Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Planeta Winery: Still More Indigenous Treasures of Sicily

Homer's famous epic poem, The Odyssey, details the ten-year journey of Odysseus as he attempts to return home from the Trojan War. During that lengthy trek, he stopped at the island of Sicily, encountering Polyphemus, a giant Cyclops who lived on Mount Etna. Polyphemus was the son of the Poseidon, a sea god, and Thoosa, a sea nymph, and spent his time as a shepherd, raising many sheep. The island ran wild with grape vines, which were untended by anyone on the island, and it seems Polyphemus drank some type of weak wine.

To his horror, Odysseus learned that Polyphemus was a man-eater when the Cyclops captured him and some of his men. Each day, the Cyclops ate a couple of those sailors. Clever Odysseus possessed a wine skin of a undiluted, honeyed red wine which had a high alcohol content. Odysseus convinced the Cyclops to drink the strong wine, which eventually caused the giant to fall asleep. Then, Odysseus and his men drove a sharp stake into the Cyclops' single eye, blinding him, and allowing them the opportunity to escape.

Alessio Planeta (pictured above), of Planeta Winery, related this tale to us at a recent media wine tasting lunch at Ostra. It was intended to illustrate the ancient change on Sicily, when the people first began to tend to grape vines rather than letting them run wild. It was the start of their wine industry, laying the foundation for few thousand years of vinous history. And it also illustrated how wine might save your life, albeit there aren't any Cyclops running around the world.

I first met Alessio four years ago and tasted a number of his wines, providing my thoughts in my article, Planeta Wines: Indigenous Treasures of Sicily. Two years later, I attended another Planeta event, tasting some different wines, and penned my feelings in Planeta Wines: More Indigenous Treasures of Sicily. I recommend you read those articles for more background on Planeta though I'll provide a brief summary here

Planeta Wines is 22 years old, having been founded in 1995 by three cousins: Alessio, Francesca and Santi Planeta. They now own 6 distinct wine estates, totaling about 390 hectares of vineyards, across Sicily, including Ulmo at Sambuca di Sicilia, Dispensa at Menfi, Dorilli at Vittoria, Buonivini at Noto, Sciara Nuova on Etna at Castiglione di Sicilia, and La Baronia at Capo Milazzo. They are devoted to environmental sustainability, and continue to work at making their wineries as environmentally friendly as possible. The reason they do so is: "Because the land and the environment are a collective benefit as well as the company’s heritage, and it is a duty to make every effort to preserve it."

Alessio Planeta is personable and down to earth, passionate about wine and Sicily. He is the the Chief Winemaker at Planeta, and has also been working to identify unique terroirs in Sicily. For this event, Alessio's primary purpose was to showcase the different expressions of Nero d'Avola, highlighting the different terroirs of Sicily.

Sicily, which covers nearly 10,000 square miles, is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and it is roughly equivalent in size to the Champagne region of France. It is also about four times larger than the combined size of Sonoma and Napa counties. If nothing else, Sicily's great size should be a significant clue that Sicily likely possesses multiple terroirs, a land with a variety of soil types and microclimates.

Though back in 1880, there were about 322,000 hectares of vineyards, today there are only about 100,000 hectares, with 62% planted on hillsides. Sicily has about 19 Local/Regional grapes, 9 ancient grapes and 5 international ones. Approximately 64% of their vineyards are planted with white grapes, 36% with red, and the vineyards are also broken down 80% with local/regional grapes and 20% with international grapes. The top three most planted grapes include Catarratto Bianco (33%), Nero d'Avola (16%) and Grillo (6.5%). The island is divided into 1 DOC Sicilia, 22 Local DOC and 1 DOCG. About 5.1 Million hectoliters of wine are produced annually, roughly 57 million cases.

Harvest extends for three months, from August (often when they start picking Chardonnay) through October (when they are picking the Nerello Mascalese). Planeta has estates in five different regions of Sicily, each with their own unique soil type. In Menfi, their estates include Ulmo and Dispensa, totaling about 251 hectares, and their first harvest was in 1985. Menfi has clay-calcareous soils. In, Vittoria, they own the Dorilli estate, consisting of 34 hectares, and their first harvest was in 2001. Vittorio has marine-calcareous soils. In Noto, they own the Buonivini estate, consisting of 51 hectares, and their first harvest was in 1998. Noto has calcareous soils. In Etna (which has the tallest active volcano in Europe), they own the Sciaranuova estate, consisting of 28 hectares, and their first harvest was in 2012. Etna has volcanic soils. In Capo Milazzo, they own the La Baronia estate, consisting of 8 hectares, and their first harvest was in 2013.

The origins of the Nero d'Avola grape are murky, with its first documented reference in 1696, and on Sicily, it is thought the grape first took hold in the Noto DOC and spread from there. Alessio feels that Nero d'Avola is one of the iconic grapes that represents the best of Italy. Nero d'Avola expresses itself differently dependent on the soil and terroir and Alessio pointed out four different expressions. In Menfi, you find a softer wine with notes of plum, chocolate, and mint, and in Vittoria, you get lots of freshness with notes of strawberry and cherry. In Noto, you'll find notes of currants, balsamic, carob, and incense while in Capo Milazzo, you'll get a fresh, velvety wine with notes of black cherry, and citrus.

Prior to being seated, we stood around chatting, enjoying a glass of 2015 Eruzione 1614 Carricante and some passed appetizers. The Eruzione 1614 takes its name from a massive volcanic eruption, which lasted ten years. It is made from 90% Carricante and 10% Riesling, and the vineyards are located at an altitude of about 860 meters. The wine sees only stainless steel and remains on the lees until March of the year after harvest. It was fresh and crisp, with pleasing green apple and citrus flavors with a backbone of minerality. An excellent seafood wine.

