Rediscovering Sicilian Terroir





Terroir 
noun 
· The complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate. 
 
Terroir is undoubtedly fashionable and occasionally misused but rarely is this lofty notion better epitomised than in Sicily. Dig beneath this breathtaking island’s relatively recent reputation for producing bulk wines, and it’s abundantly clear that Sicily’s magically diverse climates provide the perfect tapestry for producing eloquent and original statements of variety and place. A collective and purposeful focus on realising the sheer potential of Sicily has yielded wines of elegance, refinement and expression. By reining in the past excesses of an island the ancient Greeks called Oenotria (Land of Trained Vines), and by using a sensitive and enlightened winemaking approach, Sicily is now producing consistently graceful and contemporary wines that have been crafted in a traditional fashion.

Leading this stylistic evolution has been winemakers like the prodigiously talented Nicola Tucci and the stunning wines from Costanza Di Mineo. Steeped in tradition and made in vineyards that have been passed down through generations of the same family since 1750, the Costanza Di Mineo wines bridge this palpable sense of the past by introducing modern, innovative and biodynamic winemaking practices. Thanks to new oenological and viticultural techniques that respect the natural life cycle of the vines and the unique Sicilian environment, the company are producing organic wines of exceptional character.

The aforementioned Tucci believes the identity of Sicily is so evidently palpable that as winemaker for Costanza Di Mineo, his principal role was to minimise viticulture and intervention in order to maximise terroir expression.

“Terroir is a curious blend of heat and composition of the soil. There is a component of individual interpretation in terroir, like at what point you decide to pick the grapes or when you decided to do something differently in the vineyard,” Tucci explains, “But I believe Sicilian wines are so full of personality that the terroir of Sicily is beyond individual interpretation in many respects.”

He continued: “When you are dealing with such big personalities you cannot impose something. Terroir in Sicily is so full of personality that you can just be coerced by it. It’s like when you have a great student, you can make them improve slightly but all of the talent and rich potential is there. You just need to allow it to rise to the surface and to flourish. Create the road together in order to realise the greatest potential.”

“Expressions of Sicily with no compromise”

A sense of place requires restraint on the part of the winemaker and the collaboration between Tucci and viticulturalist, Pino Oddo, who has more than 30-years’ experience in Sicily has been founded on their mutual efforts to create wines of individuality and greater finesse.

“The Costanza Di Mineo wines were an attempt to reflect, from the grape to the glass, the purest expressions of Sicily with no compromise.” Tucci explains. “We wanted to show a wholesome representation of the fruits of the island, and where possible, without personal winemaking interpretation, in order to illustrate the varied scope of the fruits of Sicily.
 
 
 1,000 metres above sea level in Corleone 

“The purity of Grillo when its ripe and fresh at the same time, the virtuousness and intensity of Viognier, the elegant richness of Nero D’Avola and the spiciness of Syrah. The light and elegant tenacity of Petit Verdot; in every example we were true to the grape and endeavoured to show it without compromise and with no artificial structure built in. Between the purity of the grape to the consumer we have been true to this aspiration.”

The maverick winemaking talent and visionary spirit of Tucci, coupled with Oddo’s knowledge of the varied soil characteristics of Sicily, is patently and deliciously obvious in the Costanza Di Mineo range. The selective sourcing of the finest grapes and by having an inherent understanding of the components that affect colour, aroma and palate structure - such as increased altitude where the intensity of the sunlight increases - has enabled them to harness the natural growing conditions in Sicily to produce a plethora of outstanding wines.

Crucial to shaping these beautiful nuances is Tucci’s fundamental belief that a winemaker must, “respect the cradle,” of the vineyard. “My mission is to try and be faithful, like a sculptor that is shaping a block of marble, to the beauty that is already present in the vineyards.”

Whether it’s the big structured and evocatively succulent Cor Leon Nero d’Avola, or international varietals like the elegantly perfumed and beautifully crafted Costanza Di Mineo San Luca Chardonnay, the wines are all unmistakably Sicilian. There has been a noticeable evolution towards a more sophisticated style, particularly in the whites, and yet the wines remain inviting and eminently drinkable.

At the International Wine Challenge awards in May, tank samples of the Costanza Di Mineo Cor Leon Grillo, and the Magnus Siculus – a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Nero D’Avola blend - defied their embryonic guises to secure Bronze medals. These recent endorsements suggests there is an increasing appetite to discover the distinctive terroirs of Sicily and, intriguingly, not just their beautiful array of indigenous varietals.

“Sicily has the capacity to bring out the best in so many different grapes”
 
Tucci, who has also worked as a winemaker in Spain, Australia and South Africa, believes that although Sicily’s undoubted strength lies in her magnificent native grapes like Grillo, Nero D’Avola and Catarratto, they are now producing outstandingly unique expressions of international varieties.

“I consider Viognier a Sicilian varietal, even though it’s not, because it’s fantastically adaptable to the Sicilian climate and I really enjoy working with it. I obviously love the Nero D’Avola and Catarratto grapes but Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah are really prospering in the Sicilian climate too. Sicily really does have the capacity to bring out the best in so many different grapes because of its amazing terroir.

“Merlot and Cabernet, for example, are such international varietals that have found homes all over the world, but in Sicily they are producing such peculiar expressions that are just so unique and very much new assertions of themselves. They are really interesting interpretations.”

Creating elegance and sustaining nuance, both from obscure indigenous and international grape varietals, is a perpetual juggling act for a winemaker. Higher temperatures and intense spells of prolonged sunlight mean that the vineyard endeavours of Tucci and Oddo are largely based around protecting their vines from the sun and managing irrigation. When cultivating vines a thousand metres about sea level in the vineyards of Corleone, for example, negotiating the extreme temperature increase between night and day in order to sustain the natural acidity and freshness of the aromas, is absolutely crucial.

