Wine notes

Monday 27 September 2010


While the dust of Bordeaux 2009 en primeur has yet to settle, Italy seems to have taken a great liking to the same format in recent years. Traditionally the en primeur season is triggered by the Consorzio of Valpolicella with the launch of the new Amarone release in January, followed by the big three from Tuscany (Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile and Brunello di Montalcino). Not new but until now without the same exposure is the Sicilia en primeur in March and subsequently the new en primeur version of Piemonte, Nebbiolo Prima.

In actual fact, these en primeur tastings have little in common with those in Bordeaux. Although the tastings are meant to give a first glimpse of the wines to be released on the market, they are held much later in the wines' pre-release development - soon after or shortly before bottling - and the events seem to centre only on getting as much exposure as possible for the regions and their wines, and attracting the attention of journalists and professionals to assess the general quality of the wines and the current vintage. And as buying decisions don't have to be made on the basis of a snapshot impression, the atmosphere is much more relaxed and focused on the exchange of opinions, impressions and ideas.

Assovini Sicilia, an association of 60-odd producers from Silicy founded in 1998, has been organising its en primeur presentation for the last seven years. Their objective is the exchange of ideas and collaboration among wine-producing estates on the island. It is a non-profit organisation whose mission is to drive forward the quality of Sicilian wine while representing this in closed ranks to a national and international public. Alongside the necessity of operating as an econmic force, they see education and information as fundamental to understanding the Sicilian winescape. Perhaps you could call them a kind of ├╝ber-consorzio, which refreshingly believes in marketing and communication. The en primeur tasting showed the wines of the members, and was intelligently set up in three ways: you could taste the true en primeur wines blind, or taste the wines in the presence of the winemakers and estate owners, or taste all wines which are currently available in the market in a separate room, sighted, with samples being poured by sommeliers.

I went against the en primeur sentiment and decided to taste only the wines that are currently on the market, as I wanted to get an idea where Sicily finds itself today from a quality point of view. Brand Sicily seems to work well on a generic level, but at the same time seems to be driven by price point. In the recent past it more or less copied the New World concept of the production of varietal wines, aiming at a wide audience. Sicily tried to transform itself into Italy's version of Australia, especially when large producers and bottlers from the north of Italy started to invest heavily in the island, turning out sun-kissed reds, and fresh but simple whites, much helped by the introduction of new technology in its vineyards and cellars.

Throughout its history, Sicily has always been a bulk-wine-producing region, and therefore regional diversity was not as developed, or cared about, as in other parts of Italy. A direct consequence of this was that when the island slowly started to focus on bottled rather than bulk wine, the simple concept of classification by grape variety was adopted, instead of a more intricate (but at that time little known) system of designated origin. Under the IGT banner, Italy's lowest quality designation, the wines could all be marketed as Sicilia, which didn't seem to need any further explanation, and the name proved to be very evocative and appealing. 'Brand Sicily' was born. As so often in the recent past, most upcoming and 'new' wine regions gained international attention more easily with modern versions of international grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah than with indigenous ones. This strategy worked splendidly for Sicily but the success was due to only a handful of estates. This success attracted the attention of big national players, all of which bought vineyards and invested in new winery technology, aiming to produce more of the same.

However, although planted in a frenzy, the international varieties never managed to overtake the indigenous ones. The white Catarratto, Sicily's most planted variety with some 39,000 ha (96,371 acres), is followed in second place by the red Nero d'Avola with 18,000 ha (44,479 acres). It's not until you get to place number 6 that you find the first international variety, Syrah, with 5,179 ha (12,798 acres). And although the bulk of Sicilian wines still produced is exactly that, most producers willing to switch to bottled wines had no alternative than to come up with blends of indigenous varieties in combination with international ones to reach a marketable volume at an attractive price. Although the strategy did help to put Sicilian indigenous varieties on the map, it did little for the individuality of the wines, neither did it add anything unique to the individual wines. The 22 DOCs, the majority created in the 1990s and later, did very little to stimulate interest in, or scrutiny of, the individual terroirs, as many of them where neither historic nor relevant but simply put into place to comply with the European community laws. That is not to say that Sicily hasn't got any historic wine styles (Marsala, Passito di Noto, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Passito di Pantelleria, to name just a few), but they were of local importance and consumed locally, and only very recently have they been given the attention they need to restore them to their former glory.

It is at this stage that Sicily may be judged from the en primeur tasting. The island still can't resist taking the varietal route but this time the focus is firmly on its indigenous grape varieties, adding a much needed point of difference in the international market. In reality, however, the wine styles produced from these grapes are very much geared towards the so-called international style: deeply coloured reds with lots of extraction and noticeable oak; the whites clean, but predominanlty showing recipe-like cool-fermentation tropical-fruit aromas. At this moment a sense of regionality is achieved only by grapes that even for Sicilian standards are firmly local, such as Nerello Mascalese, Nocera, and Carricante, to name a few, or by headstrong producers, deeply curious about their terroir and how to get this into the glass.

It is striking that while the New World desperately tries to reposition itself in the market to fight off competition by focusing more on the origin and hence the originality of wines and educating the public about regionality, Sicily is busy trying to upgrade brand Sicily from IGT to DOC, covering the whole island, and with little regard for regional diversity. The Brand Sicily message is clear enough but it is doubtful if it will do justice to its diversity, which, in the end, still seems to be the main reason wine lovers are prepared to trade up on the cost of a bottle of wine.