The wine drinking began before we left Newark, N.J., with a clink and a “salud” in the airport lounge over some unidentified white.
My father and I, belatedly fulfilling the college graduation gift he had promised me 11 years earlier, were embarking on a 10-day journey across Sicily, land of our ancestors — specifically, of my dad’s great-grandfather, a merchant ship captain who lived on the Aeolian island of Lipari before sailing to Peru to found a winery.
It was fitting, then, that in addition to ancient ruins, medieval churches and spectacular Mediterranean views, ours was a trip overflowing with wine. We are no experts, but we drank our way across the almost 10,000-square-mile island — lucky for our livers that it’s no bigger — sampling the indigenous varietals, many grown in the volcanic soil of fuming Mount Etna. Those varietals set rustic Sicilian wines apart from their more polished northern Italian neighbors.
“If Tuscany is suits and ties, Sicily is wife-beaters (T-shirts),” is how Jason Wagner, wine director at hospitality group Element Collective, described the different wine personalities, though, he said, over the last few decades the ancient Sicilian viticulture has become more diverse. For example, Sicily is home to a rock star of the biodynamic wine movement, Arianna Occhipinti (agricolaocchipinti.it), who produces certified organic wines in the southern Vittoria region.
“They’re starting to have a new identity,” said Wagner, who offers many Sicilian wines at the Element-owned restaurant Nellcote in Chicago. “It used to be that they were big, clunky, hard-to-drink reds, and now they’re getting a reputation for making more delicate, thoughtful wines.”
That, at least, is an American sommelier’s perspective. In Sicily, ask a waiter for a recommendation, which is how we made most of our wine decisions, and usually a hearty red arrives.
That was perfectly fine with this duo.
After a morning spent walking amid ancient Greek temples in former colonies, we were sitting on the outside patio at Trattoria Il Pescatore (www.trattoriailpescatore.it), a seaside restaurant in Agrigento on the southwestern coast, eating a grilled cuttlefish the size of a grown man’s hand, when my father grunted admiringly at the Duca di Salaparuta Passo delle Mule ($25, duca.it) in his glass, a dense red made of the popular nero d’Avola grape.
“This,” he said, “is a man’s wine.”
My dad’s taste for weighty wines meant we had a lot of nero d’Avola, a juicy, earthy grape, heavy on dark fruits. One of the best was Duca Enrico ($55), also from Duca di Salaparuta, a large winery behind the budget-friendly Corvo line. We drank it near Palermo, the Sicilian capital, while dining on grilled ricciola (fresh-caught amberjack) at Da Peppino restaurant in the seaside suburb of Mondello.
Duca Enrico, first produced in 1984, was the first single-varietal wine to be produced from nero d’Avola grapes.
Another nero standout was the Rosso del Conte ($62) from the Tasca d’Almerita winery (tascadalmerita.it/en). We drank the spicy, bright red wine seaside (this is a pattern) at the Lungo la Notte Cafe on the picturesque Ortygia island in Siracusa, sophisticated home to the island’s best Greek theater. In thematic harmony with our wine-soaked adventure, the play we happened to see there that night was Le Baccanti by Euripides, starring good-time god Dionysus.