Nero d’Avola is Sicily’s flagship red grape variety and, some would argue, the key to its future in fine wine. Chris Losh heads to an island of fire and mountains to understand why people are gathering at the altar of Nero
For anyone whose main experience of islands is the Isle of Wight, Sicily comes as a bit of a shock. Admittedly, both have plenty of sea, beach and pensioners driving round on holiday. But, whereas you can cycle most of the way round the splodge in the Channel in a day (at least, you can if you’re fitter than I am), Sicily is big. And lumpy. Even if he doped himself up like Lance Armstrong, Chris Froome couldn’t get round this little beauty in 24 hours.
At 25,000 sq m, Sicily is bigger than Wales and its geography is, frankly, nuts. On the meeting point of two tectonic plates, it’s a mountainous island with no shortage of 1500m-high peaks in the central range and along the north coast.
At its eastern edge, gazing over the rest of the island like a bad tempered grandmother, is the looming, belching, grumbling presence of Mount Etna. The beach at Shanklin struggles to compete. Which – in a seamless segue – is also what Sicily was struggling to do until recently.
The island’s wine industry took off at the end of the 19th century as phylloxera trashed the vineyards of mainland (particularly northern) Italy. Desperate for grapes, northern wineries headed south, cheque books in hand.
While this might have suited Sicily’s growers in the short term, it didn’t do the island much good in the long term, creating a high-volume, low-quality bulk wine mentality, and seeing all sorts of peculiar varieties that were planted at the behest of customers on the mainland.
Because it’s Sicily’s flagship red, we thought Nero d’Avola had to be like a big French wine, but that’s not really its natural character
There is, to be blunt, no way that Barbera was ever going to make good wine on Sicily, and as for Müller-Thurgau… well, the gag writes itself.
The shift towards bottled wine began 30 or so years ago and has taken off since the millennium, based on the intelligent use of international varieties that work in the Sicilian climate and soils. Merlot, Cabernet and Chardonnay are the stars so far – but there’s a growing awareness of specifically local (rather than ‘Italian’ or ‘southern Italian’) grape varieties.
At the top of the heap is Nero d’Avola. It’s not the most common grape on Sicily – that’s the yawn-inducing white Catarratto, which was used heavily for bulk and Marsala production, and since it generally tastes of nothing isn’t really worth lingering over. Number two on the island, however, and winner of the Most Planted Red award is Nero d’Avola, which has become the island’s flagship rosso.
Recently, a law was passed decreeing that it’s only possible to varietally label Nero D’ Avola if it’s a DOC wine; IGT versions must remain anonymous. The only other variety to receive such protective treatment was the white Grillo. It’s a move that makes sense.
‘Sicily exports a lot of bulk wine, so the varieties could get mixed before bottling,’ says Alessio Planeta, head of the eponymous wine group. ‘But no more. If it’s DOC Sicilia it has to be bottled in Sicily. We are trying to protect Sicily and our varieties.’
Nero d’Avola at SWA 2018
Villa Oppi Nero d’Avola 2015
£13.33, The Wine Drinker
Cesari Adesso Nero d’Avola 2016
Canicattì, Aquilae, Nero d’Avola 2016
£8.33, Vinum Terra
Zisola, Nero d’Avola, Noto Rosso 2015
£10.99, Maisons Marques et Domaines
The recent decision to allow wineries to incorporate the sub-region into the DOC Sicilia label (so ‘DOC Noto Sicilia’ for instance) is part of the same thinking.
‘It’s a revolution,’ says Planeta. ‘More and more wineries are using the smaller appellations. We like that people won’t think of Sicily as a homogenous area.’
NDA, as Nero d’Avola is called by local winemakers and journalists trying to sound cool, began in the island’s south-eastern corner – presumably near the town of Avola, down the coast from Archimedes’ old haunt of Siracusa.
Now, however, it’s spread all along the southern coast of the island, as well as up into the higher vineyards in the foothills of the mountains. In doing so, it comes into contact with a huge range of soil types – courtesy, presumably, of the enthusiastic tectonic activity that has bent, twisted and altered the island for millions of years.
A look at bell jars full of soil types from the five Planeta estates on the island provides a Eureka moment that the white robed maths genius himself would be proud of. From Menfi in the west, to Noto in the south-east, up to Capo Milazzo on the north coast, the dirt in which the vines are anchored is startlingly different.
It’s a factor that helps to explain the big differences in the styles and personalities of the wines, backing up the wish of a growing number of Sicilian wineries that the variety should be treated as seriously as Cabernet is in Bordeaux, Syrah in the Rhône, or Nebbiolo in Piemonte.
‘Plant the same variety in different soils and you get very different characteristics out of it,’ says Planeta winemaker Patricia Tóth (see DNA box). The range of soil types is one factor in the variety on offer from NDA, but so too is the enormous range in plant material. There are a large number of biotypes of the variety, with differing leaf shapes, yields, bunch shapes and berry sizes. This is the result of local farmers down the years tending to do their own ad hoc massal selections of the plants they thought were performing best and breeding from them.
