Trecastagni Sicily, BBQ with Ciro and Stephanie Biondi and the winemakers of Etna region.
After a week in Naples to reorganize and refresh at my friends’ home in Pozzuoli, Sicily was calling. It would be my first time on the island, but I would be visiting three wineries to which I was introduced at Vinitaly: Vini Biondi, Planeta and Morgante. I had a very early flight out from rainy Naples, and found not only the number of people at the airport shocking, but also the fact that everyone was vibrant and put together at ten minutes to six in the morning. Is it the Neapolitan espresso perhaps? The 50-minute flight down to Catania was easy if not a little bumpy from the stormy weather. I grabbed my luggage (yes, it was there, waiting for me) and headed to the row of coffee bars in the tiny airport, choosing the one where I saw all of the airline workers and Carabinieri going, figuring this must be their daily routine. I noticed a sign above the coffee machine advertising almond milk cappuccino, so I ordered one and enjoyed it and a delicious brioche, agreeing with anyone who has ever said that Sicilian bread and pastries are the best. For those of us in search of alternatives to cow’s milk, I think is a delicious alternative. I made my way outside to the car rental offices and picked up the keys to my stylish little Fiat, deciding against the Tom Tom navigation system since I brought my friend’s Garmin from Naples… except that I had actually forgotten it in my haste to leave the house. Oh well, how bad could driving in Sicily be? Besides, I had a fancy Michelin map just in case. Oh, those famous last words…
I chose my route on the autostrada North along the coast to Acireale then headed East on the small roads (which should really be called road-lets) to Trecastagni where I met my host, Ciro Biondi of Vini Biondi in the town square. I followed him up even smaller roads on the steep incline created by Mount Etna to a charming and beautiful winery with Bed and Breakfast called Palmento La Rosa, less than 5 minutes from the town square. The low fog created an atmosphere that reminded me of a fairytale forest, and even though I could not actually see Mt. Etna, this ethereal setting would not have been the same without it.
The plan for the day was to enjoy a barbecue in Biondi’s Ronzini vineyards with Ciro and Stephanie as hosts, but as the weather just wasn’t cooperating, the lunch was moved to Palmento La Rosa, where I would be staying. The proprietors, Franz and Zora Hochreutener, a delightful Swiss couple opened up their B&B to the lunch guests, and the location and setting was perfect for the occasion as the 18th century building was built and used as a wine press until just a few years ago. After dropping my bags off in my comfortable and well-appointed room, and meeting my hosts, I understood what I had read on their website, “combining the best of our experiences in various countries, you will find a mix of Swiss quality, French charm and Italian hospitality at Palmento La Rosa.”
I set off with Ciro to visit their vineyards before the guests arrived for lunch. We started with the highest elevation first, at the Mt. Ilice vineyard, which was magical, with a steep (50% grade!) slope, black crunchy volcanic soil, ground fog and tiny little bright green shoots emerging from the old twisted vines. Climbing up the incline and at about 900 meters in altitude, I stopped to catch my breath and then wondered how in the world the workers tend to these vines, and then manage a harvest on these slopes. There is of course a machine to transport equipment and grapes up and down the hillside, but take a look at their website to see the photos of Mt. Ilice and you will see what I am talking about.
We then headed to Carpene vineyard and finally Ronzoni, where there is a beautiful terrace with a cooking and seating area which looks to be the perfect setting for an event (again, take a look at the website, www.vinibiondi.it) The fascinating thing about this terraced vineyard are the Greek artifacts that were found here while creating it. Carved out of the black volcanic rock are ancient millstones and a very large bas-relief phallus, sort of a fertility-charm hitching post for the animals at the time. Greek ruins, mind you, not Roman, so these date back thousands of years, as do many of the grape varietals still found and cultivated in Sicily today. This is a noteworthy project that many Sicilian producers take seriously, cultivating and rediscovering the ancient indigenous vines that were used by the Greeks.
