Friday, July 23, 2021

Sicilian Wines are Summer in a Glass

   Two seats are available on Wine-Knows' October trip to Sicily

Summer is getting into full swing and there may be no better way to celebrate than with a glass of Sicilian wine.  This is the last article of the month’s series on Sicily.  In the earlier posts you’ve learned that Sicily has nearly 90 native grapes….wines that you’ll not see anywhere else in the world.  This article, however, features grapes that were not birthed on the island but all have a Mediterranean heritage. 

                                                             The island's charms are many


The Queen of Sicilian grapes, Catarratto is grown all over the island (it represents nearly one-third of all wine grapes planted).  It is the mother of the wonderful native Grillo grape which was discussed last week.  One sip of Catarratto and you’ll see their resemblance:  lemon zest, intense oranges & fragrant citrus blossoms.   But, that’s only part of Catarratto’s charms. 

Catarratto also entices with flavors of peaches and apples.  It’s a dry, light-bodied wine that offers moderate alcohol levels, thus it makes for a perfect interlude to a summer’s supper.  Since it doesn’t have a lot of tannin, it works well as an aperitif but it can certainly swing to a first course like a shrimp appetizer.  Look no further than Donnafugata’s Anthilia, or Graci’s Etna Bianco (a blend of Catarratto and Carricante). 

                                       A  place has been set for you with Sicilian ceramics


This white wine screams SUMMER.  Zibbibo, the father of the Grillo grape, is a member of the aromatic grape family of Muscat.   Zibbibo on Sicily can be made dry or sweet, but this article will focus only on the dry version.    With its fragrant profile of honey, peaches, white flowers, and even lychees might make one think that a dry Zibbibo had some sugar, but the aromas fool your senses.

A glass of dry Zibbibo is a perfect aperitif.   It’s not a serious wine, but it’s a wine that many adore just by itself….or perhaps with a little something like Sicily’s wonderful almonds while watching the sunset.   Donnafugata’s Lighea is a great example of a terrific Zibbibo aperitivo, as is Rallo’s Quasar.

                                              A Sicilian antipasti buffet awaits


Insolia is a white grape variety grown in both Tuscany and Sicily.   Until recently, Insolia was used primarily on Sicily in making Marsala.  It is known for its nutty flavors and citrus profile.   Modern Sicilian winemakers, however, are rethinking Insolia.   The grape is now being blended with others such as Chardonnay and the results are stunning. Cusumano’s Angimbe is my favorite of the new renditions, and for <$20, it’s a real warm weather charmer.

Have a magnifico summer!

Friday, July 16, 2021

Flavors of Sicily

             Grown in volcanic soil, Sicily's eggplant (brought by the Moors) tastes like no other

Goethe once said, "To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily, is not to have seen Italy at all."   His statement certainly holds true for Sicily’s compelling cuisine as it is different from any other Italian region.  Strongly influenced by its many conquerors (from the Phoenicians and Greeks, to the Romans, the Arabs and even the French and Spaniards), the island represents a treasure trove as the culinary crossroad of the Mediterranean.  

                               Citrus flavors the entire island from breakfast to dessert

In addition to its unique historical tapestry of foreign cultures, the tastes of Sicily are also influenced by the island’s exceptional volcanic soil.  Vegetables are intensely flavored, olive oils are outstanding, and lemons and blood oranges taste like no others you’ve ever had.  Then there are the wild mountain herbs and capers grown in lava.  Add all of this to exotic spices like saffron and cinnamon and it’s a dream experience for any foodie.

In the order in which one might taste them, here are some of Sicily’s most famous flavors…

Castelvetrano Olives

               In addition to being an eating olive, Castelvetrano is also used for oil

Often served as a pre-dinner nibble in Sicily, these large fleshy olives come from the the town of the same name on the western side of the island.  Foodies have recently discovered this once obscure olive and its become popular for its buttery flavor. 

              Arancini (rice balls), once considered street food of the poor, have now gone upmarket


Named because of its shape, “little oranges” are small balls of rice filled with meat, cheese or veggies.  They are a staple in the Sicilian cuisine.  It was the Moors who brought rice to Sicily, and arancini can be traced back to the 10th century when the Moors ruled the island.

                                                     Ragusano is protected by EU law

Ragusano Cheese

Made from a special breed of cow, Ragusano is one of the oldest cheeses in Sicily.  Made in the shape of a brick, it can be sold after a few months of ripening or, it can be aged.  As the cheese matures it becomes more spicy.  Ragusano is a PDO product which means it is protected by the government.  Only cheese made from certain cows grazing in a small area of Sicily can be called Ragusano.

