It may well have been the Phoenicians who first grew wine in Sicily. The ancient mariners founded colonies in the western part of the island as early as 1000 B.C.—including what became the cities of Marsala and Palermo. Accustomed to making wine at home in Canaan, the Phoenicians traded it around the Mediterranean, and they carried vines and enological expertise to their colonies. Greeks arrived in the eastern part of Sicily by about 800 B.C., however, and most wine authorities give them credit for establishing viticulture there.
According to Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, vineyards were flourishing around the Greek settlements by the fifth century B.C., and Sicily may have played a key role in the development of viticulture on the Italian peninsula. Robinson writes, “Vines from Morgantina and Tauromenium were transplanted to Pompei around Vesuvius, the Colli Albani, and southern Etruria, where they were well established by the second century B.C.”
Indeed, Sicilian wines were among the finest of antiquity. Karen MacNeil reports that by the time of the Roman Empire, “the sweet Sicilian wine known as mamertine was highly admired by the ruling class and is said to have been the favorite wine of Julius Caesar.”
Situated smack at the center of the Mediterranean, Sicily was a veritable magnet for invaders. The Elymians, Sicani and Siculi peoples were there in the Bronze Age, before the advent of the Phoenicians and Greeks. The Romans arrived in about 200 B.C. After the Roman era, Vandals, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, Hohenstaufens, Catalans and Spaniards appeared in turn, leaving traces of their stays in place names, architecture and the diverse Sicilian cuisine.
Agriculture has been the basis of the Sicilian economy for millennia, especially production of citrus fruit, olive oil and grain.
Writing in Italian Regional Cooking, Ada Boni observes that wheat “has always been an important product, and although Naples is now the main pasta-making center, it is here in Sicily that it was first made. There are references to maccaruni, the name given to the original pasta, in records dating from as far back as 1250.”
Notwithstanding its eminence in antiquity, Sicilian wine generally has had a poor reputation in modern times. (Marsala, a fortified wine from the region surrounding the eponymous city, was a notable exception.) Waverly Root wrote disparagingly in The Food of Italy in the 1970s that most “Sicilian wines are coarse and heavy, and are used chiefly for blending.” In fact, Sicilian winegrowers tended to favor volume over quality, pushing yields and producing huge quantities of “ultracheap vino da tavola,” as Karen MacNeil put it. Fortunately, this has changed—thanks in large measure to a man named Diego Planeta.
Scion of an old Sicilian family, Planeta was for many years president of Cantine Settesoli, a cooperative that today is the largest winemaking enterprise in Sicily. (Planeta’s father was one of the founding members in 1958.) Diego Planeta became president in 1972, continuing in the position for four decades.
In an interview with Salvatore Falzone, Planeta recalled the challenge he faced in his early years at Settesoli—modernization: “I understood that enology had to change,” he said. “We couldn’t just keep on crushing grapes with our feet. From the Arab era to the postwar period, agriculture hadn’t changed at all here.
“We had the same farming, the same methods of cultivation, the same methods of irrigation. The tools for tilling the soil were still those invented by the Arabs. We had to change.”
Planeta led his company to adopt modern winemaking technology, and he encouraged grape growers to improve agricultural methods and to begin making more red wine, sparking a renaissance in Sicilian winemaking that continues to this day.
In the mid-1990s, after decades at the helm of Settesoli, Planeta decided it was time to start a family wine business. Working with Alessio, Francesca and Santi Planeta, members of the next generation of the Planeta clan, he established the Planeta company in 1995.
Planeta has become one of Sicily’s leading wine enterprises. Today it operates six wine-producing estates in six parts of Sicily. In addition to making wines from international varietals like Chardonnay and Syrah, the company emphasizes its “heritage of native varieties.”
After attending an intriguing presentation by Francesca Planeta, we wanted to taste some of Planeta’s wines again. We focused on wines made of indigenous Sicilian varietals in the southern part of Sicily.
Nero d’Avola, the “black grape of Avola,” is named for the coastal town of Avola (AHvoh- lah) south of Syracuse in the southeastern tranche of the triangular island. The climate is hot and arid. The soil is white. Avola is not far from the town of Noto, where the Planeta family has established a winery.
The Planeta Santa Cecilia DOC Noto 2010 ($42), 100 percent Nero d’Avola, is dark in color, as one would expect. Its bouquet is full of dark fruit—plums in particular—with a twinkle of citrus rind to perk things up. The flavor is fruity— blackberries with subtexts of strawberries and black raspberries— sustained by suave tannin, a hint of tea and a touch of licorice.
Planeta advises that this Nero d’Avola expresses “elegance, power, balance and emphasis on the unique aromas of Sicily, and now is finally a point of reference for red wines from indigenous Sicilian grapes.”
The town of Vittoria is located to the west of Noto, close to the coast, about 100 miles north of the island of Malta. Wikipedia provides the curious information that “The town’s womenfolk are known to still do intricate embroideries, first adopted during the period of Arab rule in Sicily.” The principal red varietals grown around Vittoria are Nero d’Avola and Frappato.
Planeta Frappato DOC Vittoria 2013 ($24) is 100 percent Frappato. Glowing a pleasant dark-cherry color in the glass, it offers an unusual bouquet that combines fragrances of lavender and apricots with a subtle yeast element. Tangy, with flavors of herbs and citrus, it is a wine for contemplative drinkers who will savor it through dinner and into the evening.
According to regulations, wines known as Cerasuolo di Vittoria must be a blend of Frappato and Nero d’Avola, roughly half and half, with Nero d’Avola generally predominating. Cerasuolo means “cherry like.”
The magnificent Planeta Dorilli Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG 2012 ($33) earned a Tre Bicchieri rating (the highest) from the editors of Gambero Rosso’s 2015 Italian Wines, who described the cherry-red offering as “fresh and fruity with a complex nose.” The bouquet might remind one of plums, orange rind and peaches, but the flavor immediately evokes tart cherries, with additional hints of bitter orange, violets and tea that linger on the tongue.
This is a wonderful food wine. We paired it with arancine, a Sicilian specialty we love. We could equally well have paired it with tuna or couscous.
Several years ago, Francesca Planeta had the idea of publishing a family cookbook. She got in touch with Elisia Menduni, an Italian food writer. Menduni met with “the three aunts of casa Planeta,” cooked with them, and began transcribing their recipes, gradually augmented by suggestions from other members of the extended family. The cookbook was published in Italian and now has been released in English as Sicilia: The Cooking of Casa Planeta. It includes stunning photographs by Adriano Brusaferri. If you would like to cook authentic Sicilian specialties to accompany Sicilian wines, this is a good place to find the recipes.
According to Diego Planeta, “Sicily has everything, really everything. I have traveled the world. And I can say that no region has the same possibilities as Sicily: the geographical position, its history, its beauty, its climate.” And thanks to Planeta and his family, it has the wonderful wines we enjoyed.
Robert Calvert drinks and writes in Chicago. Questions or comments? Email Robert: RBCalvert@att.net.