles in his cellar, Selvaggio offers a Regaleali Cygnus Sicilia as the perfect complement to a pasta dish like fusilloro alla Norma. "I am so proud of the progress of Sicilian wines in my lifetime," says Selvaggio, whose customers include an array of Hollywood stars. "Not only are they now some of the best in Italy, but for the price, they are amazing quality."
Illustration by Peter Hoey | Photo: © Thinkstock/iStock | John Mariani writes about food for Esquire and Bloomberg News. He's a three-time nominee for the James Beard Journalism Award and author of several highly regarded books on food and wine.