              Grated ricotta salata turns a simple pasta, salad or bruschetta into something special

Ricotta Salata

A hallmark cheese of Sicily, this aged sheep’s milk ricotta is often seen as a topping for many of the island’s pastas.  Used mainly as a grating cheese, this dry, crumbly cheese tastes somewhat like an aged feta.   

                                     Pasta alla Norma is an eggplant lovers dream

Pasta Norma

Topped with grated ricotta salata, pasta norma is one of the most classical dishes of Sicily.  But, it’s not just popular in Sicily---Google it and you’ll find nearly 25 million articles and recipes.   A less is more dish, pasta norma has only a few ingredients, all working perfectly in concert with one another:  eggplant (brought by the Moors), tomatoes (brought by the Spaniards), basil (brought by the Greeks) and ricotta salata.  Paradiso.

             One of my favorite versions includes nuts & green (rather than black) olives


Think of caponata as Sicily’s version of ratatouille, with the addition of a sweet-sour sauce called “agro-dolce.”  The island’s magnificent capers which were brought by the Greeks, however, take it to an entirely different culinary level.  Sicily preserves its capers in salt versus a vinegar brine, thus Sicilian caper flavors are much more intense.  Every Sicilian household has its own rendition of caponata but they all feature chopped eggplant, onion, tomatoes, celery, olives and capers with agro-dolce.  

                               Mind-blowing & weight-blowing....they're often worth every ounce


Cannoli is synonymous with Sicily.  These tubular shaped dessert pastries are one of the prides and joys of Sicilian flavors.  Filled with a sweetened fresh ricotta, cannoli are topped with the islands flavor-chocked pistachios (brought by the Moors) and candied fruit.

                                      Cassata is now only made at home for special occasions


Although not as well known outside of Sicily as cannoli, cassata is one of the most regaled desserts of Sicily.  A pain-staking-labor-of-love, cassata is a sponge cake featuring a ricotta filling similar to that used in cannoli, but the similarity ends there.  There are multiple processes after the sponge is made, which include infusing liquors and decorating with marzipan (a labor intensive almond paste which is a Sicilian art-form unto itself).   BTW: it was the Moors who brought almonds to Sicily.

Buon appetito!

Friday, July 9, 2021

Mt. Etna is Terroir on Steroids

                           Only 2 seats remain on WineKnows' trip to Sicily this October

This is the second article of June's month-long tribute to Sicily.  Mt. Etna, Europe’s most active volcano, offers one of the most profound examples of terroir in the wine world.  Terroir, considered the complete natural environment in which a wine is produced, includes such factors as climate, soil, topography, and even pests.  Mt. Etna offers an overwhelming diversity of all of these terroir elements.  Its terroir is so utterly unique that Etna is basically a micro-continent within the island of Sicily.

                 Oranges, apples, figs & cherries also love Etna's mineral-laced volcanic soil

Mt. Etna is Europe’s highest active volcano.  At a height of nearly 11,000 feet, Etna is topped with snow many months of the year.  Grapes are grown up to about 4,000 feet.  Altitude is a major element involved in climate on Mt. Etna.  The higher the altitude the greater the difference in diurnal swing (the difference between day and night temperatures.)  Diurnal shift is a critical component in making all world-class wines, and the Etna vineyards have substantial diurnal variations.

Altitude is also responsible for another important part of Etna’s terroir in that exposure to sunlight is a function of altitude.  UV exposure increases about 4% with every 1,000 foot gain in elevation.  The intense sun ray’s falling on Etna’s mineral heavy soils create an interplay of light and reflection.  This sunlight exposure on Etna is unparalleled to any other wine area in Europe.  Etna’s extra hours of sun (>1,000 more per year than in Northern Italy) make for completely unique growing conditions.

                                        Lava-based soil provides nutrients & drainage

The soils on Mt. Etna are also unique.  Formed as a result of the process of cooling and crystallizing of volcanic super-heated magma, there is a high presence of minerals in the soil.   Mineral-laden earth effects the final wine product in terms of color, aromas and tastes.   Etna’s lava-based soil also promotes excellent drainage---a critical factor in quality wine.

