People who talk about wine rarely mention their conflicts of interest, so let me put mine front and centre: my first dinner date with my now wife included a bottle of Nero d’Avola. It was a wine that was somehow both supple and robust and met that most difficult of pairing challenges, working well with a curry. A series of coincidences had wines made with the same grape appear in a number of other important moments in my life over the next decade. So I guess you can say I have a soft spot for it.
More suspicious readers might be thinking I am coming up with excuses for a somewhat embarrassing preference. You see, in recent years, Nero d’Avola has joined the rank of the decidedly démodé, the type of thing that looked like a good idea in the 1990s, but you wouldn’t necessarily admit to it now, like watching Family Matters or listening to Savage Garden.
The trajectory is a familiar one in many an Old World region. The rise of the American consumer, privileging bold, fruit-driven wines and showing an indifference towards traditional hierarchies, meant that previously dismissed regions and grapes could come to the fore. For Sicily circumstances were particularly fortuitous as its wine industry was entering a new era of professionalism and an apparently much-needed technical upgrade. Add to that a well-known cuisine, and the attractive connotations of the name, reminiscent of history, passion, and holidays, and all that was needed was a signature grape to lead the charge.
If someone designed a variety expressly for the demands of that era, they wouldn’t have landed very far from the island’s most important red. Intense, even succulent fruit, and mild, approachable texture. No weighty history and cru names to know (i.e. no prestige tax to pay), but instead a name that rolled easily off an English or American tongue. Most importantly, it seemed to produce wines that, while often forgettable, they rarely failed to deliver pleasure. Like Italian food, even if it was bad, it was good.
And then the tide turned. Fruit-driven and approachable was out, light and esoteric was in. The attention moved to the Sicilian northeast, from Nero to the Nerellos. The harmless, sunshine-in-a-bottle image of Nero d’Avola was no match for the dark allure of Etna, the almost ominous associations conjured up by phrases such as “volcanic soils”. Those soils of course might produce misses more often than hits, and gratification is rarely immediate but in the form of an IOU by an unverified issuer. Even those, however, were advantages not drawbacks in the New Wine Order, as Burgundian masochism went worldwide.
Still, Nero d’Avola seems to have weathered the storm. In production terms, it remains as prevalent as ever, popular everywhere on the island, but the northeast. Its two greatest terroirs are both on the southeast, and less than 50 miles apart. On the one hand, there is Vittoria, where it is often blended with Frappato, the yang to Nero’s yin. In the case of Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG, the only Sicilian DOCG, this is a requirement and the resulting wines can combine the best of both worlds, the fragrance of Frappato and the fullness of Nero d’Avola. It is on the other side, however, near the very tip of Sicily’s southeast, around the small town of Pachino, where the variety meets its Platonic ideal. The fruit is very intense, extremely forward; the challenge is to tame it, find the equilibrium.
The latter seems to be an issue across the board. I don’t think it’s unkind to say that not every producer made optimal use of the good times, and not everyone has kept up with more recent trends. Many bottlings, especially on the upper price bracket, verge on the baroque – it is not uncommon to find the standard wine of a producer better than their premium line, if only because the amp hasn’t been turned to 11. In many ways, Sicilian wine production seems organised along New World, rather than Old World lines, with consistency and volume ranked higher than expressing individual crus. The renegade in this state of affairs is Gulfi, who famously bottles four different crus, under four Nero labels. Matteo Catania, son of the late founder Vito, assigns his father’s forward thinking to growing up in Paris and having many friends in Burgundy. One cannot help but think that perhaps more producers would benefit from French lessons.
So, where to next for Nero d’Avola? Despite three decades in the mainstream, in many ways it feels like the story hasn’t even began being written. Viticultural research to do, weather challenges to overcome, specific terroirs to discover – it seems like the future is bright and it is all there for the taking. Or maybe I am being too optimistic. As I declared early, I have a soft spot for it.
