Liquids: Sicilian Wine

The hills and valleys of Sicily in spring were ablaze with incandescent yellow buttercups growing wild just about everywhere that grapevines were not. “Signore, signori, this is Corleone,” Andréa, our driver, announced as our bus rounded a hairpin turn and then barreled toward the shore of a shimmering lake. He paused to let me and my fellow passengers collectively “oooh!” before adding ominously: “So … we no stop for photo here. Andiamo!

In fact, the lush, verdant countryside looked nothing like the pistol-whipped, funereal scenes from The Godfather, which was partly set here, but Andréa had a great sense of humor. He wasn’t really in a hurry to get out of town because it was dangerous. He just didn’t want us to be late for dinner at the winery we planned to visit that night, Rapitalá, where a beautiful Sicilian contessa named Gigi would coordinate a royal feast at her villa.

I won’t torture you with the details of that fabulous meal (each of the six courses was paired with two wines poured by synchronized butlers), but I will tell you that while sipping my way through Sicily, I tasted some of the most exciting wines I have sampled in a very long time.

Feel left out? You should, but it’s not your fault. The wines of Sicily and her southern Italian neighbors, which include the regions of Abruzzi, Molise, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Apulia, and Sardinia, are hardly known here, save for a few brands made by big cooperatives, and a handful of savvy producers, such as Sicily’s Corvo and Regaleali wines and Dr. Cosimo Taurino’s Salice Salentino from Apulia. But that’s finally changing, as Italy’s historically poor south has suddenly become a hotbed of winemaking activity.

Why now all of a sudden, when they’ve been making wine there for 3,000 years? Winemaking in Italy’s south since World War II has pretty much been controlled by co-ops and conglomerates that encouraged farmers to pool their resources, collectively pumping out subsidized plonk destined for church chalices or salad dressing. What’s absolutely pazzecso about this is that by the numbers southern Italy produces about 40 percent of all Italian wine, but only 14 percent of it gets the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) or Denominazione di Origine Controlla e Garantita (DOCG) stamps, the Italian government’s quality control imprimatur for a region of distinction. Make sense? Of course not, which is why in a country famous for its body language and gesticulation, the index-finger-scratching-the-temple gesture is common among southern Italian winemakers. The government finally woke up in the mid-1990s and started classifying parts of the south into DOC categories. Today there are more than 300 wines that have qualified for DOC status, and the numbers keep increasing.

None of this would have happened if it weren’t for a few good winemakers with the palle (that’s Italian for cojones) to forgo subsidies and fight for the right to produce quality wines in what was once the viticultural jewel in the crowns of both the Greek and Roman empires. Two such men are Antonio and Piero Mastroberardino, a father and son in Campania who have concentrated their efforts on making outstanding wines from some of the oldest known grape varieties grown in Italy, such as the minerally greco, used to make their Greco di Tufo DOC, and the earthy aglianico, the grape used to craft their famed Taurasi DOCG.

Back when the government was encouraging farmers to replace old vines with “international” grape varieties, Piero argued, “I don’t think the world needs another good producer of cabernet or chardonnay.” He and Pappa instead demanded protection for local varieties, such as the floral fiano di Avellino grape, which Pliny the Elder called apiane because the grapes were so sweet they were “beloved by bees.” Today, the tables have turned so completely that the Mastroberardinos have been given the task—by the Italian government! —of replanting vineyards around Pompeii, matching the grapes originally planted there before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the year 79 AD. Stay tuned.

The Mastroberardinos aren’t alone, of course, but there’s not enough space here to credit all of the producers with palle. What I can tell you are some other grape names to search out, such as Campania’s fruity white falanghina; Sicily’s juicy red nero d’avola and refreshing white inzolia; Calabria’s powerful gaglioppo, used to make red Cirò DOC; Apulia’s negroamaro, used to make red Salice Salentino; Sardinia’s spicy white vermentino and crisp white vernaccia, flowery red monica, berry-scented red cannonau, and violet-flavored red carignano.

What does this mean for you? It means you’ll finally be able to have something better than just a nice chianti to pair with your fava beans. And the prices are all over the place, from light, fruity wines for $10, way up to powerhouse reds that can compete with Bordeaux in price and flavor. Finding them is going to take a little work, as the popularity of these wines is only just starting to create a buzz in Boston. But they’re out there.

Marco Deary, manager and wine director at Via Matta, says the tide is turning on his wine list. “I always thought that Tuscany and Piedmont would do the most sales, but now I’m seeing more and more interest in the south and the islands of Sardinia and Sicily,” he says. How much interest? “Almost a quarter of my list of 80 Italian wines is from the south,” Deary says. Two of these are a heady, full-bodied Rivera “Il Falcone” Castel del Monte from Apulia ($42), and Molettieri Taurasi “Cinque Querce,” a rich, robust red from Campania ($75).

At Mamma Maria, manager and wine director Allen Witcher says Tuscany and Piedmont still rule the roost on his list of 32 Italian reds, but two wines from the south are raising some eyebrows: a spicy, berry-flavored A Mano Primitivo ($40), and a juicy, fruit-forward Planeta Santa Cecilia ($76). Ned Greene, beverage manager at Teatro, is a fan of Sicilian wines. “I think they’re doing a lot of fun stuff down there, lots with syrah,” he says, “because they’re very fruity and like California-style wines.” He pours an earthy-spicy Sicilian syrah called Cusumano Nadaria for $6 a glass.

That’s all good news, but the best news is the wine list at Taranta, where owner, chef, and wine director José Duarte boasts a listing that’s 95 percent meridionale (an Italian term that refers to the southern regions of Italy, and which he also uses to describe his cuisine). Duarte isn’t just knowledgeable about these wines—he’s passionate.

“I love these wines!” Duarte says. “Most of our customers walk in and ask for a pinot grigio and Chianti or Barolo. I tell them that these unfamiliar wines have so much more character and depth.” The only problem, says Duarte, “is that the grapes are not well known, so it makes it hard on the wait staff to sell a Mastroberardino Lacryma di Christi or a Feudi di San Gregorio Falanghina” —two terrific wines from Campania.

Well, his staff is learning, and so are you. In fact, you’re already ahead of the curve of most places I visited in search of this trend. I’ve created a cheat sheet to make it easier. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, just tell the retailers or restaurateurs that you strongly recommend they consider stocking more wines from southern Italy. If they dismiss your request, tell them you’ve got friends in Corleone who think they really ought to, come se dice, reconsider.