Coming back down the bumpy, twisty road, we were heading to the winery when Ciro’s phone rang to the tune of Homer Simpson’s “Spider Pig.” Laughing, I wondered who are these people and what have they done with the serious winemakers? In this seemingly limited landscape and terroir, these people aren’t stuffy producers, and though young, they are not the snooty up-and-comers either. They are fun people, always laughing, who love wine, and love the land and the people who make winemaking possible. At this point I knew that there was much more in store that afternoon. At the modest and compact winery, I enjoyed some barrel tastings of the Nerello Cappuccio and the blend with Nerello Mascalese which will be the Outis (Nessuno) DOC label, as well as the Gurna Rosso IGT from Cabernet Sauvignon and Nero d’Avola. After talking with several winemakers who tell about how they tinker and experiment in their winemaking with barrels, ageing and production, I asked Ciro how he experiments with the wines he makes, and he instantly replied, “the vines!” This is a winemaker who concentrates on the heart of the process, the fruit itself, and standing on the Etna slopes, with the decomposed lava crunching underfoot, I could really appreciate the complexity of this sentiment…even though I still hadn’t actually seen the top half of the mountain I was presently standing on!
Back to Palmento La Rosa where the guests, other winemakers from the Etna region, had started arriving with bottles from their own cellars to share, including Marco Asmundo from Barone di Villagrande, Alberto Graci from Graci, and Giuseppe Russo from Girolamo Russo. This would be my first time enjoying traditional Sicilian food, so luckily one of the guests brought me over to the cheese plate and started explaining the various traditional cheeses like the orange-hued Piacentinu, using saffron-infused sheep’s milk, which I enjoyed with a glass of Murgo’s Brut Rose metodo classico from 100% Nerello Mascalese grapes – a delicious start! Next I tried the fava bean puree with fresh fennel drizzled with delicious olive oil from Vini Biondi, and then I discovered my favorite dish, the flattened-egg-shaped meatballs cooked in lemon leaves – extraordinary! There must have been 12 different wines open by this point, and not knowing where to start, I just held my glass out to anyone walking by with a bottle. A smart choice in this area because each producer created their wines on the slopes of the same volcano, using basically the same grape varietals, and what deliciously different wines they all created, as unique as the personalities of these guests. And for you “label lovers” out there, the diversity was also reflected in the packaging, and it was almost a game to try to discover which label belonged to which winemaker after a brief conversation. This was a wonderful way to experience winemaking, and reminded me of races I attended as a child, where champion race drivers were put in identical cars and the results were a expression of different skills, experiences and drive. When you think about these producers who are all competing for sales and notoriety, it might make you wonder why they come together like this to share a Sunday afternoon of food, wine and stories. I found that while they are sharply focused on quality winemaking, balancing the terroir with their indigenous grapes, they also have the peripheral vision to grasp the bigger picture, of Etna, of Sicily and the Italian market as well, and they know that while perhaps their individual output will restrict their competition at a high level in a global market, they realize that the wines of the Etna Region can, and will.
Sicily – Planeta’s Ulmo estate winery in Sambuca di Sicilia, & Cantina Piccola & Grande in Menfi
After a difficult drive in the rain the day before, I left my nice seaside hotel near the Palermo airport and drove south about 90 minutes to Sambuca di Sicilia, whose sister city in the U.S., you may want to know is Winter Haven, Florida. I would be meeting Chiara Planeta at Ulmo, one of the five Planeta estate wineries, which, in years past was a stopping place for farmers driving their horses and cattle. I had met Chiara’s cousins Francesca and Alessio the winemaker, at Vinitaly, and was very excited to see the estates because they treat each one as its own winery with its own equipment to reduce the transport time for the grapes in the hot summers. In contrast to this, it was pouring when I arrived, having driven cautiously down the windy path from town. While Chiara was showing me the main reception building, the rain let up a bit so we decided to take the short walk down to the winery. This was an impressive operation with shiny stainless tanks, mostly indoors and a beautiful underground barrique cellar, all air conditioned to maintain quality control in the hot summers.
We walked back up to the main building and began tasting as lunch was being prepared. Out the windows, the view of the olive trees and beyond to the man-made lake Arancio (orange) was beautiful, even in the stormy weather. We started with the Rose, from 100% Syrah, whose aromas of wild strawberry and flowers, combined with a roundness and great acidity would be delicious with the suggested grilled fish and tomato and onion salad. Next was the La Segreta Bianco that smelled like a fresh fruit salad with a hint of minerals, which would make a wonderful aperitif. Note that these two, because they are the “ready to drink” wines, are offered in a screw top, which is something of a slow and experimental transition for Planeta because they recognize the prejudice towards this method of bottling, both in Italy and abroad. As we tasted the more serious whites, the Alastro, Cometa and the 100% Chardonnay, there was a definite link between these wines, the citrus undertones, which is not a huge surprise as Sicily is known for their citrus fruit production. We moved on to the reds starting with the La Segreta Rosso, a wine that Chiara describes as the one that makes them most proud. This is an easy drinking wine that has pleasant herbal aromas and plum flavors that when slightly chilled allow it to shine as a summer barbecue wine or aperitif.
