Sicilian wine: Value and quality
One of the biggest changes in the wine business over the past couple of decades or so has been in cheap wine. When I started doing this, cheap wine was mostly French, and we drank a lot of Beaujolais. Then, in the late ’90s, the Australians arrived, and we started drinking $10 shiraz with cute labels.
In the last 10 years or so, Chile (cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc) and Argentina (malbec) have become known for their cheap wine. Meanwhile, the French are stuck with warehouses of lousy cheap wine that they can’t sell, and the Australians have their own crisis — too many vines and not enough demand, with important producers on the cusp of bankruptcy. Which would seem to mean that the Chileans and Argentines will have cheap wine to themselves for the foreseeable future.
But that’s not necessarily true. Slowly — practically in stealth mode, in fact — Sicilian wine has arrived in the U.S., and it offers better value and better quality than almost any other cheap wine in the world. So why haven’t you heard about Sicilian wine? First, because it’s Italian, and the Italians may be the worst wine marketers in the world. Second, because the wines are made with grapes like nero d’avola and grillo, which most of us have never heard of. Third, most of the island’s grape production was traditionally used to make wine in other parts of Italy, and it’s only in the last couple of decades that the grapes were used to make wine for export.
But the wines are worth looking for, despite those obstacles. After the jump, a few suggestions about what’s available.
How well done are Sicilian wines? Stunning, actually. Over the past three years, I’ve sampled quite a bit of what Sicily has to offer: Varietals like nero d’avola, grillo and catarrato, and blends that include native grapes with chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and even pinot noir. There hasn’t been a clunker among them, and the prices have been fantastic — most are $10 or so, and an expensive wine costs $15.
What Sicilian wines don’t have are the jammy, fruit-forward flavors of Chile and Argentina. These are Old World wines, though made in a modern style. That means lower alcohol and less fruit than New World wines (though mostly fruity enough for an American palate), and traditional Italian acid. In this, they are food wines. Among the wines I’ve enjoyed:
• Rapitala Campo Reale ($10, sample). Spicy, though a little softer than some of the other nero d’avolas. Rapitala is a leading Sicilian producer, and its wines can be trusted to offer quality at a good price.