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In volcanic Sicily, wines are all about the fruit
2016-04-07
By John H. Isacs

PROPER wine is made only from grapes. So why can we smell and taste so many different fruits and other flavors in wine? This week’s iDeal section looks at the role of fruits in Chinese cooking, so I thought it apropos to look at the role of fruit in wine.

Let’s dismiss wines made from fruits other than noble grapes. Often called fruit wines, the best examples of these simple cloy beverages are at best only drinkable. Real wine uses the Vitis Vinifera species of grapes and the magic really starts when the grape juice undergoes fermentation. Yeasts eat the natural sugars of grapes during fermentation and the byproducts are alcohol, carbon dioxide and several hundred aromatic esters. Each specific ester has a specific aromatic profile, so when you smell apples in a white wine its because that same or similar aromatic ester found in apples is in the fermented grape juice. That may explain the complex aromatics. But why do white wines often taste like apples, pears, citrus fruits, peaches and other flavors, while many red wines have red and black fruit flavors?

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The secret of complex fruit flavors in wines is related to the volatility of alcohol and the connection and interaction between our mouths and noses. When we drink wine, the heat and saliva in our mouths help evaporate part of the wine and these sensations reach and interact with our nasal passages sending fruit and other flavor sensations to our brain. So it’s not merely an illusion — you are actually tasting many different flavors in wine.

Climate with an abundance of sunshine can make fruity wines, and for this week, I decided to introduce a very special wine producing island that’s intimately tied to the sun. Welcome to beautiful Sicily, home to some of the world’s best fruity wines.

Settled as early as 8000 BC by tribes from the Iberian Peninsula, the first archeological evidence of winemaking in Sicily dates back about 3,500 years ago when Phoenician traders brought vines to the island. Recently, some historians are suggesting that wine cultivated by island natives may predate the arrival of the Phoenicians. In any case, Sicily has Italy’s longest winemaking history.

Homer’s epic work, The Odyssey, brought the world’s attention to Sicilian wine. Since ancient times the wines of Sicily have alternately been highly regarded and disparaged. For most the 20th century, the ripe grapes of Sicily were consumed locally or sold in bulk to provide sugar and alcohol to wines made in the more northerly wine regions of Europe. Sicilian wines themselves were considered overripe, too high in alcohol and lacking in elegance. In the wine world we call these wines fruit bombs.

But the problem was never the grapes themselves. The real culprit was excessive heat and lack of modern transportation and winemaking equipment. Throughout the winemaking process the heat and exposure to oxygen would start rotting the grapes and result in wines that were oxidized and lacked freshness and style. Now, with new technology, Sicilian wines are some of the most exciting and affordable Italian wines. They are also wonderfully fruity.

The sheer diversity of wine regions and styles in Sicily is astounding. This shouldn’t be surprising because Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea with an area of more than 25,000 square kilometers and a population of 5.2 million. The terroir is varied, so there is a large number of native and non-native grapes, including Nero d’Avola, Nerello, Inzolia and Grillo. Sicilian winemakers are using Trebbiano, Muscat and Chardonnay white varieties and Sangiovese, Barbera, Syrah and Merlot red wine grapes to make award-winning wines. Some of the best producers of Sicilian native and non-native varietal wines that you can find in Shanghai are Planeta, Donnafugatta, Firriato and Settesoli.

The fabled Mount Etna volcano is located along the east coast of Sicily. Fine wines have been made in the shadow of Europe’s tallest active volcano for thousands of years; but only recently have they received world attention. The picturesque sloping valleys below Mount Etna have fertile volcanic soil and plentiful sun that nurture numerous vines and olive trees. Traditionally, the wines of Mount Etna were overly rough and rustic for international palates, but as in other parts of Sicily the use of modern winemaking techniques and equipment have mitigated the negative influence of the ravaging heat and scorching sun while emphasizing the beautiful ripe and fresh fruit flavors. If you’re interested in something truly different and distinctive at affordable prices, then I suggest you try these wines. Good Mount Etna producers with wines in Shanghai include Cantina Patria, Benanti Winery and Tenuta Terre.

Where to buy in Shanghai

Varieties:

Sicily is home to numerous distinctive regional varieties including Catarratto, Grillo and Inzolia white grapes and Nero d’Avola, Nerello and Mascalese red grapes.

Key term:

In the wine world baked is a negative term used to describe wines with fruit damaged by excessive exposure to heat.


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