Twelve Nero d’Avola Recommendations
Donnafugata Mille e una Notte 2017
This feels like a contradiction: a blend of many grapes, where the Nero d’Avola character is not prominent, and does not come from the prime terroirs of the variety. Indeed, the aroma is more reminiscent of Bordeaux than Sicily. It shows particularly stylish on the palate, with a silky texture that is consistent and uniform. Ripe, but tame red fruit, with a hint of wood and smoke, and just an echo of clove and dark chocolate. It poses an interesting philosophical conundrum: should a wine be the most expressive take of its grape variety, or give the most pleasure it can? Mille e una notte opts for the latter. (13.7%, Drink 2022-2032)
Planeta Santa Cecilia 2018
Sicilia Noto DOC
This is a grown-up take on Nero d’Avola. Serious and austere on the nose, with a wooden harshness, and the red fruit character in a supporting role. On the palate it is full and flavourful, with a hint of sweetness, yet the texture remains tight and taut. There is a long, fresh aftertaste, where, unusually, the red fruit become more apparent. This is an excellent balancing act between the sweetness and acidity of the variety. (14%. Drink 2022-2026)
Gulfi NeroMàccarj 2017
Terre Siciliane IGT
Rich and thick on the nose, yet elegant. Aromas of black fruit, dark chocolate, and hazelnut, which continue on the palate. Maintains an impressive equilibrium between generosity and sharpness. Rich, but with a silky texture; full of flavour, but with intense tannins that will take time to mellow. Exemplary take on the variety, in its heaviest, richest expression. Will improve. (14.5%. Drink 2024-2029, where it will be 93-95 pts)
Gulfi NeroBaronj 2017
Rich, complex aromas of fruits-of-the-forest jam, with some spice on the background. Yet, it has finesse and never turns heavy. Serious and precise on the palate, balancing between power and acidity. An insightful take on the variety, which might still improve a bit a couple of years down the line. (14%, Drink 2022-2025)
Planeta Dorilli 2017
Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG
Aromas of ripe, sweet red fruit, in a nose that is thick, yet suggestive of a light body. The palate is a paradigmatic expression of the DOCG: flavourful, with a thick texture, but with chewy tannins and a hint of sharpness. I consider this possibly the best wine match for classic Sicilian cuisine (think pasta alla Norma). It still has a fair number of years ahead of it. (13%. Drink 2022-2027)
Duca di Salaparuta Duca Enrico 2016
Terre Siciliane IGP
Rich, concentrated aromas of blackberry jam. Sweet, almost appassimento-like on the palate, with thick black fruit and tannins that have melted completely. A very approachable take on the variety, in a wine that tastes like Christmas. There is finesse and quality in it, even if the style has fallen out of fashion. (14.5%. Drink 2022-23)
Occhipinti Siccagno 2018
Particularly interesting on the nose, refined, yet approachable. The varietal character is obvious, all the aromas of rich red and black fruit, yet distilled with remarkable purity (with only a faint echo of barnyard perhaps impinging on the harmony). The same tension continues on the palate: this is clearly Nero d’Avola, with a supple texture, yet there is a sharpness and lightness that turn the assumptions about the grape on its head. It is an intellectual treatment of the variety, and a very contemporary one. (12.5%. Drink 2022-2026)
Baglio di Pianetto Nero d’Avola 2019
Interesting nose that balances between the two sides of Nero d’Avola, the lightness of the more modern take, and the fuller, more traditional style. There are ripe red fruits (cherry, strawberry), but there is also an acidity reminiscent of raspberries. Similar tension on the palate, full on the one hand, but lively and nervous on the other. A compelling take, combining elements from the old and new. (13.5%, Drink 2022-23)
Baglio del Cristo di Campobello Lu Patri 2018
Rich, thick and full on the nose, with red and black fruit jam, and just a hint of raspberry sharpness. There is an almost aggressive intensity, but without being too heavy. Somewhat less intense, more approachable on the palate. The flavour profile is consistent, again with red and black fruits and a bit of acidity, though it doesn’t reach the complexity of the nose. It will probably improve a bit too. (14%, Drink 2022-25)
Porta del Vento Ishac 2019
Pleasant, fresh aromas of red fruit with a barnyard hint. Interesting on the palate, with a rich, thick, and chewy texture, yet keeping a freshness and a welcome tang. Not entirely characteristic of Nero d’Avola, but approachable and enjoyable. (13%. Drink 2022-23)
COS Pithos Rosso 2019
Terre Siciliane IGT
Very soft and pale notes of cherries on a relatively weak nose. It gains substantially on the palate, where the texture becomes the focus. Right now it is still too sharp and tannic, despite a light, airy body, and needs a pasta-in-red-sauce to be tamed. There is red fruit, but it is overwhelmed. Give the tannins a few years to soften, however, and the quality will be obvious. Will improve. (11%. Drink 2024-2029, where it will be 91-92 pts)
Bianco di Morgante 2020
Product of Italy
Round nose, of medium quality, with tropical fruit like an everyday Viognier. More interesting on the palate. While remaining round and slightly sweet, it is balanced by a tannic stiffness that gives it a different note. An everyday white that is also a pleasant oddity: a Blanc de Noirs from Nero d’Avola.
(13%. Drink 2022-23)
Photo by Nicolas Thomas on Unsplash