The Cerasuolo di Vittoria, from Nero d’Avola and Frappato is the only DOCG wine in Sicily, with its beautiful bright ruby color, and easy to drink style. The 100% Nero d’Avola Santa Cecilia is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and this dark ruby wine with great tannins and smoky cherry flavors is very elegant. Finally, we tasted the Syrah, and because it is not normally my favorite wine, I was eager to try their interpretation of this grape. First thing I noticed was that I could actually taste the grapes, and coupled with the soft chocolate aromas and smoky undertones, I felt like I had found a Syrah that I would enjoy drinking again.
Lunch arrived and the wonderfully rustic table was set and we brought a few bottles and our glasses over to the table. We enjoyed bowtie pasta with fresh fennel and asparagus pesto, which was delicious, fresh green beans, salad and more. The combination that I could simply not get enough of was fresh ricotta sprinkled with lemon zest, salt and pepper and the Chardonnay. This pairing was exquisite and I think I had three helpings; just to be sure what I was tasting was real. For those of you out there who don’t go for the chardonnay based on current California production, I encourage you to try this one, or any one from Sicily, as you will be amazed.
After lunch, Chiara and I got back in the car to go to Menfi, just a few minutes’ drive where we would find another two wineries, Cantina Piccola, where international variety wines are produced, and Cantina Grande, where La Segreta and Rose wines are produced. This is also where many of the family members live, and Chiara even showed me the traditional blue-and-white tiled kitchen where they eat their meals. If you are looking for that romantically stereotypical winery, this is it. Trellised flowers climbing up the terracotta walls to the tiled rooftops, the dogs sleeping in the sun near the old watering basin, it is all here, among smiling faces. We walked upstairs to see their library, a beautiful room with walls full of books on wine and vines with many selections dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. This is also where they meet, at a fabulously long boardroom table, to discuss the future of Planeta. This future is a combination of winemaking, partnering with charitable organizations and environmental sustainability. Planeta works with Wine for Life, which offers proceeds from wine sales to help fight AIDS in Africa, and at the wineries, one sees the use of solar panels and biomass production to produce energy, which is important when you consider what it must take to air condition the production and storage areas during the hot summers in a country where conservation has always been the rule, not the exception.
After leaving Menfi, I was then treated to a glimpse of their new resort being built on the hillside near the winery. Though at mid-production, I could get a feel for the layout, and easily appreciate the view of the vineyards and the ocean that this set of structures will have. There will be guest rooms, a restaurant, pool and barbecue area, and a spa. I look forward to returning to see it completed, because judging from the Planeta estates and wineries, no element of quality or comfort will be overlooked.
Chiara was nice enough to help me arrange a Bed and Breakfast right on the beach, and as we drove up to La Vittoria, I was amazed to see the sand and water just steps from the front door. It reminded me of other beachside locales like Fernandina Beach in Florida and Molokai in Hawaii, and I wished the storm could let up for just a few hours. So, to plead my case, I did what I though the ancient Greeks would do, and I headed out to Selinunto to visit the Temples, and pay my offering of an entrance ticket. It has been a long time since I saw the Greek temples at Paestum, just south of Naples, and the awesome view of the main temple and the acropolis below on the sea cliffs took my breath away. Little yellow flowers were in bloom everywhere and the sun was just a few hours away from descending into the ocean, so the lighting was fit for this spectacle. There was one temple standing, and three others in ruins due to an earthquake many years ago, and with very few people there, it was easy to enjoy and imagine how this all looked thousands of years ago. As the sun began to set, the park was closing so I headed back to the hotel by following the seacoast. I walked downstairs to the restaurant, and as usual, was the first one there, having arrived at the unfashionably early hour of 8:00. I had heard that swordfish and tuna are the most abundant in Sicily, so I chose the seared swordfish, some friend artichokes and boiled potatoes with parsley. When the fish arrived, I though there would be no way I could finish it, but to taste swordfish this juicy and tender and tasty made it impossible to leave any behind. So far, Sicily is living up to every myth and story I have heard, and in the most casual and unassuming way. I felt totally at ease being there by myself, but also wished there was someone with me to share it, because these moments and experiences are truly special.