Nero d’Avola Is the New Chianti

Thankfully, Sicily still has a long way to go before it’s the next Tuscany.

Enologically speaking, northern and southern Italy might as well be two different countries. Tourists flock to Florence and the perfectly manicured vineyards of Tuscany, while in the south, it's not unusual to see bombed-out ruins from World War II still littering the fields, some of which have gone to rot due to piss-poor equipment. However, vineyard land in northern Italy has become scarce and expensive, so investment money is moving south to areas like Sicily, which has just as rich a winemaking tradition as the north. A newfound interest in the island's rare grapes has produced wines that have critics and wine geeks taking note. Sicily is an outpost of hybridized Italian culture whose profound, simple food and vivacious wines show the influences of the Moors, Normans, and Greeks who have conquered the island. Given an enological history dating back more than 4,000 years and a warm, dry climate moderated by the sea, the flavors of Sicilian wines are nothing short of personality plus. On an island known for seafood, capers, and pecorino, you'd think white wines might dominate, but it is red wine, and specifically the black (nero) grape of Avola, that's turning heads in the wine world. Lesser-known grapes such as nero d'Avola have crept into the hearts of American wine lovers over the past few years, as comfort with Italian wines increases and as the press covers them more frequently. Comparing nero d'Avola to the sangiovese grape of Chianti is a good reference point. Sangiovese makes bright wines, full of red fruit like tart cherry and pomegranate, with a great acidic finish that makes it perfect for food. Nero d'Avola can be just as lively as sangiovese, but it has more black fruit flavors like tart plum and wild berries, as well as some spice and the same self-cleaning acidity that allows it to pair with spicy eggplant caponata or veal Marsala. If ever a red could be said to taste sun-kissed, it's nero d'Avola. Pockets of nero d'Avola grow all around Sicily, and the slight differences in climate determine the richness and fruit intensity of the island's wines. Most nero d'Avola wines in Sicily have no D.O.C. (denominazione di origine controllata), meaning they're not labeled by geographical area, as Chianti wines are. The bonus for consumers is that many Sicilian red wines list the nero d'Avola grape on the front label, making them much easier to spot on the shelf. One of the most reliable labels for nero d'Avola comes from Caltanissetta, a farming community smack in the middle of Sicily. Another winery worth seeking out is Tasca d'Almerita, which makes several wines wholly or partly based on nero d'Avola. Owned by a real count and countess, Tasca d'Almerita has long championed local grapes. Their commitment to the land, their community, and their indigenous Sicilian varietals helped put Sicily on the radar of international wine drinkers. The winery's Regaleali Rosso (Tasca's second label, named after the estate) remains one of the best introductions to nero d'Avola—dark purple fruit with tons of impact and a clean finish that marries well with all sorts of foods. I have to admit that it tastes best straight from the winery, out of a petrol pump that locals use to fill their jugs. Sicily has a long way to go before it's the next Tuscany, and mille grazie for that, but its wines are more popular than ever—and easier to find. Look for labels like Morgante, Cusumano, or Donnafugata, all retailing in the teens or less. There's great value in drinking off the beaten path, but perhaps, in the case of Sicilian wine, not for long.

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