Winemaking in Sicily dates back an estimated 3,500 years and a large percentage of the wine produced in Italy has always come from what is the Mediterranean Sea’s largest island. But only in the past couple of decades has Sicily started producing world-class wines and some of Italy’s best and the Planeta winery has been in the forefront of putting Sicilian wines on the world map.
Good wine might not be the first thing that pops in someone’s mind when Sicily is mentioned, but perhaps it should be. Sicily is Italy’s second largest wine-growing region and is producing fine wines that are as diverse as the island’s landscape.
The Planeta family, one of Sicily’s largest and most well know wine producers, boasts five boutique wineries scattered throughout the island, each having a distinct terroir.
The winery’s export manager, Penny Murray, paid a visit to Grand Cayman in March and enjoyed a lunch at the Brasserie restaurant that featured six of Planeta’s wines.
Murray explained that the winery was founded in the early 1990s by Diego Planeta, who made a name for himself after Sicily’s 1968 Belice earthquake devastated parts of the island and left its wine business in shambles. In the chaos that followed, Diego played a key role in the establishment of the Settesoli wine cooperative, which remains one of Italy’s largest wine cooperatives and is known for producing good quality wines.
For the Planeta’s wineries, rather than planting traditional Italian wine grapes, Diego chose to plant international grape varieties – like Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Saugivnon – in various Sicilian locations in which he thought they would do best.
Planeta created five wineries throughout Sicily, ranging in altitude from sea level to more than 2,000 feet.
“The perception of Sicily is that it is hot and arid,” said Murray. “The reality is very, very different.”
The first wines from Planeta came on the market in 1995.
“What put us on the map was our Chardonnay to begin with,” Murray said.
Planeta’s Chardonnay was not only a hit with wine critics – winning many awards – but also with wine buyers who liked its reasonable price as well as its taste characteristics.
The Chardonnay was on the menu for the Brasserie lunch, but not before two other of the winery’s whites were tasted: 2010 La Segreta Blanco ($16.09 retail at BlackBeard’s and Big Daddy’s) and 2011 Carricante.
La Segreta is from Planeta’s Dispensa winery, the company’s largest, which is located in the hilly Menfi region of southwest Sicily. The straw-coloured wine is a blend of mostly Grecanico and Chardonnay, with smaller amounts of Viognier and Fiano added. It’s an easy-drinking, aromatic wine with aromas of tropical fruits and citrus with similar flavours on the palate to go with crisp acidity. It’s a good summer wine and perfect for a tropical climate like Cayman’s.
The second wine was a treat Murray brought with her from Sicily, 2011 Carricante.
Carricante is one of Sicily’s indigenous grapes that grows on the slopes of the volcanic Mount Etna. It is Planeta’s first effort to create wine from the Etna region. The minerality of volcanic soil comes through in the wine, both on the nose and on the palate. The 2011 vintage was mixed with a small amount of Riesling to help round it out. This is another crisp wine with great acidity giving it flavours of lemon and green apple to go with mint and honey. It is a particularly good wine with seafood.
Planeta’s Chardonnay ($29.99) is regularly rated 90 points or higher and the 2008 vintage was no different. The wine, made from 100 per cent Chardonnay from Planeta’s Ulmo winery in the southwest of Sicily.
Murray said 50 per cent of the wine was aged for 11 months in new French oak and the other 50 per cent was aged in French oak that had been used once before. Although the oak definitely evident in the wine, it’s not overpowering. Aromas of stone fruits and vanilla come through, and on the palate the wine is lush and complex, making it a good match with pasta with seafood sauces and grilled white meats.
From there, the lunch moved to red wines. First served was 2009 Cerasuolo di Vittoria ($21.99), a red blend of two mainstay Sicilian grapes – Nero d’Avola and Frappato. It is made in Planeta’s Dorilli Winery in Ragusa, in the southeastern area of Sicily.
This wine is an easy-drinking red with aromas and tastes of cherries and other red berries, but that also featured a long finish. It’s a versatile enough wine to serve with red meat – like burgers or stew – or even dense seafood like grilled or broiled swordfish or wahoo. It could also easily take some chilling for outdoor drinking and, with a relatively low 13.3 per cent alcohol, this wine would pair nicely with spicy foods as well.
Planeta’s 2005 Merlot Sito dell’Ulmo ($31.99) from the Ulmo winery was tasted next. Usually produced from 100 per cent Merlot, this vintage had 5 per cent Petit Verdot added. Made in an Old World style, this is a full-bodied wine with soft tannins and a lush mouth feel. It would pair well with cheeses, duck, stews, burgers and grilled meats.
Last up was the 2006 Syrah Maroccoli ($32.49), which Murray said was one of her favourites.
This complex, expressive and velvety wine has the flavours of red fruit and lots of spice, showing a good sense of the Sambuca di Sicilia vineyard terroir. It would pair well with pasta with tomato or meat sauces, most meats – especially lamb – cheese and even a chicken dish like coq au vin.
In addition to producing great wines, Planeta, like many Italian wineries, also produces high-grade olive oils. Murray brought Planeta’s D.O.P Val di Mazara – a de-stoned, single variety olive oil – with her to lunch for everyone to try.
“Each area of Italy has its own quality olive oil and they’re all very different,” she said, noting that they one she brought had distinctive flavours of fresh cut green grass and green tomatoes.