“In the hills, the harvest is almost a month before due to the rain, and you have to be very careful about the day you are picking. At sea level it’s perhaps the opposite problem because it’s really hot and you can lose the grapes’ taste. If they dry too quickly, you will end up with an excess of alcohol.”
 
 
 
 
 
“The aromas of Sicily just hit you”

More wine is produced annually in Sicily than Australia, New Zealand and Hungary combined which is remarkable when you consider how meticulously Tucci humours each individual grape varietal. 

“When you are working with Nero D’Avola you definitely have to wait for the fruit to be abundant because this is the signature of this grape.” The 37-year-old said, “It’s about timing and patience and applying your knowledge. It’s fundamental. Nero D’Avola is very thin-skinned so you can lose them in two days. You have to assess them all the time in order to be aware of what’s going on. Petit Verdot is very tannic so you have to wait for the last available moment for picking because otherwise they will be too green. With Grillo and Viognier you are waiting for them to reach their aromatic peak and if you don’t wait until that day, you will lose intensity and the flavour will diminish, which is the absolute goal of these varietals. If you lose a day or don’t pick at the right time the results can be compromised.” 

The fluctuating temperature at vineyard level is just one of the many variables a winemaker must master on this largely untameable island, perched precariously on the margins of Europe. At its widest point, between Messina and Marsala, Sicily measures 175 miles east to west and about one third that distance north to south. Trapani, a city on the west coast, is actually closer to Tunisia than Naples, meaning the Mediterranean climate is not the only adversary for a winemaker. 

“The worst thing is that you can lose your fruit quite quickly and almost unnoticed because of the varying weather factors that can be incredibly strong,” Tucci explains, “Even in arid places you can have unexpected rain or in cool climates very hot winds coming in from Africa, just days before harvest that can make you lose your entire crop. Or occasionally these unpredictable weathers can make the best vintage an incredible vintage. 
 
 

 
“In Sicily the character of the landscape and the weather makes conditions tough. You are at its mercy. A forty degree wind swelling in from Morocco could burn everything; you could have sudden rain, or a frozen night. So it’s about dealing with the weather, which is obviously quite tough.” 

On the flip side, and as aforementioned, Sicily can be a haven for a winemaker for almost exactly the same reasons. 

“The best thing about Sicily is that everything ripens almost every vintage.” Tucci, who completed his oenology studies in Germany, explains. “The array of local grape varietals that can flourish in Sicily, like Grillo, Nero D’Avola and Catarratto, they all get ripe and show their sexy aromas and such interesting and consumer friendly characteristics. When someone visits Sicily, it’s the whole experience - the landscapes, history, the wine - it’s an explosion of flavour. The aromas of Sicily just hit you and grab your attention and the wines are exactly the same.” 

“The jewel of the crown in the Mediterranean”

The enviable climate and topographical landscape of the Mediterranean’s biggest island, with its picturesque hills and lofty mountainous terrain, intense summer heat and low rainfall, has made Sicily a significant centre of viticulture for more than 2,500 years. When harnessed to its full potential, and when producers are not compromising on quality in order to satisfy demand, the stylistic breadth of the wines and nuanced terroirs are more than a match for the engaging stories, characters, and heritage of the wineries and regions responsible. 

“Sicily is inspiring but it’s tough and unforgiving at the same time.” Tucci said, “You can see the fantastic potential because in just a few kilometres you have such huge variation in aroma, temperature, minerality of the soils and altitude and you subsequently have wines that have the capacity to age well, like those at Etna or the wines of Costanza Di Mineo in Corleone. The landscape changes so much and so quickly. Even at sea level you can produce wines of unbelievable character that are expressing themselves with very noticeable differences. I compare it to two people of opposite characters coexisting as one. It produces an intriguing mesh.” 

Sicily was once regarded as the gastronomic epicentre of the classical Mediterranean world and travelling there remains a beautiful assault on the senses; there is a comehitherness about the sights, smells and tastes of Italy’s largest wine producing region. Sicily has an enveloping and tangible presence, and from the outset the fastidious Tucci endeavoured to articulate this romantic sentiment in the wines of Costanza Di Mineo. 

“Sicily is a beautiful blend of sunshine and deep aromatic fragrances. Sicily really inspires the senses. As a winemaker here it’s all about trying to capture and maintain the natural intensity of the landscape. At sea level or in the mountains there is always big personality, strong characters, great aromas and wonderful fragrances. Sicily through the ages has been one of the most utilised wine regions in the world; by the Greeks, the Romans, the Germans, the French and the Spanish because it is the jewel of the crown in the Mediterranean.”
 
 

 
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY 
 
“... one of the most exciting wine regions in Europe, blessed with a combination of abundant sunshine, varied terroirs, good indigenous grapes...” Tim Atkin MW
 
“Sicily is a world of wine in itself...” Olly Smith 
 
“…one of the most thrilling places I have ever visited.” Jancis Robinson MW 
 
“The search for Sicilian terroir demands an understanding of place beyond the conventional historical and cultural narratives.” From The World of Sicilian Wine, by Bill Nesto MW & Frances Di Savino
 
“Sicilian wine has been developing in quality and is now well established as one of Italy’s finest wine producing regions.” Jamie Oliver 
 


 
Article first appeared in Under the Skin Magazine, Summer Edition 2014. CellarVie Wines' quarterly print publication accompanies all orders on www.cellarviewines.com 
 


  
 

Written by: Ben Moss

Ben Moss 

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