There are many things to like about Italy, not the least is the broad selection of wines this sunny peninsula offers wine drinkers.
Adventurous wine drinkers can chose cool climate white wines from the north, warm weather red wines from the regions around Rome or more robust reds from the sunny area of Naples. Except for the mountainous east-west Italian Alps and the north-south Apennines, the Italian boot is literally overflowing with wine.
Wine tourism tends to be centered in Tuscany, with the occasional venture north to sample the famed Piedmont reds Barolo and Barbaresco and even rarer forays south to Latium to sip the refreshing Frascati vino bianco. For many wine tourists, Italy’s well-traveled la strada del vino (wine road) ends at Naples, rarely continuing south to the tip of the boot and on to Sicily.
Long known for simple, often overripe, red and white table wines, mostly from large cooperatives, and sticky-sweet dessert wines like Marsala, Sicilian wine was mostly an afterthought for many wine drinkers. Not anymore.
Sicilian white wines have probably made the most dramatic leap forward in quality, mainly because the whites of the past were heavy, sometimes oxidized and lacked freshness. Today, they are fresh and fruity with good balancing acidity, many made from the native catarratto grape and from inzolia, an aromatic variety commonly found in regional table wines. Sicilian white wines are the perfect foil for the fish and seafood-based cuisine of much of Sicily.
Sicilian white wines are scarce in Sonoma County wine shops; Terre della Baronia Cataratta, $18 being one of few I found. Red wines from Sicily on local shelves are another matter, one that is especially good news for those wine drinkers who hold that the only good wine is red.
A survey of Italian wine grapes, a few years ago, listed more than 800 distinct varieties used to make wine somewhere in the country. Only a small percentage of that number is grown on the island of Sicily.
Today, the core of Sicilian wine is bright, distinctive red wines, made from a variety of indigenous grapes, like nero d’avola, frappatto, nerello mascalese and nerello cappuccino, occasionally supported by “continental” varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and pinot noir.
Unless you speak Italian and have a good memory for trivia, Sicilian grape names are hard to remember. An easy way to keep Sicilian red grapes and wines in order is to match specific grapes with specific regions, aided by a basic understanding of Italian wine labeling.
Prior to 2011, Sicilian wines were divided into two categories: regional wines known as Sicilia IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) and DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), plus DOCG (DOC-Garantita) for the highest-quality wines. In late 2011, Sicilia IGT was promoted to DOC status with the regional wines now known as Terre Siciliane, a term you will see on the labels of many Sicilian wines.
There are 23 DOC zones in Sicily, the most important being Etna DOC, Eloro DOC and Siracusa DOC. In terms of prestige, the small Vittoria region also makes the list, based mainly on Cerasuolo di Vittoria, the only DOCG wine in Sicily. Other DOC zones from the western part of the island include Salaparuta, Alcamo and Menfi.
Only a handful of indigenous grapes dominate red winemaking in Sicily, with nero d’avola at the top of the list, an impressive fact since nero has been grown on the island for centuries but didn’t come into its own until the beginning of the 21st century. Nero d’avalo accounts for more than 25 percent of the island’s total acreage. Nero d’avola is deep colored, with high-tone sweet cherry fruit and firm tannins. It does well blended with syrah and merlot and gives body and structure to frappato, another native Sicilian grape. Nero d’avola is primary in the reds of Alcamo DOC and Salaparuta DOC.
Napa Valley Wine Train’s packages
Quattro Vino Journeys ($332 to $392 per person.)
The Famiglia Tour. The six-hour trip from Napa to Rutherford features a four-course meal and tours of Silverado Vineyards, Whitehall Lane Winery and Grgich Hills Estate.
The Estate Tour. The six-hour trip from Napa to St. Helena features a four-course meal and tours of Domain Chandon, HALL Wines and Inglenook.
The Collective Tour. The six-hour trip from Napa to St. Helena features a four-course meal and tours of St. Supery Estate Vineyards, Beringer Winery and Raymond Vineyards.
The Legacy Tour. The six-hour trip from Napa to St. Helena, features a four-course meal and tours of Robert Mondavi Winery, Charles Krug Winery and V. Sattui Winery.
Castle Winery Tour. The one-and-a-half hour trip from Napa to Calistoga features a gourmet lunch and an exclusive tour and tasting at Castello di Amorosa. ($269 to $334 per person.)
Raymond Winery Tour. The one-and-a-half hour trip from Napa to St. Helena features a gourmet lunch and an exclusive tour and tasting at Raymond Vineyards. ($209 to $229 per person.)
Grgich Hills Winery Tour. The two-hour trip from Napa to Rutherford features a gourmet lunch and an intimate tour and tasting at Grgich Hills Estate. ($209 to $229per person.)
Ambassador Winery Tour. The one-and-a-half hour trip from Napa to St. Helena features a gourmet lunch and exclusive tours and tastings at Charles Krug Winery and Raymond Vineyards. ($269 to $334 per person.)
Hop Train. The two-hour tour of Napa Valley in the Open Air car every Monday features tastes of local craft beers and bites from Palisades Beer Co. (Begins at $75 per person.)
The Vista Dome. The three-hour tour of Napa Valley, offered at lunch and dinner in the two-story Vista Dome, an elevated dining car, features a gourmet meal with a glass of sparkling wine. ($214 to $244 per person.)
The Gourmet Express. The three-hour tour of Napa Valley, offered at lunch and dinner in the refurbished antique Pullman rail cars, features a gourmet meal and a glass of wine. ($139 to $169 per person.)
Murder Mystery. The three-hour tour of Napa Valley features dining on a gourmet meal with a glass of wine while figuring out who-done-it in the murder mystery dinner theatre. ($195 to $215 per person.)
Meet the Maker. The three-hour evening rail tour of Napa Valley features a four-course gourmet dinner with a selection of wine from the featured winery, tasting notes from the winemaker, and food pairings. (Begins at $272 per person.)
Blue Note Express Music & Dinner Train. The four-hour tour of Napa Valley, offered every Thursday night, features a glass of sparkling wine and appetizers onboard the new Open Air rail car with a Napa-style meal, a live performance from the “Wine Train Quartet” and a ticket to the 9:30 p.m. show at Blue Note Napa. (Begins at $213 per person.)
Santa Trains: The annual Santa Trains, from Napa to Yountville, feature an interactive adventure and offer its passengers holiday bites and beverages, along with games, sing-alongs, and a fun cast of holiday-inspired characters. (Prices not yet set.)