If you’ve been following along in this series about my recent month spent in Southern Italy (Part One – Places, Part Two – Food), then I hope you are excited to learn about the wine and olive oil of this part of Italy. We visited three producers during our trip, all in Sicily, and I’ll also share information about the wines we enjoy at The Awaiting Table cooking school that I take guests to each year.First of all, if you’ve ever traveled up and down the Napa Valley, hopping into winery after winery, for a day of tasting, you must remove that image from your mind before reading on. Wine tasting in Italy is more like an afternoon long experience with a single producer, and often involves a meal.Our first day was spent with the lovely Stephanie and Ciro Biondi at Cisterna Fuori, one of the three vineyards of L’Azienda Vinicola Biondi. Here they grow Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio (the classic grapes for the DOC Etna Rosso), but Ciro is quick to explain, it’s not as much about the grapes, and it really is all about the terroir: the Etna DOC growing area near Trecastagni in the province of Catania in eastern Sicily.That’s our group – my friends and my husband (in the yellow) – hanging out with Ciro (in the purple) in the Cisterna Fuori vineyards for lunch. This is about as a great a setting as you can get – a covered outside (fuori) patio area set right in the vineyards next to the winery and ancient structures. The views as you sit and sip your wine are of the Biondi vineyards sweeping down the hills of the Mt. Etna area.Winemaking was in Ciro’s family for a long, long time, but it wasn’t until Ciro ventured out and discovered really good wines from other areas that he convinced his father to change the wine style they were making and to work on producing world class wines. Ciro and Stef began to operate the Biondi winery in 1999 and began by restructuring the family vineyards with an eye toward resurrecting these three beautiful vineyards. The only way to achieve their goal was to produce high quality wines to make the business activity sustainable, and the result is OUTIS, the Etna DOC red and white that we enjoyed tasting while we were there.
Stef busy cooking fabulous flank steak and sausages for our lunch.
Local olives – so very good!
What a fabulous lunch spread,
including the delicious local pacchino tomatoes that we fell in love with.
For dessert Stef served us the fruit from the prickly pear cactus that you see all over southern Italy and Sicily. We had tried this at breakfast in one of our hotels, but it’s loaded with seeds and as we sat there spitting out seeds, we couldn’t imagine why anyone would even try to eat this. Well, it turns out there is a technique – basically just slurp the sweet fruit and seeds all together and don’t chew. Delicious, and no seeds to spit out!And then came the real treat – these traditional Sicilian almond cookies that are sort of like a French macaroon, only much better. Irresistible in fact, even for someone like me who usually passes on the sweets.We tasted pretty much all of the Biondi wines: Chianta (Etna DOC Bianco), Cisterna Fuori (Etna DOC Rosso), Outis (Etna DOC Rosso), Outis (Etna DOC Bianco), San Nicolo’ (Etna DOC Rosso), and one of our favorites, a 2014 Carricante from the Chianta Vineyard that Stef had taken us to visit. As we said our goodbyes, we purchased a few bottles to enjoy along the rest of our journey through Sicily – you can find their wines through some US distributors and the OUTIS has been on the wine list at The French Laundry in Napa. We just loved meeting the Biondis and spending an afternoon with them – put this on your list for sure if you’re going to be in the area.Our second winery visit In Sicily was also a lunch wine tasting – and also a great way to spend an afternoon – at the pretty, but hard to find, Planeta winery in southeast Sicily between the UNESCO towns of Noto and Monica. Planeta is a large family run business with a strong vision. They are intent on placing wineries around Sicily to take advantage of the microclimate terroir of the island, and the site we visited was the Buonivini Winery.If you plan a visit, be sure to get very specific directions to the winery as Google maps will only take you to one of the country roads nearby, and then you will spend 45 minutes driving in circles like we did, working very hard to ask for and understand directions from the Italian farmers you’ll encounter on the way. Happy to finally arrive, we started our visit with a taste of the Moscato Buonivini as an apperitivo with some snacks outside while overlooking the vineyards.Lunch included a fabulous seasonal vegetarian pasta dish paired with the 2014 Menfi, made from 100% fiano grapes. This grape is big in the Campania area of Italy near Naples, but Planeta is finding it does very well in Sicily because of the clay soil from the