You or I might see ‘chaos’ here; Sicilians see ‘individuality’. In so far as it’s possible to generalise, it’s fair to say that NDA is both exasperating and charming. It ripens relatively early (mid-September to mid-October), so it avoids inclement autumn weather and can produce enormous amounts of crop if left unattended.
On the downside, its drooping canopy and erratic bunches (from plump and compact to small and straggly) make it can be quite high maintenance in the vineyard. And at the first sign of rain during harvest it collapses in a sulk.
Willing to please, but emotional… It is, in a sense, a very Sicilian variety – and like most Sicilians, it likes to be within sight of the sea. After 600m of altitude, it’s no good for anything but rosé.
‘In general, good areas for Syrah are good areas for Nero d’Avola,’ muses Planeta, who thinks that, for this reason, it could do well in Australia – and certainly better than Sangiovese.
It’s a revolution. More and more wineries are using the smaller appellations
There’s a temptation to assume that because Sicily is hot, the wine should be big and rich, but in fact naturally Nero d’Avola is not like that at all. Sugar-wise, it’s closer to Sangiovese than Merlot, while anthocyanins, pH and acidity are all higher than in the former. Tannins, meanwhile, are more the soft, fruit-hugging cardigan of Syrah than the rigid, structural plank of Cabernet or Nebbiolo.
Put all this together and you have a grape variety with decent (though not intense) colour, effortless ripeness, attractive structure and plenty of integrated natural acidity. It’s obvious that it is perfectly adapted to its environment.
‘Nero d’Avola suffered a bit in its renaissance,’ says Patricia Tóth. ‘Because it’s Sicily’s flagship red, we thought it had to be like a big French wine, but that’s not really its natural character. It’s when people have stepped back and made it lighter, with less French oak, that the local character has come out.’
Generally, the variety drinks well young, but it really hits its stride after 18 months to two years of age, making it useful for restaurants. It must be said that its approachable fruit, mid-palate lift and value for money don’t hurt either.
Arguably one of the most interesting expressions of Nero d’Avola comes in Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Elevated in 2005 to DOCG status (the only one on the island), Cerasuolo means ‘cherry soil’ – a reference to the region’s edible-looking chocolatey red/brown terra rossa earth.
DNA of the NDA
Planeta winemaker Patricia Tóth matches soil to flavour
Looks like: Toblerone – rich brown with white chunks
Wine style: Plums, chocolate, mint
Personality: Plump and cheerful, like Nursie in Blackadder
Region: South and south-east
Soil: Red sand/calcaire, terra rossa
Looks like: Crumbled up sandstone
Wine style: Strawberries, cherries, fresh
Personality: Breezy, light-footed. A flower-girl on a bike
Region: Far south-east
Soil: Calcaire (like Jerez’s albariza)
Looks like: Salt, flour and pepper mixed together
Wine style: Blackcurrants, carob, incense, balsamic
Personality: Elegant and noble but fun. Marries Megan Markle
Region: Far north-east
Looks like: Crushed mushrooms with pepper and stones
Wine style: Black cherry, citrus, tamarind, briny
Personality: Concentrated, serious, savoury. Jeans-wearing poet
Both visually and stylistically, it provides an interesting contrast to the structure and punch of the white limestone-soil versions in the south-east corner of the island.
While the latter gives more intense wines that are made for ageing (no surprise, for instance, that Planeta makes its wonderful top-end expression of Nero d’Avola, Santa Cecilia, in Noto) the rust-coloured sandy soils round Vittoria strip some of the weight out of the variety.
‘The sand doesn’t allow you to do a big wine,’ explains Tóth.
It’s still recognisably NDA, but toned and lighter on its feet, as though it’s been training for a marathon. Or, perhaps, more accurately, for a danceathon, because here Nero d’Avola is in joyous partnership with between 30% and 50% Frappato. The latter is a pale, lifted variety that adds a sprightly touch of flowers and spice to NDA’s red-fruited gyrations. It’s like pairing Fred Astaire with Beyoncé – but it works brilliantly.
Typically fermented slightly cooler than most reds, Cerasuolo offers the most versatile of wine styles: something that can be drunk young or with a few years of age, chilled or at room temperature, and with everything from fish to lamb.
Despite not having a lot of evident weight, its structure allows it to work with bold, big-flavoured, Provencal-style dishes featuring olives, peppers and capers, too. It should be a must-list for everyone from white tablecloth venues to bistros and relaxed hipster hangouts.
It might even work on the Isle of Wight.
From the SWA judges
‘Nero d’Avola is a good alternative to Pinot Noir for those who want to try something a bit different.’
Giuseppe Longobardi, The Cross, Kenilworth, and Simpsons, Edgbaston
‘The Nero d’Avolas had good consistency of style and quality.’
Laura Rhys MS, SWA Team Leader