Wine Club: Under the volcano

Wild and rugged, the new vineyards of Sicily
Wild and rugged, the new vineyards of Sicily
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In the shadow of Mount Etna, Christine Austin discovers the wines which have put the island firmly back on the map.

It was late afternoon by the time we reached the Feudo di Mezzo winery in north east Sicily. Several thousand feet above us, shrouded in cloud, Mount Etna boomed at regular intervals, spewing out dust and lava. Apparently there was a better view from the other side of the mountain, but I was quite happy to be on the side that wasn’t in the path of the trickle of lava now emerging from the peak.

This was the first stop on a tour of the wineries of the Planeta family, one of the most dynamic wine producers in Sicily, who are largely responsible for changing the direction of Sicilian wines over the last 20 years.

Sicily has a long history of wine production. The Greeks, Romans and other invaders of this island made much of Sicily’s ability to produce wine, but in modern times this “football” at the end of Italy’s “boot” has been better known for quantity rather than quality. It was the vision of one man, Diego Planeta which kick-started the change. As president of the local wine co-operative, Settesoli, he started to plant his own vineyards with different grape varieties, instead of the usual Catarratto and Trebbiano varieties and it wasn’t long before other growers followed his lead. “It took a year for the penny to drop”, said Diego when I met him over breakfast during the trip. “They realised that they could get five times the price for one kilo of Chardonnay compared with Trebbiano.” The main problem with the existing local grapes was that they were almost totally dominated by bland, uninteresting white grapes. It was definitely time for a change.

From the mid-1980s onwards experimental plots of vines were planted with a wide range of grapes, some international and some local, each one evaluated for its potential.

“By 2005 we had decided to concentrate on developing local Sicilian and Italian grape varieties such as Nero d’Avola, Grecanico, Carricante, Nerello Mascalese and now Fiano,” said Diego. “But international grapes such as Merlot, Syrah, Viognier and even Riesling show just what is possible in various sites.”

Alongside this experimentation at the local co-operative near Menfi, Diego’s daughter Francesca and her two cousins Alessio and Santi founded the Planeta estates and wineries, gradually acquiring vineyards and wineries in different parts of Sicily. “It would have been simpler to build just one winery, accessible from all parts of the island but we wanted to highlight the terroir and local influences from each region,” said Alessio.

And that is why I found myself, halfway up Etna at a small, chic modern winery, surrounded by vines that were squeezed into fertile patches of black soil, in between rock-hard lava flows from decades, maybe centuries ago. At 800 metres above sea level, this is a cool area, allowing grapes a long ripening period while the mineral-rich soils add a bite of character to the wines. Planeta Etna Bianco (around £15 for the 2013 vintage) is made from local variety Carricante, a fresh-tasting, citrus-charged grape with light, spicy notes. The Etna red (around £19) is made from Nerello Mascalese, another variety specific to Etna with violet-scented, dark cherry fruit and silky tannins. There is also a sparkling wine and a pair of red and white wines named after Etna’s eruption in 1614. Apparently that lasted 10 years, so I was pleased that Etna’s current activities were more subdued. The winemaker for all the Planeta wineries is Hungarian-born Patricia Tóth who arrived several years ago for a season and somehow forgot to go home. Just so she doesn’t feel homesick, a small patch of Hungarian Furmint has been planted on the Etna site, enough for one barrel in a few years’ time.

The next day, after a breakfast of the best white Italian peaches I have ever tasted, I headed down the mountain and drove south, past Syracuse to Noto, almost the southern tip of Sicily. This lies further south than the African coast, and it is an area of almond and apricot trees. It is also where the Planeta family have built a hidden winery into the side of a hill so that it does not intrude on the natural landscape. Again, local grape varieties, Nero d’Avola and Moscato Bianco have been used to create red and white wines of the region. Santa Cecilia 2007 (£22.40 Field and Fawcett, York for the 2009 vintage), made from Nero d’Avola was the gem of the tasting with vibrant, aromatic sweet black cherry and raspberry fruit and spicy notes.

Moving west to Vittoria we came to the old Dorilli estate, located within sight of the sea and surrounded by vineyards planted with Nero d’Avola and Frappato grapes. Blended together these make a wine, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, which I found to be the most distinctive and delicious of the trip. With mulberry and raspberry ripple-style fruit, dusted with herbs and with soft, lifted tannins the 2011 vintage was the wine I took from the tasting table to enjoy with pasta and barbecued lamb. Find this at Field and Fawcett, £12.75.

Heading west again, past the ancient temples of Agrigento to Menfi, the original home of the Planeta estates, we drove through rocky, hillside vineyards down to the Ulmo estate. This is where all the experimental planting of new varieties started and, clearly, this work has created a new beginning for Sicilian wine. Planeta Cometa 2013 made from 100 per cent white grape Fiano is outstanding with zippy apricots and herbal notes (Field and Fawcett £22.55). Chardonnay 2011 (£22.55) has a distinctive style, still fresh from being grown close to the coast, this is a foodie wine, rounded and smooth.

Now there are 21 different wines under the Planeta label, from crisp dry whites through to deep reds and even a sparkling wine. These wines have totally transformed the Sicilian wine scene and other Sicilian producers have joined in this revolution. There are plans for a launch of “en primeur Sicilia” and the wine legislation has been simplified to allow Sicilia to be the important name on the labels.

One of the best ways to try this new wave of Sicilian wines from Planeta is at Salvo’s Italian restaurant in Headingley. Not only do they have many Planeta wines on the list, you can also buy them to take away and drink at home. Even better they stock the wonderful Planeta olive oil which is essential for any summer salad.