Monthly Archives: November 2013

Marsala, Catarratto, Passito . . . wines of Sicily

Jane Hunt and Tina Coady have pulled off yet another well-organized and enjoyable tasting for the wine trade. The theme: Sicily; the exhibitors, in most cases, the winemakers themselves. Everything about the event was professionally done, and the number of wineries represented was more than impressive.

For an island less than a tenth in size of Italy, Sicily has a surprising 17 wine regions, and a large number of local, indigenous (or at least so regarded) grape varieties, learning about which was to me the highlight of this tasting event.

Even though Sicily is mainly known for its red grape (and wine) called Nero d’Avola, red wines actually only make up about one-third of its production. Whites dominate, and, again, most of them local varieties with assertive masculine names such as Catarratto, Grillo or Carricante. Catarratto is in fact the most widely planted variety on the island, beating the internationally much better-known Nero d’Avola by more than 10 per cent. Catarratto comes in two shades: comune, the more common and less interesting kind, which tends to overcrop and produce fairly average wines, and lucido, which shows better concentration and more individuality in the hands of a good winemaker. But it does not only produce light white wines: because it oxidises fairly easily, it is also used in Sicily’s speciality fortified wine, Marsala.

BottleMARSSeccoMarsala is produced in the eponymous western wine region of Sicily, in and around the town of the same name, and its history goes back to the late eighteenth century. As with many other fortified wines, its creation had to do with long sea voyages. An English trader tasted the wines of Marsala, fell in love with them and decided to ship some back home. To make sure the wine didn’t go off on the long journey, he stabilized it by adding some spirit. Marsala then had a hugely successful career, especially in the British Navy, where, story has it, it even replaced rum on board ships and became Nelson’s ‘victory wine’.

The classification of Marsala seems at first a rather complex matter. It is, to begin with, classified according to colour. It can be Gold, Amber or Ruby. Then there’s the age factor. The youngest Marsalas are called Fine, then comes Superiore, and the oldest ones are called Riserva. Finally, there’s the sweetness level. Marsala can be dry, off-dry or sweet. The grapes used are mostly white (e.g. Grillo, Catarratto and Inzolia), but red Marsala – from Nero d’Avola – is also produced.

I tasted two white Marsalas at the event, both produced by Vito Curatolo Arini: a Superiore and a Riserva, both dry. They were lovely examples of a well-made fortified wine with smooth texture and great flavour intensity: nuttiness, dried fruits, a medicinal character, and an extremely long finish.

passito Abraxas


Another special delicacy produced on the island is Passito, a dessert wine made from late-harvested grapes. The one example I tasted here was produced by Abraxas, and it was 100% Muscat of Alexandria grapes, locally known as Zibibbo. A beautiful, intensely flavoured wine with great flavour concentration of apricots and honey. No such acidity as one would expect from a Tokaji aszu, for example, but it’s produced much further south and the grape variety is also inferior to the Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains used in the making of the Hungarian cousin. That said, the result is a delightful and rich wine – but with much higher alcohol. An average Tokaj aszu will be in the range of 11-12% and here we had a warming 14.5%. The owner warned me that his Passito was the real McCoy, not to be confused with the ‘cheap rubbish’ widely available at airports and touristy places, which is really a liquoroso (inexpensive sweet wines with added alcohol) and has nothing to do with Passito – but unfortunately at this point there is no legislation protecting the name and the product.


Green wines

Why would someone visit Oxford’s Trinity College if not for a wine-tasting? The event was organized by specialist importers Clark Foyster and featured about forty wines, mainly  by small producers whose bottles don’t appear on Britain’s supermarket shelves.

I decided to do a themed tasting of ‘green’ white wines, those that always feature at the beginning of tastings and wines that I typically approach with no expectations. Green wines have a young, fruity, aromatic style with lots of zesty acidity. They please a certain audience but the stereotyped, judgmental  east European evil elf always tells me not much excitement is to be had here.

Evil elf was wrong. I was intrigued to discover how, while these wines were obviously variations on a theme, they were very individual and distinct variations. Below are my descriptions of the ones I have found most interesting.

schloss-gobelsburg-gobelsburger-riesling-kamptal-austria-10224971Schloss Gobelsburg, Gobelsburger Riesling    Austria, 2012

Pale lemon with a confectionery, green fruit nose, with a hint of the characteristic rubberiness of Riesling. The palate surprises with its lively acidity, which I believe will give this wine great ageing potential. The flavours are pretty standard, peaches and pears and green apples, and subdued, but there is something about the acidity, the mouthfeel, that makes this wine delightful to drink. Smoky, mineral finish. A very young wine still, but with a long career ahead of it, I believe.

Adega Vinho Verde    Portugal, 2012

Attractive, perfumed nose with intense youthful fruitiness. On the palate it’s lean, with great acidity and some vegetable notes – cooked cabbage and asparagus – accompanying the green fruity flavours.

Alvarinho contactoAnselmo Mendes Alvarinho Contacto    Portugal, 2012

Grapes and pears on the nose, and some vegetal character. The palate has a richness which must come form the skin contact (the grape juice was left on its skins for 12 hours before fermentation), undercut by tangy citrus fruit. Very sharp and lean body, so refreshing!

Arenae Malvasia de Colares Branco    Portugal, 2010

The organizers described this as a ‘classic’ wine that comes from ungrafted vines growing on sand near the sea by the town of Sintra. I’m not sure about classic, but it was certainly interesting. The colour is a deeper shade of lemon. The nose doesn’t give away much: fairly generic fruit, pure, youthful aromas, though with a hint of savoury saltiness. Bone dry palate with the same salty character, almost cheese-like, with the youthful fruit relegated to the background. Some buttery notes – oak-aged? Flinty, mineral finish. Lots of character.

Les Demoiselles, Touraine    France, 2012

Sauvignon Blanc. Pronounced, prickly, grape and elderflower nose. The palate is surprisingly gentle with good but not aggressive acidity, and a good intensity of flavours. A beautiful example of a Sauvignon Blanc. Refreshing, but has a roundness, softness about it.

terravin-sauvignon-blanc-marlborough-new-zealand-2010.656.fullTerraVin Sauvignon Blanc    New Zealand 2011

Very pungent, savoury, vegetable nose – so promising, you want to bite into it! Beautiful and intense on the palate – an excellent Sauvignon Blanc. Tasty vegetable and fruit, gooseberry and asparagus. Lovely.

Confuron Gindre Bourgogne Aligoté     France 2011

Savoury, unintense nose with some pears and grapes. On the palate the fruity confectionery is overwhelmed by salty flavours. Lean and straight and transparent, uncomplicated but well made. Mouth-watering acidity, flinty finish.