Monday, 7 August 2006

A Message from Sicily

Back brown and breathless from our Star Flyer cruise: Rome - Ischia - Paestum - Lipari - Palermo - Marsala -Ponza - Rome. 120 members on board. Nearly 120 wines tasted. Nearly 100 degrees in Palermo.

We had a series of on-deck tutored tastings to show dozens of our favourite wines; they showed wonderfully well; so no doubts about combining wine and the sea. The food on board, too, was even better than in our previous two experiences of the Star Clippers, with unimaginable buffet lunches and barbecues - all done, it turned out, by a team under two sous-chefs, a Philippino and a Jamaican, the chef being on holiday.

What did we learn, apart from the fact that Club Members have extraordinary stamina? First of all, that southern Italy and Sicily have to count among the hot spots of New World wine. They have the great advantage over the conventional New World of Australasia and the Americas of having a quiverful of native grape varieties. Yes, they can do Chardonnay and Shiraz, but who else can do Fiano and Grillo and Falaghina and Catarratto and Aglianico and Nero d'Avola and Negroamaro?

What were unknown, even barbaric names 10 years ago are now the characters and the rationale behind new-minted delicacies. When they were made under primitive conditions they gave pretty indelicate results. But we, via Brussels, have poured zillions into the treasuries of the Mezzogiorno, have not asked too many questions, and are now beginning to collect our dividend.

The evolution of Sicilian and South Italian wine has been fast-forwarded to amazing effect. Natural selection gradually produced vines well-adapted to local conditions. Extreme heat is not the only one. Drought is another, and high on the mountain slopes, extremes of every kind.

The new generation of wine-makers has gone straight to the point. Traditional methods, if there were any, were usually hokum. Modern oenology could use the aromas, flavours and structure of these grapes to far better effect. Result: a break-out from the Chardonnay/Sauvignon rut; juicy robust alternatives to Cabernet and Shiraz, Merlot and Pinot Noir. They use them straight or think up blends. In Sicily we even had a blend of Nero d'Avola and Pinot Noir - and rather good it was, too.

Two landmark tastings tell the story. Both will go down in history. The first, at a buffalo farm (milk for mozzarella) near Paestum, brought together The Club's suppliers from central and southern Italy, from Chianti to Pescara to Salento to Naples. This was relatively familiar territory seen in a new light, from Farnese's delicate touch with Chardonnay to the sweet thunder of a Selvarossa Riserva from Puglia.

The second was in the stately drawing-rooms of the baroque palazzo Malvagna in the narrow streets of old Palermo, on an afternoon when the Celsius thermometer flirted with forty. In the tradition of Club mini-festivals we had invited fifteen different Sicilian producers. The aristocracy of the island were there, their coats of arms flashing proudly on their new-minted labels.

The wines were a revelation. Europe has a great new wine country. Most of us have drunk Corvo and heard of Regaleali, but what about Firiaco's Harmonium (all Nero d'Avola)? Or Scyri? Or Planeta's Corneta (all Fiano, like gentle honeyed melon)? Or Vigna di Gabri from Donnafugata (all Ansonica, firm, almondy, big and appetizing)? There was Grillo from Chiaramonte, Insola from Almerita, Cataratto from Rapitalà.

Getting confused? Me too. But give us time to sort it out. We have hit a seam of exotic delights none of us suspected - and we shall all be the beneficiaries.

Hugh Johnson,
Club President

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