By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR
Bring up the subject of Sicily and most people will think first of the Cosa Nostra. Wine? Oh, yeah, aren’t they the ones who make marsala?
And so it goes for the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, a wine-growing region that struggles to achieve respect from someone besides the mafia dons. Proud of its history and a certain autonomy from Italy, Sicily didn’t achieve world attention for its wine until marsala was introduced in the 18th century. Multiple cultures and then World War II put wine-making on a rocky course. But, how things have changed in just the last several years. Marsala is much less popular and now Sicilian winemakers are focused on making quality wines from indigenous grape varieties.
“Up until five years ago, Sicily was bottling only 24 percent of its wine,” said Christine Hammond, the brand manager for the U.S. division of Tasca d’Almerita, during a recent visit with us. The rest of the wine was sold off in bulk to other wine producing regions. Today, the majority of Sicily’s wine is bottled.
The Tasca d’Almerita family owns five estates, including the vast Regaleali estate . Its annual production of 3 million bottles makes it one of the largest wine producers on the island.
Operated by Count Lucio Tasca d’Almerita and his sons, Giuseppe and Alberto, Regaleali is among those estates leading the way to quality.
Now that growers are bottling more of their wines, new generations of winemakers are concentrating on choosing the right sites for the right grape varieties — a critical step to becoming recognized outside their country. Yields have dropped as a result of improved vineyard practices. More money is being invested in marketing and the local DOC has established standards focused on quality.
We have been unimpressed by Sicily’s wines over the years, but the recent tasting of Regaleali’s wines gave us reason to reconsider. Although Tasca d’Almerita and most other producers have planted French grape varieties to be competitive, it’s the indigenous grapes – grillo, nero d’Avola, perricone, inzolia and cataratto — that hold the most promise. Consumers aren’t looking for another chardonnay or merlot, but they do what something they can’t get anywhere else.
We were impressed with the Regaleali Grillo Cavallo delle Fate ($20) because it had much more dimension that we’ve tasted in the past from this grape variety. A grape variety used in marsala, grillo is grown in western Sicily an on the island of Mozia. Regaleali Estate also has a marvelous Mozia grillo that shows off a nutty, lemon and apple character. We highly recommend you try grillo as an alternative to sauvignon blanc.
The Regaleali Nero d’Avola ($20) is a stunning wine with rich texture, dense fruit and promising longevity. Finally, the 2010 Rosso del Conte ($70) is complex, albeit expensive, with layered black fruit, long finish and excellent balance. Honestly, we were blown away at the quality we found in these Sicilian wines. The first two wines are excellent values.
These wines are worthy of their prices and will offer you something unique.
LOCK ‘EM UP
You’d have to go deep into our penal system to find a prisoner with a record like The Prisoner. Sixteen years ago this cult wine, a creation of Orin Swift’s David Phinney, was brought into this world amid a sea of California blends. Friends waxed praise on this thick combo of red grape varieties ranging from zinfandel to charbono.
When production hit 85 million cases a year in 2010, Orin Swift sold the brand to Huneeus Vintners for a cool $40 million, according to the Wine Spectator.
We have met with Huneeus a couple of times over his illustrious career, first in the 1990s when he was resurrecting Franciscan Estates. More recently, we met when the Chilean-born winemaker launched his own enterprise, Quintessa, in Rutherford.
Huneeus made an even better deal than Orin Swift for The Prisoner – he sold it for $285 million to Constellation Brands in April. That’s not a bad six-year investment.
The deal seemed out of whack to a lot of people in the industry because it didn’t include any property – the money was just for the brand. Constellation also paid $315 million for the popular pinot noir brand Meiomi.
The Prisoner Wine Company’s production is now 211,000 cases for the five wines in its portfolio, so it can hardly be called a cult wine any more. But even at $47 a bottle The Prisoner red blend is selling very well.
We couldn’t help but think of this financial history while drinking the 2015 The Prisoner, an eclectic blend of zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, syrah and charbono. Lots of fruit and depth with hints of chocolate – yummy comes to mind. Let’s just say it’s as rich as Huneeus must be after this deal.
- Domaine Servin Chablis Premier Cru Vaucoupin 2014 ($34). A nicely priced premier cru chablis that is already drinking beautifully. Some citrus notes in the nose and mouth with enticing notes of butterscotch, even though it is all stainless steel aged. A deliciously unique chablis.
- Les Cadrans de Lassegue Saint Emilion Grand Cru 2012 ($30). A blend of 90 percent merlot, 7 percent cabernet franc, and 3 percent cabernet sauvignon, this is the second wine of Chateau Lassegue, and is a great value at a third of the price. Medium bodied with cassis, leather and cedar nose and flavors. Very easy to drink with soft tannins despite its youth. Drink with beef and pork dishes.