Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Planeta Wines: Indigenous Treasures of Sicily

Carricante, Frappato, Grecanico, Nera d'Avola, Nerello Mascalese. Bring on those indigenous Italian grapes and let me taste their uniqueness. You can find Cabernet Sauvignon almost anywhere in the world, but these grapes are almost exclusively found in Italy. Thus, when I received a media invite to a luncheon with Alessio Planeta of Planeta Wines in Sicily, to taste wines made from some of these indigenous grapes, I was eager to attend.

The event was held at Legal Harborside, which I had not previously visited, and it is an impressively designed restaurant. Three stories, lots of glass and the back looks out on the harbor, which can be a stunning view dependent on the weather. The first floor is intended to be more casual while the second floor is more elegant, and the third floor is a year round deck lounge.

On the second floor, there is a large and clean open kitchen. I do love open kitchens.

The dining room on the second floor is elegant, with great windows so that you can benefit from the view of the water. A nice place for a romantic date, a business meeting, or a gathering of friends.

On the second floor, there is also an outside deck area, which would be a perfect place for dining during the summer. It is here where we began our exploration of the wines of Planeta, which owns six wineries in Sicily.

Planeta Wines is less than 20 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, pictured above, was personable and down to earth, obviously passionate about wine and Sicily. He is the the Chief Winemaker at Planeta, and has also been working to identify unique terroirs in Sicily. Interestingly, the harvest in Sicily can take about 3 months, especially as the Carricante often won't get picked until the later part of October. Though Sicily is well known for its red wines, Alessio feels that white wines do very well too, and based on what we tasted, I would wholeheartedly agree with him.

Though Sicily has intriguing indigenous grapes, and Planeta produces wines from many of them, they have also introduced some international grapes as well, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc. They believe that wineries worldwide are often judged based on wines made from such grapes, as well as the fact that consumers are far more willing to purchase wines made from those grapes rather than some exotic Italian grapes. It is much easier to sell a Chardonnay than a Carricante. I understand their reasoning, but for me, it is those indigenous grapes which I find the most compelling. It is the indigenous grapes to me which often seem to best reflect the terroir.

As we mingled on the outside patio, we got to sample the NV Etna Brut, which is produced from 100% Carricante from the Mount Etna region. Carricante, also known as Catanese Bianco, is a white grape thought to extend back to the 9th century and is primarily found in the Etna region. It is a late maturing grape, thrives in high altitudes and has a high acidity which allows it to age well. Mount Etna is the largest active volcano in Europe, and the third largest in the world. Its black lava sands contain a rich mineral content, which tends to produce wines that show strong mineral notes. The Carricante vineyard consists of 16 hectares, located at an altitude of about 870 meters.

This is the first vintage of this Brut, only 6000 bottles were produced and it is not yet available in the U.S. It remains on the lees for at least 12 months before disgorgement and has an alcohol content of 12.5%. This was a delicious sparkling wine, crisp and clean with flavors of green apple, lemon and a thread of minerality. A fine apertif, it would pair well with a variety of foods as well, from seafood to cheese. Though it isn't available here yet, it was educational to experience the potential of the indigenous Carricante. As I believe this was the first time I had ever tasted a wine made from this grape, I was impressed.

My education on the Carricante continued, as I got to taste a still wine as well. As we watched a short video about Planeta, with gorgeous imagery of Sicily, we sampled the 2010 Carricante ($36), a white, still wine also made from 100% Carricante. It remains on the lees until the February after harvest when it is then bottled. It has a light gold color with an exciting aroma of apples and floral notes. On the palate, it was crisp, clean and complex with a dominant steely minerality and subtle fruit flavors, including pear and green apple. A lengthy and satisfying finish, this would be an excellent seafood wine and it should age very well too. Another stunning wine, I would heartily recommend it.

It was then time to sit for lunch and the first course was a delicious Ricotta Gnocchi with truffle and squash. There was a delectable creaminess, enhanced by the earthiness of the truffles, and it was paired with two wines, a 1998 Chardonnay and the 2010 Cometa. The 14 year old Chardonnay still possessed a good amount of life, and was enjoyable, but still could have been produced almost anywhere. I was more interested in the 2010 Cometa ($43), which is made 100% Fiano and sees no oak. The Cometa was aromatic with an intriguing taste, a complex blend of more tropical fruits, a touch of honey and a backbone of minerality. It paired well with the dish, and though pricey, should appeal to a wine lover seeking something more unique.

As we savored a superb and creamy Lobster Soup with a puff pastry, we enjoyed two wines, different vintages, 2004 and 2010, of the Cerasuolo di Vittoria, which is a blend of 60% Nero d'Avola and 40% Frappato. The 2004 was an amazing wine, with its enticing aroma of dark berries and earthy notes that led to its seductive and complex flavors. Black and blue fruits, minerality, hints of herbs and other tantalizing yet elusive flavors that flitted back and forth in my mouth. Smooth, with nice acidity, the finish was lengthy and satisfying. My highest recommendation, especially considering the price of the latest vintage. The 2010 ($23) is a bigger wine, with stronger tannins, and doesn't seem as complex. It was still tasty, with more red fruit flavors, but I think the wine might benefit from a bit of aging. If it ultimately becomes like the 2004, it will be a killer wine.

With a course of Roasted Sablefish, we drank two different vintages, 2005 and 2007, of the Santa Cecilia, produced from 100% Nero d'Avola. This wine generally sees 12 months aging in French Allier oak, 2nd and 3rd use. The 2005 was excellent, with a spicy aroma and a light, easy drinking style despite its complexity. Delicious red fruits, spice accents and mild tannins. The 2007 ($43) is a bigger wine though not a powerhouse. A similar flavor profile, though with brighter, bolder elements. I would love to drink these wines with a hearty pasta dish. Another strong recommendation.

The Roasted Beef Tenderloin with blue cheese, pureed potatoes, and port wine sauce was superb, a tender, flavorful slice of beef with an addictive sauce. The two wines with this course were the 2004 and 2006 Burdese, a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Cabernet Franc. These wines did nothing for me, and I felt they had too much of a green pepper/vegetal taste for my own preferences, though others seemed to enjoy them.

For dessert, the Mocha Macadamia Mousse Cake was rich, chocolaty and sweet, as well as beautifully presented. The 2010 Nerello, from Mount Etna, was produced from 100% Nerello Mascalese and aged in oak barriques for 8-10 months. This is its first vintage and it possessed a very light red color with a strong cherry aroma. On the palate, it was light, lively and elegant, with touches of cherry and spice. A fine ending to the dinner, and it did pair well with the chocolate.

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