volcanoes. (Campania, remember, has Mt. Vesuvius.)The pasta was followed by braised sausages with a simple green salad paired with some red wines: Frappato (100%), Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico (70% Nero d’Avola / 30% Frappato – aged 10 months in oak, rich in cherry fruit tastes), Santa Cecilia from Buonivini (100% Nero d’Avola – fermented in stainless first, then aged 14 months in French Oak, with a minimum of 1 year in the bottle, this is a Noto DOC wine), and finally their sparkling wine made from 100% Carricante.We finished our visit to Planeta with a tour of the winery operations, in an underground cave on the property. This Planeta winery cultivates the Nero d’Avola and Moscato Bianco varietals and it’s a medium size operation, pristine and obviously well tended.Planeta also makes olive oil, as do many winemakers, and we purchased some olive oil for gifts as we said our farewells to our host. You can buy their oil online through Amazon, among other sites, and you’ll find Planeta wines distributed in the US.I picked our final spot for a tasting sort of as an afterthought, thinking we would need to find something to do to kill time on our last day in Sicily before flying from Catania to Rome to begin our trek home. I noticed that the Pianogrillo Azienda was very close to Ragusa where we had spent the last night, so I booked an olive oil tasting here with Lorenzo Piccione. Little did I know what a special treat we were in for!Pianogrillo has been a family operation dating back 600 years, and you can read about the olive estate on their website. Inside the house are Greek antiquities alongside uniforms from Lorenzo’s family – he explained that he is the first in his family’s history not to join the military because he is a pacifist.We had planned our visit to Pianogrillo to taste their olive oil – 9000 trees of the tonda iblea cultivar spread over the property that slopes down to the sea. But upon arrival Lorenzo graciously invited us to taste their wine also.I had never heard of the grillo grape, but we love sipping this minerally white wine.Really, who wouldn’t love sipping wine under the vines in this idyllic setting outside of the family’s kitchen? The olive harvest was in full swing while we were there, and we were thrilled to find that they already had pressed some of the new year’s oil, which we tasted, loved, and bought. Bringing olive oil home isn’t the easiest thing to do, but we bought as many small cans as we could fit in out luggage, bought a couple of bottles of wine (sadly we couldn’t fit any more!), and said our farewells.Lorenzo was curious why I was there to taste oil. In my so-so Italian I tried to explain that we have so much poor quality oil being sold in the US and that I fully understood what it took to make great oil like his. I also understand how fraudulent the industry is and feel it is important to support the producers of the real thing – high quality Italian extra virgin olive oil. You can find his oil through Gustiamo. You can also find other producers through Gourmet Cooking & Living’s olive oil of the month club. Visiting Pianogrillo and meeting the very hospitable Lorenzo was the perfect ending to our Sicilian adventure!
Wines to Try – Varietals:
Carricante – a white from the Etna area
Fiano – a white not originally from the south, but growing here nicely now
Frappato – a strong red from southeastern Sicily
Grecanico – Greco – a white so-called for its Greek origins and one of my favorite whites
Grillo – a distinctive white that was new to me and quite refreshing
Malvasia / Moscato – a traditional variety widely used in Italy
Negroamaro – “black of black” hearty red wine, grown primarily in the Salento region of Puglia
Nerello – a strong red grown in two varieties, Mascalese and Cappuccio
Nero D’Avola – hearty red used in some of Sicily’s most popular wines, from the southeastern part of Sicily
Primitivo – we drink a lot of this at the cooking school, and Red Zinfandel of California came from this genetically
Rosato – not really a varietal, but rather a style of wine made from several of the reds from the south, and some of the best rose wine I’ve ever had!
Wines to Try – DOCs:
DOC Noto (Nero d’Avola, from Avola in SE Sicily)
DOC Etna Rosso (Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, near Mt. Etna)
DOC Etna Bianco (Carricante and Catarratto, with the addition of Trebbiano or Minnella, near Mt. Etna)
DOC Vittoria (Frappato and Calabrese, with the addition of Grosso Nero and Nerello Mascalese, SE Sicily)
DOCG Cerasuolo di Vittoria (Frappato and Calabrese, with the addition of Grosso Nero and Nerello Mascalese, SE Sicily)
DOC Moscato di Noto (Moscato, from Noto in SE Sicily)
DOC Salice Salentino (Negroamaro, from the southern part of Puglia)
DOC Sicilia (includes several varietals and blends from around Sicily – some say this is the one true DOC for Sicilian wines)