by Juel Mahoney
When I showed Ben Collins (Fine Wine Director) the photos from the trip, the first thing he said was, “Sicilians are very cool.”
Well, they have to be.
It is still 27 degrees when we take a tour around the winery at 8pm. We are in the baglio of Caruso & Minini in the town of Marsala in West Sicily, only 140 miles across the sea from Tunis in North Africa.
It is hot.
The smell of baking bread drifts through the warm night air. That’s the red wines fermenting in the new steel tanks. It will be another few weeks before the Grecanico is picked, the last to arrive at the old baglio from the vineyards further inland.
The baglio is a combination of traditional Marsalan architecture and ultra-new technology, reflecting the philosophy of the owners: a joint venture between the Sicilian Caruso family who owned the vineyards and winery, and the investment of Minini from Brescia in Northern Italy.
It is smaller than I imagined. Perhaps it is because the wines are incredible value for money, I thought it would be much larger. Apart from the beautiful courtyard, the size of a small piazza, the winery itself is restricted by the size of the original baglio.
Refrigeration has changed the quality of dry white wines of Marsala “after the British” and the heyday of fortification 200 years ago. Fortification protected the wines but it also increased the alcohol and sweetness. Refrigeration captures the vibrancy of Sicilian grape varieties. They are fresh and dry with much lower alcohol. Perfect with the fresh salads and fish in Sicily.
I have to admit, I was intrigued to visit as their Grecanico is my house white wine – fresh, extremely food-friendly and a brilliant price. Grecanico is a local white grape variety that shares the same DNA as Garganega, the grape used in Soave further north in the Veneto. This makes sense – it has the same natural acidity, which is very necessary to survive the intense Sicilian sun. Not as widely planted as Cattarrato with its waxy protective skins, it produces vibrantly fresh white wines.
During the hot Sicilian summer, it also helps the vineyards are only 20 minutes inland from the winery. For over two months, they welcome grapes arriving in constant succession from their 120 hectares of family vineyards. First into the vineyard in the heat of mid-August are Chardonnay grapes, then Zibibbo, Syrah, Perricone, Grillo and then finally Grecanico at the end of September.
How to eat the Sicilian way
Sicilians are renowned for their hospitality and food. Or should I say, feasts. We made a big mistake on our first night taking two helpings at the buffet thinking that the first course was the only meal (an easy mistake when the first course alone had six different dishes). The second course comes out – pasta. It looks so delicious. Go on, then. Then a sneaky fish and couscous dish (a local dish influenced by its Arabic history). Finally, the dessert – a classic Sicilian ice cream cake with sugared hazelnuts.
There is no need to rush.
If you are not feasting in Sicily under a warm sky, here’s something that is easy to try at home. Get some bread, good olive oil and a glass of Sachia Perricone. The bitterness of the olives ignites the rich fruit in the Perricone. As the nights draw in, this is a little bit of Sicilian sunshine.
Perricone is quite rare even in its native area of West Sicily, and produced by about only eight wineries. It is a lighter-bodied grape that has largely been ignored for the fuller-bodied Nero d’Avola. One of the first to produce a 100% Perricone in 2006, the Caruso family see it as a work in progress. Don’t think for a minute this is a reflection of the quality. Sicily is blessed with an abundance of grapes (and food) and the issue often comes down to a matter of focus. So many grapes, so little time.
Tasting the back vintages shows this focus has paid off: Perricone has taken some incredible strides in quality in a short time. With 2000 years of wine history on the island, is there any wonder with a bit of technology everything is cool.
Thanks to Fermenti Digitali and the Istituto Regionale Vini e Oli di Sicilia for making this visit possible.