So anticipation was high before our recent trip to Sicily and the surrounding islands and I wasn’t disappointed. There’s a lot to see and I’m aware we only scratched the surface but getting around both Sicily and the Aeonian islands was made so much easier aboard the MY Voyager Yacht, chartered by Wine tour specialist Arblaster & Clark. I’m more often accompanying their clients in Bordeaux so it was a treat to be on the receiving end of their organisational skills for a change.
First, the natural beauty was everything I expected, being not too late in the summer there was still some greenery although I was told a few weeks earlier and I would have enjoyed the fields of wheat as well as the vineyards. (Note to self for next time). The history is amazing; as apparently there are more ancient Greek ruins in Sicily than in Greece, having visited Agrigento I can well believe it. The Valley of the Temples dates back to 520 BC and their renovation is impressive. The City of Syracuse was another eye opener. Here the boat moored right in the centre of the city and the sights, sounds, and smells of the wonderful street market welcomed us with eye-popping fruit, vegetables, herbs and very fresh fish and the remains of Apollo’s temple hidden just behind the market! The number of beautiful churches, many sadly in disrepair, was extraordinary but the star has to be The Duomo built in and around an ancient Greek temple – the marriage of the two architectures and cultures was breath taking.
Even in a small coastal town like Cefalu there was a fabulous Norman cathedral with a stunning silver altar, which seems to have survived the hoards that have overrun the island over the centuries.
And for every hot walk there is a refreshing glass of white Sicilian wine. Off a side street past the fishermen mending their nets was a surprisingly sophisticated Restaurant Kentia Overlooking the Mediterranean we enjoyed our first experience of what would prove to be one of the surprises of the trip for me – the quality of the dry white wines : the Grillo from Tasca d’Almerita is a joint venture with the Whitaker Foundation on the island of Mozia. This grape variety, more often association with sweet white wines of Marsala, withstands the heat of the island and makes a delightfully aromatic dry white, perfect for accompanying the local fish and seafood.
The dry whites and the influence of women in the wine world of Sicily were probably two of the most surprising things about the region for me. My preconception of big sun filled red wines and a very macho wine industry were blown away by both the quality and freshness of the wines, the whites in particular, and the number of young and very dynamic women we meet at the wineries and on board ship.
A typical example was the welcome at the Donnafugata vineyard on the Island of Pantelleria. Another startling impression was the terraced vineyard landscape of dry wall terracing at this vineyard. 8.7 miles of dry stonewalls have been renovated here since the Rallo family first arrived in 1989. This labour intensive and high maintenance countryside allows low bush vines to be planted in such a way as to resist the trade wines and also to conserve what little water they have. The only consistent source of water is dew as there is very little rainfall and no natural island water. The houses dotted throughout the vineyards are all built with domed roofs to ensure no drop of water is wasted.
Although the principal cellars of Donnafugata are on mainland Sicily the Rallo family produce their Ben Rye sweet white here and in the company of the glamorous Mimma Zingale we were able to taste a range of their Sicilian production at the modern winery in the shade of the terraced vines. The cartoon-like labels reflect a very feminine influence from the name of the company – fleeing woman – to the winemaker. Again the dry white Lighea was delightful made from another heat resistant grape locally known as Zibibbo (Muscat of Alexandria) again a grape variety more often used for Passito wines. Here it had lovely floral and citrus notes perfect for the hot midday weather. But the star was the Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria were the same grapes once sun dried produce an extraordinarily sweet and complex wine. Not to be forgotten is the Olive oil who’s characteristically labelled Milleanni popped up on several restaurant tables during our stay.
I was also impressed by the quality of the new investment in some of the wineries and Tenuta Rapitala was a perfect example. The range of wines was once again impressive and show cased beautifully in the new winery and tasting room with traditional dishes chosen to show the wines to their best advantage. French Italian owner Count Laurent de la Gatinais was a genial host. The first to plant French varieties in Sicily (which he charmingly called the romantic varieties) but again I thought the local Grillo and Catarrato showed beautiful freshness and the red wines were also fresh fruit driven with the Nadir 2011 Syrah showing a fresh fruit that was perfect with the spectacular roasted sword fish presented to us.
Another highlight, again away from the mainland, was the beautiful Island of Salini, as well know for it’s wild capers as its wines. At the magnificent CapoFaro wine resort / we were reacquainted with the Tasca wines.
These Aeolina islands are considered to be the home of the Malvasia grape, an historic grape variety known for the wonderful sweet wines from the region, in the past often side-lined as being oxidised and sherry like the wineries are producing wonderful whites, and this Tasca is no exception. In the magnificent setting of their wine-bar over looking the sea toward a fiery Stromboli we tasted the first vintage of Tenuta Capofaro Didyme 20012. Taken from the Greek name for the island this fruity and herbaceous wine picked in the 1st week of September was again delightfully aromatic, stainless steel fermented and aged and was a fascinating comparison with the Classic Tenuta Capofaro Malvasia made from grapes dried in the sun for a week before finishing the process in ventilated rooms with. Again the use of stainless steel allowing the grapes to express their freshness and surprising low alcohol level of 10.50%.
But this a place worth a visit for more than just the wine, the spectacular hotel with rooms and cottages spread through the vineyard amongst the olive trees with the wine bar, restaurant and poolside dining is a spectacular way to soak up more than the wine and sun but also the delightful lifestyle on these islands.
At the end of the week the obscure locally grape varietal names were tripping off our tongues, these are just a few highlights, I can already feel the call of the beautiful Capo Faro to spend more time discovering some of the hidden charms of Sicily and her surrounding islands.