“Lemon zest joins sour green melon, tropical florals and sweet smoke as the 2019 Etna Bianco Contrada Superiore Rinazzo comes to life in the glass. This is deeply textural with medium-bodied weight, casting notes of papaya, young mango and minerals across a stimulating core of citrus-laced acidity. That said, the 2019 is also youthfully dense, tapering off with persistence but also a structural tension that promises many more good things to come. Like many of the best 2019 Carricante bottlings, the Rinazzo is enjoyable today, but it also has the ability to excel over medium-term cellaring. Drinking window: 2022-2029. 93 points”
Crusaders, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, the Mafia…..These are just some of the invaders who have left their mark on Sicily, an important fact which goes some of the way to explain the background to the delicious wines now emerging from the 23 DOCs and 1 DOCG which make up its wine map. Many historians have commented that Sicily is more akin to a continent in its own right rather than a mere province of Italy and it is this heritage more than anything which gives these wines their vibrancy and complexity, together with the infinite variation of soil type, especially on the slopes of Mt Etna itself.
Sicily has always produced buckets of undistinguished wine – encouraged latterly by EU subsidies. More recently though, there has a been an explosion of top quality wine with many producers in the Etna DOC at the forefront of this. This is due in large measure to the tireless work of Diego Planeta whose wines many of you will already have enjoyed. As well as starting his own eponymous winery in 1995, he was also responsible for persuading Settesoli (the largest producer of bulk wine in Sicily) to expand the range of native grape varieties they were willing to cultivate commercially. The workhorse (and rather bland) and most widely planted variety in most of Sicily has long been Cataratto but now there are more dynamic wines made from Frappato, Nero d’Avola, Nerelli Mascalese and Capuccio, and Carricante – to name but a few.
Benanti, whose vineyards lie predominantly on the slopes of Mt Etna at Viagrande in Catania, was founded at the end of the 19th century. The Etna DOC was established in 1968 but the modern era for this estate really starts in 1988 when Dr Giuseppe Benanti completed a study of soil types with a view to matching the grape variety and its clones to specific soil types. This is no mean feat as Sicily has such fabulous diversity. Since then, this producer has gone from strength to strength, with a range encompassing wines made from single native varietals to wines such as Majora, the top wine, made from a blend of Nero d’Avola, Syrah, Tannat and Petit Verdot.
“The 2016 Etna Bianco Superiore Pietra Marina is more of a whisper than a shout, but it has a lot to say, as its bouquet blossoms with aromas of young peach and mango, evolving further to reveal hints of sage, sugar-dusted almonds and white smoke. Like a veil of pure silk, this slips across the palate, nearly weightless yet stimulating all the same, as salty acids and minerals build tension toward the close, balanced by ripe stone fruits. It’s persistent yet juicy, swaying between savory and sweet, while leaving the senses completely refreshed and longing for more. The Pietra Marina is an old-vines selection of Carricante from the Rinazzo Contrada on Etna’s eastern slope. It refines for 24 months on the lees in stainless steel vats prior to bottling. Put some away for a few years in the cellar, and reap the rewards. Drinking window: 2023-2032. 94 points”
“If I were permitted only one producer on the island of Sicily to introduce readers to, it would be Marco de Bartoli. When the average person thinks of Marsala, they think of a cheap cooking wine that is the last-minute errand you run right before starting to prepare a meal. What they don’t understand is that Marsala has a deep, rich history of creating wines designed to compete with the best Madeira and Sherry. The problem is that this history was buried deep beneath decades of mass production, a muddling of grape varieties and unnecessary fortification. Marco de Bartoli turned a passion for tradition into a vision of the future, and his heirs, have held the line, learning from their father’s teachings while keeping an innovative eye on new practices and trends. Today, de Bartoli continues to release purely traditional-style Marsala, using only estate-grown Grillo, the Solera barrel aging system (which uses oak and chestnut vats of various sizes) and, in the case of the Vecchio Samperi, no fortification. The Superiore wines do see a light fortification with grape brandy when removed from the Solera system, and they are then aged oxidatively in oak vats until bottling for release. Simply stated, a Marsala from Marco de Bartoli can compete with the greatest Ports, Sherries and Madeira. However, this house is no longer just about Marsala. The current generation, made up of Marco’s children Renato, Sebastiano and Giuseppina, began to experiment with dry whites produced from Grillo, Zibibbo and Catarratto in the 1990s. Today, these wines have really come into their own, showing exceptionally well, and they are true standouts in my recent tastings. What’s more, this experimentation has now evolved even further with the next level of dry whites in the Bartoli lineup, Integer. Both the Zibibbo and the Grillo for Integer are spontaneously fermented without temperature control, spend 10 days macerating with zero sulfur added, and then go through malolactic fermentation and rest for 10 months on the lees in large botti, with a small percentage of the juice spending five months on skins in clay amphora. The resulting wines are unique and stretch the imagination, yet they are also amazingly pleasing, and with notable cellaring potential.”
“(17% alcohol): Luminous amber-gold. Explosive aromas of ripe citrus fruits, peach and hazelnut. Fat, sweet and mouthfilling, delivering very intense flavors of peach, hazelnut, butter and orange peel. Finishes relatively sweet and extremely long, not unlike a very high-quality Amontillado. And you really won’t notice the alcohol. Drink: 2015-2030. 93 points
Marco de Bartoli has long been one of the best wine estates not just in Sicily but in all of Italy. Sadly, Marco, a very likable man who did so much for Marsala production, is no longer with us, but his son Renato has followed brilliantly in his footsteps, expanding the winery’s portfolio and promoting research of old local vines. For example, de Bartoli’s is the first Catarratto bottling made exclusively from the Lucido biotype (not a clone) of Catarratto Comune , of which there are three: Comune, Lucido and Extralucido. Although generations of growers has repeated the received wisdom that the last two gave the best wines, until de Bartoli came along with his Lucido bottling nobody had bothered to see if that was really the case. Those consumers who have never found a Marsala wine to like owe it to themselves to try the ones by made by de Bartoli.”
“100% Chardonnay from a 19-year-old vineyard at between 870 and 950 m above sea level planted at a density of 12,300 vines/ha. Pre-fermentation cold soak of 12 hours. Fermented in large old oak casks of up to 20 hl in which it was also aged for 18 months.
Intense straw yellow. Like the Passobianco but amplified and fortified with elegant oak notes. Peach and orange on the palate with the oak supporting the fruit. Concentrated and, at the same time, displaying a certain coolness. Drink: 2021-2026. 17+ points”
“100% Chardonnay from a 15-year-old vineyard planted at a density of 12,300 vines/ha at between 800 and 1,000 m above sea level. Fermented in stainless steel and aged for 18 months in concrete tanks and large oak barrels.
Straw yellow. Concentrated, deep and alluring white- and citrus-fruit nose with hints of kumquat and papaya. Orange and lemon palate with bitter-almond notes on the finish. Long and a little linear and with plenty of substance. Drink: 2021-2026. 17 points”