                   Etna has many vines >100 years old as pests find it difficult to thrive here

Mt. Etna’s vineyards were one of the few in Europe that were not wiped out in the late 19th century by Phylloxera.  One of the most destructive louses ever known to world-wide vineyards, Phylloxera for an unknown reason did not destroy the vines on Etna (although it did annihilate many of Sicily’s vineyards).    

                 Come learn more about Etna's magical terroir with Wine-Knows this October

Mt. Etna has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).  The volcano’s diverse terroirs have a monumental impact on Etna’s wines.   The following highly recommended wines are great examples of Etna’s terroir-in-a-glass, and all are worth every Euro of their bargain price:

  • Cusumano Etna Bianco Alta Mora (white)
  • Cantine Nicosia Etna Bianco Fondo Filara Contrada Monte Goma (white)
  • Planeta Etna Bianco (white)
  • Passopisciaro Contrada Sciaranuova (red)
  • Firriato Etna Rosso Cavanera Rovo delle Cotumie  (red)

  • Girolamo Russo Etna Rosso A Rina (red)

Most of these wines are available in the US and they are worth seeking out.  Or, you can join Wine-Knows this October when we'll be visiting Mt. Etna and sampling many of these wines during our ten day trip.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Sicily: Are Ancient Varieties the Future?

                                Wine-Knows has 2 openings on its October trip this fall to Sicily

This is the first of four articles on Sicily, a region of Italy that has been growing grapes for more than 3,000 years.  As an important crossroad on the Mediterranean for centuries, the island was visited by everyone including the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, French and Spaniards.  All brought grapevines with them.  Today, Sicily has the largest number of vineyards in all of Italy.  More importantly, it boasts nearly ninety varieties of wine grapes not grown anywhere else on the planet.

Sicily has some of the greatest Greek temples in Europe

Sicily’s huge number of indigenous grapes are a wine lover’s dream.  No where else in the world can an oenophile experience this plethora of little known grape varietals all located in one region.  The last twenty years has seen a renaissance with these native varieties.  Winemakers now are seeing the value of unique grapes, and are actually moving away from the international varietals (Chardonnay, Cabernet) that were so popular in the 1990’s.

Vineyards are never far from the sea in Sicily

Below are four only-in-Sicily wines that are knocking it out of the park with great quality/price and a host of international awards:


The white Grillo grape is somewhat like a Sicilian combo of Sauv Blanc and Pinot Grigio.   Grillo can make a seductive wine with aromas of white flowers and citrus.  Depending on the soil in which it is grown (most of Sicily’s soil is volcanic), it can deliver herbal (e.g. chamomile) nuances, all the way to spicy or tropical notes.  Grillo is an actual cross between two Sicilian grapes: Catarratto (see below) and Zibbibo (a member of the aromatic Muscat family of grapes).

Don’t miss the following Grillos which are quality wines at bargain prices: Il Fondo Antico’s Grillo Parlante, or Assuli’s Astolfo.

                              Mt Etna has a tremendous effect on Sicily's grape growing


Carricante is a Sicilian native white grape that has been growing on Mt. Etna for over 1,000 years.  Mt Etna not only has the highest vineyards in Italy but it also offers a terroir of intense sunlight and dramatic volcanic soil.  Carricante thrives here.  In fact, it has become the white signature grape of the Etna DOC (all of these whites must be at least 60% Carricante).   

The grape offers a full range of citrus flavors, as well as herbal notes such as mint and licorice.  Check out Etna Bianco by Planeta, as well as Passopisciaro---both are stunning.


Frapatto is a refreshing and fruity red wine and it's made from an indigenous red grape of the same name.  In the past, it has been blended with other grapes, however, Frapatto is becoming more and more popular on its own.   A light bodied wine with low tannins, it’s a perfect summer red that can even be enjoyed as an aperitif.   If you like strawberries, then you’ll enjoy Frapatto as this fruit flavor is prevalent, along with subtle floral notes.

Recommended producers?   Look for Occhipenti, COS, and Valle del Acate.

Nero D’Avola:

Nero D’Avola is the King of all Sicilian grapes----whether they are indigenous or not.  This native varietal used to be grown only in the southeast corner of the island, however, it is now grown in all parts of the island.  The wine changes depending on where the grapes were grown.   In the glass, Nero D’Avola is known for its aromatics as well as its red fruit flavors, and its spicy and floral profile.

Top producers of indigenous grape wines include Cusumano, Feudo Maccari and Feudo Montoni.


Viva Sicilia!!!