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Sicilian wines, many from the frappato grape, have become popular due to globalisation.

Sicilian wines, many from the frappato grape, have become popular due to globalisation.

Sicilian wines come into their own in the world's big wine buffet

Aug 3, 2018 5:50 AM

SO MUCH is new and different in wine that it seems a shame to pick a brand and stick with it.

It is, of course, important to know what you like. Who can be blamed for always ordering tikka masala at an Indian restaurant, much less the same glass of pinot grigio? We all have our favourites, yet with wine, the opportunities for pleasure are so endless nowadays that we can't help but preach the joys of the world's vast wine buffet.

Frappato from the Vittoria region of Sicily, is a perfect example. Though the frappato grape has been grown in Sicily for eons, it was virtually unknown to the rest of the world even at the turn of the 21st century. Wine writers around 2000 paid more attention to Sicilian sweet wines (like Marsala) than to dry reds. If they cited any red grape at all, it was most likely nero d'Avola. While it is true historically that Sicily's internationally best-known wines were sweet, I would guess relatively few people in the last 20 years have seen or consumed a Sicilian sweet wine.

A lot of bad ones are available, though, and the best known, Marsala, has unfortunately become a synonym for "cheap cooking wine". Good Marsalas, like those from De Bartoli, can be exquisite, though expensive.

The nero d'Avola became well known beyond Sicily in the 1990s, primarily because a few successful examples allowed Sicilian wine-makers to focus on it rather than cabernet sauvignons and merlots designed to earn approval in the export market.

While Sicilian nero d'Avolas back then won praise, many of the wines were heavy, out-of-balance or just plain bad. Now, the reputation is mixed for varietal nero d'Avola wines, though I have certainly had some excellent examples.

Nonetheless, nero d'Avola continues to be an important grape. In the south-east corner of Sicily around the city of Vittoria, it is often blended with frappato to produce what is now recognised as one of the island's best red wines, Cerasuolo di Vittoria.

Did frappato and other newly anointed Sicilian red grapes like nerello mascalese simply pop into being through puffs of magic?

Of course not.

They, along with nero d'Avola and many others, have long been grown on the island. For generations, they were made into bulk wines and shipped to northern Italy or France, where they were used to add color and power to local wines deemed too anaemic on their own. They were also consumed locally in the communities where the grapes were grown.

So what happened? The great wine story of the 21st century has been the arrival in the global marketplace of wines that, for one reason or another, were either marginal or unknown outside their birthplaces. Consumers today have benefited profoundly from these newly available selections, whether the wines are made from grapes like grüner veltliner, teroldego or assyrtiko, or come from regions like the Jura and Ribeira Sacra.

Which brings us back to frappato - specifically, COS Frappato Terre Siciliane 2015, Occhipinti Il Frappato Terre Siciliane 2015, and Valle dell'Acate Il Frappato Vittoria 2016.

Why frappato rather than nero d'Avola? Frappato has a lovely floral freshness to it that takes well to a light chill. It is a great summer red, and one to seek out year-round, if you value the freshness that comes from great acidity over power.

Nero d'Avola is fuller-bodied and darker-coloured, with litTle of the lift or refreshing crunchiness that I love in frappato.

I have found a few varietal nero d'Avolas worth drinking, most notably, Arianna Occhipinti's excellent Siccagno, in which the grape's signature concentrated fruit flavor is tempered with energy and minerality. But I have found nero d'Avola works best in combination with frappatto in Cerasuolo di Vittoria: Nero d'Avola must account for at least 60 per cent of the blend.

Frappato, the other component, makes an attractive varietal wine, though very few seem to be widely available. Still, the three wines I proposed suggest the frappato's stylistic range.

The easygoing Valle dell'Acate was both the least expensive (US$20 in the US) and the simplest of the three, with plenty of bright, earthy cherry fruit, though maybe with a slightly confected note. It is fresh - as it should be - and refreshing, easy to enjoy with grilled fish or pizza.

The other two are different; more expensive but with more to offer. The US$28 COS was bright and fresh as well, and though it was just as airy, it seemed more substantial. The aroma was like inhaling a bunch of fresh flowers, with the life force and the ever-so-slight fetid quality often found in flowers and perfume. The result was a complexity that required repeated, pleasurable tastes to explore.

The third wine, the US$40 2015 Occhipinti, seemed even more complex than the COS, while remaining fresh and elegant. It was stony, floral and lip-smacking, with a hint of bitterness and a dusty mineral touch to it that seemed to speak directly of where the grapes were grown. Superb.

More than any other beverage, wine has this ability to express culture. It is what I love more than anything, and it is exactly why I find wine so exciting. This is more true now - with options like frappato and so many others newly available - than it has ever been before. NYTIMES