Friday, April 20, 2012

The Thrill of Discovery

Our recent buying trip to Europe started in one of Italy’s last frontiers of winemaking: Sicily. While grapes have been grown on the island for centuries, most of the wine has traditionally been produced in the co-op model. Basically multiple families from the same village would pool their fruit and make their wine as one batch. Quality was an afterthought. It was about high yields (and therefore, high volume) so that the proverbial tap of house wine would never run dry. But the times, they are a changin’.

More vintners are becoming focused on advanced farming and production techniques in the interest of quality. Particularly in the areas surrounding Mount Etna where Nerello Mascalese is king, wine producers are employing practices that would have been unthinkable just a generation ago. And the wines are beginning to find an audience abroad, a key factor to convincing others to follow suit. It’s an evolving mindset which is allowing growers and producers to look further downfield in their pursuit of innovation.

Which leads to me to one of our most exciting discoveries in nearly two weeks of travel through Italy and France. On a postcard day with brilliant blue skies and fresh breezes, we set out from Catania on Sicily’s eastern shore and drove north along the coast to the port city of Milazzo. A haven for vacationers in summer, it was relatively quiet in March, allowing our team to linger at an espresso bar before boarding a ferry to the island of Salina. A fertile oasis of capers and olives, nut trees and, of course, vines, Salina is one of the verdant jewels of the Aeolian archipelago.

Our host was the charming Antonio Caravaglio, a local vintner who had undertaken a bold experiment. Salina is renowned for wines produced from the Malvasia grape, which are nearly always honeyed, concentrated dessert wines. Antonio was convinced that a brilliant and refreshing dry white wine was possible if farmed and produced the right way. Nearly three hours and a buffet of local seafood later, no one at the table needed further convincing.

By happy coincidence, the owner and chef of the best restaurant in town had closed his doors for renovations. Being a friend of Antonio’s, he was happy to bring his team over to showcase both the local cuisine and its affinity for the Caravaglio bianco. Tuna cured in olive oil, shrimp in dill cream sauce, fish cakes, baby clams and mussels, fried fennel, sea bass and the famed gambero rosso (indigenous red prawns) all made an appearance to memorable effect. What wowed everyone involved – and we’re talking about a pretty jaded group of buyers – was the unreal ease at which the dry Malvasia paired with just about everything. With its delicate fruit and a sea spray edge to the finish, it was impossible to think of a more perfect companion to our feast.

It’s innovative thinking like Antonio’s vision of a dry Malvasia that promises to move Sicily and its sister islands forward in the wine world. Between serious investment and old-fashioned creative thinking, we suspect you’re going to be hearing a lot more buzz about what’s going on in the southern reaches of Italy.

--Rhett Gadke
Wine Director

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