Fortunately, many of the passed appetizers were seafood based, from lobster ravioli to hamachi. Every one of the appetizers was delicious and it was hard not to load up on those small bites, despite knowing we would be having a full lunch. I haven't dined at Ostra before, and this event persuaded me that I need to return soon to experience their regular menu.

For the more formal tasting, we went through nine wines, and the first was the 2015 Frappato DOC Vittoria ($22). I previously tasted the 2013 vintage, and this new vintage was similar in many respects except there was less smokiness and more of a balsamic characteristic. It was still light and fruity, easy drinking and delicious, with a nice complexity. It's worthy of a hearty recommendation.

We then moved onto the 2014 Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG ($24), a blend of 60% Nero d'Avola and 40% Frappato, and we also tasted the 2007 vintage ($24). I previously tasted the 2004, 2010 and 2011 vintages, and raved about the amazing 2004 vintage, giving it my highest recommendation. The young 2014 vintage was delicious, with plenty of deep red fruit flavors, accented by pepper spice and savory notes. With more aging, this wine should develop very well, and could reach the quality of the 2004. The 2007 vintage had a touch of apparent sweetness, despite not possessing any significant residual sugar. It was enjoyable but didn't seem to possess the complexity and potential of the 2014.

The 2014 Dorilli Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG ($33) is a blend of 70% Nero d'Avola and 30% Frappato. I previously tasted the 2011 vintage and it was an excellent wine that I strongly recommended. About 30% of the wines from this DOCG come from the Classico subzone. Though it sees some barrel aging, it remains fresh with more concentrated red fruit flavors, mild spice and a touch of balsamic savoriness. It is a more powerful wine, yet still possesses an elegance. A well balanced and delicious wine.

One of my favorite wines of the event was produced from a rare, indigenous grape which was new to me. The 2015 Nocera Sicilia DOC is made from 100% Nocera, an old variety which has nearly died out, with only about 10-15 hectares worldwide. The grape commonly has good acidity, prominent tannins, high alcohol, and often has an aroma of dark fruit flavors, leather and spice. Planeta only makes about 5,000 bottles of this wine and it is not yet available in the U.S. though that will change in the near future. The grapes comes from the La Baronia vineyard in Capo Millazo, which consists of only 8 hectares. Due to the location of the vineyard, surrounded on three sides by the sea, they can't make the vineyard any larger, so they are limited to how much Nocera can be planted.

With a compelling aroma of black fruit, spice and mild floral notes, this was an impressive wine, with tasty flavors of plum and black cherry, enhanced by a spicy backbone. The tannins were well integrated, the finish was long and pleasing, and it possessed a nice acidity. With plenty of complexity, it seduced my palate and I would highly recommend it.

The Nocera grape is also used in a blend, the 2014 Nero d'Avola Nocera Sicilia DOC ($26), which has 70% Nero d'Avola and 30% Nocera. This wine presented with a more subdued aroma, greater spice and floral notes on the palate, though in many ways it was similar to the single varietal Nocera. If I had to choose, I'd give my preference to the single varietal Nocera.

We then moved onto Nero d'Avola, tasting three different wines, all from the Noto DOC.  The 2012 Noto Nero d'Avola DOC ($26), made from 100% Nero d'Avola, is more of their introductory Nero d'Avola from this region, but you'll find it is a delicious and compelling wine. Beautiful red and black fruit flavors, bold spices and a savory balsamic element will delight your palate. Well integrated tannins, a lengthy finish and a hint of earthiness complete the picture. Strongly recommended.

Next, we tasted two vintages, the 2010 and 2011 of the Santa Cecilia Noto DOC ($45), which is also made from 100% Nero d'Avola. Both wines were tasty, with ripe black fruit flavors, milder spice notes, an herbal aspect, a balsamic element and some underlying black tea notes. Plenty of complexity, a long and pleasing finish, and well integrated tannins. The main difference between the vintages was a bit of blueberry and stronger spice notes in the 2011. Both earn my strong recommendation.

With our lunch, we received pours of 3 vintages (2005, 2007 and 2011) of Planeta’s Santa Cecilia, a single vineyard cru Nero d’Avola from Noto. I've previously tasted the 2005, 2007 and 2009 vintages and my favorite has been the 2005, though both the 2007 and 2009 were excellent and highly recommended. Once again, the 2005 vintage was my favorite, an absolutely compelling wine that intrigued and pleased my palate in many ways. It worked with both seafood and beef, and is one of those wines you can slowly sip all evening, revelling in its complexity and deliciousness. The 2007 was also excellent though I found the 2011 to be a bit more austere with a stronger herbal/vegetal element.

For lunch, I enjoyed the Lobster Risotto, with heirloom squash puree, which was filled with lots of sweet lobster meat. The rice was cooked perfectly, just that right consistency, and the broth was delicious and flavorful. One of the best Risottos I've had in some time.

The Grilled Filet Mignon, with Pommes Puree, Roasted Shallot, Mushroom & Garlic, was meaty and tender, with a savory crust. Ostra may be primarily a seafood spot but they know how to prepare an excellent piece of beef. And it went perfectly with the Nero d'Avola.

We ended the lunch with a trio of desserts, including Chocolate Mousse Bombe, Vanilla Flan, and Lemon Cream with Fresh Berries. The Bombe was my favorite, with its rich chocolate.

I continue to be impressed with the diverse wines produced by Planeta Winery and find it fascinating to explore the different terroir expressions of the various regions of Sicily. From Nocera to Nero d'Avola, there is plenty that any wine lover will enjoy. Seek out these wines and learn more about what Sicily can deliver.

No comments: