Friday, October 03, 2014

Sicilian White Wines ~ Feeding the #HeatWave in the Cities by the Bay

Welcome to the New California
If you had asked me, so very long ago, when I was a student in the Bay Area, trying to figure out what the hell to do with my life, if many years later I’d be in Oakland talking about Sicilian wines to a new generation of servers and wine lovers, I’d probably have said then “And what pill did you just take?” But as the future moves like a river, happenstance and fate brought me to A16 in Oakland in the Rockridge neighborhood, not too far from Berkeley at the invitation of Shelley Lindgren. Shelley started A16 and SPQR in San Francisco and a little more than a year ago opened up A16 in Oakland.

I narrowly escaped a violent storm that rocked my home base of Dallas. San Francisco welcomed me with sun and heat. Lots of heat. Just the moment for white wines from Sicily.

Sicily's white wine is undergoing a fundamental transformation. First a little history.

It wasn’t all that long ago that white wine from Sicily (or Italy) came to the American shores in a rather sketchy manner. Temperature regulated fermentation had yet to appear in large numbers on the island. Refrigerated shipping containers ("reefers") were a rarity and cost prohibitive. I know. I ordered Italian wines in containers in the 1980’s while working for a small wholesale company. We had to time the shipments to arrive before April 1 and after October 1, just to make sure the wines, red and white, would arrive in good condition. But there were more times than one, when we’d open up the container door and see cases of wine with holes in the not-so sturdy paper cartons with holes in them from corks that just couldn’t be contained in the bottle or the carton. Not kidding!

Around this time, large wineries like Corvo had a winemaker from Piedmont, who radicalized white winemaking by installing “Northern Italian” temperature controlled stainless steel fermentation tanks. You know the ones that when you take a tour now in a winery everyone shakes their head because they’ve (we’ve?) all seen enough stainless steel?

The wind-up is that Corvo became a huge brand and a champion for Sicilian wines, both red and white. They probably sold more red, but the white was the first wine to come out of Sicily in a consistent manner without unintended oxidative qualities and in sturdy, stable packaging.

That was then.

Glass Vinolok© closure on the bottling line at Cusumano

Now the world is flatter. And faster. There is an abundance of clean white wines coming out of Sicily that are for everyday drinking; Cusumano, Donnafugata, Planeta, Rapitala, Regaleali and Stemmari, among others. And they are good standard-bearers in this new era.

Along with that, the financial and esthetic freedom exists to push the boundaries, stretch them a little, maybe even turn back the clock and try some of the old ways. And those were some of the wines we showcased last night at A16 Rockridge in Oakland.

A16 Rockridge's executive chef Rocky Maselli showing
tonight's Octopus special when it was still swimming
The staff for me is a confirmation that America is finally getting Italian wine. Man, do I wish I was 25 again (who doesn’t?) just to climb the hill with these folks in the next 25 or so years. Carricante doesn't scare them. Nor does Catarratto. A golden-hued dry aged Moscato from Pantelleria? Bring it on. With enthusiasm. The kid inside of me that used to trek to Berkeley in search of defining moments (it was after all the late 60’s) looked at the new kids on the block and he was grinning from ear to ear.

Shelley and her team have done a great job turning people on to these “imports.” In a locavore town, that ain't always easy. But curiosity knows no borders. Oh lord, am I getting all philosophical again? Well, I am back in my home state. It’s who I am.

Some of the wines we showed and served:

Marco de Bartoli Terzavia Metodo Classico Extra Brut Pas Dosé – not your grandfather’s Marsala. Deep, brooding, unctuous, oxidative. Harkens back to the spirit of Marsala, but as a sparkling and very dry expression.

I Custodi ANTƎ – I believe this label is now illegal, as the wine was not made in the Etna DOC zone, thus the use of the word Etna (even backwards) or a depiction of the volcano is not allowed. At least that is a vague recollection. Nonetheless, this is one of my favorite Etna “outlaw” whites from Salvo Foti.

Guccione Sicilia 'C' – from the Cataratto Extralucido clone. Vineyards near Palermo. This was the hairy armpit wine of the night. For me, really an old-style wine. Lots of oxidation, spicy, rich, baroque flavors. Native yeasts, organic farming practices. Even the cork and the bees wax bottle seal come from Sicily. Uber-local and while not for everyday, something to try, especially with eggplant, swordfish, sea urchin, octopus.

Terre di Pantelleria, 'Cinque Denti', Pantelleria Bianco 2006 – Was this wine “forgotten” in some warehouse? If so, what a happy accident. No, this is not an orange wine. What we found when opening the bottles was a rich color, the wonderful floral aromas of Zibbibo, a slight hint of mature, secondary notes like dried tuberose, lemon peel and orange blossom. Pantelleria in a bottle. Bone dry. Lovely. And yes, a bit of a vino da meditazione. So there.

Biondi 'Outis' Nessuno Etna Bianco – Carricante in majority (with Minella, Catarratto and Muscatella). On Etna again with the steely, nervous Carricante which has me wrapped around its finger.

Not white- but while the weather is warm why not a little more rosato?

I never tire of Murgo Brut Rose - Nerello Mascalese metodo classico. This wine once saved my life. A story for another time.

Girlolamo Russo's Etna Rosato was one of my highly sipped wines last night. I just cannot let rose wines go, and this one had such a lovely grip, great fruit, super balance. just a perfect wine for the moment.

Likewise, Graci's Etna Rosato showed very well on a warm evening in Oakland.

There were others and there was more ( including reds) but I have to get ready for tonight's event at A16 in San Francisco.

Come see Shelley and me and the gang at A16 tonight if you're free. It will be a standing-room-only movable-feast with the new white ( and rose' and red) wines of Sicily.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Mark Scudiery said...

Great post Alfonso. Many, many wines that I do not know that look terrific.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks, Mark.. you shouldn't have any problem finding them in NY/NJ area.

Jeremy - I figured you'd like Guccione wine - very unique.

thanks gents...

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