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Friday, June 06, 2008

Standing up for an old friend

A year ago, Francesco and I would sit in the office at the end of a long day, uncork a bottle of Nero d’Avola and work on gaining a better understanding of the characteristics of Sicily’s best-known grape. Professional wine tastings can be a bit force fed – a winemaker might quickly say what you should be seeing, smelling and tasting. Picking these characteristics out on your own inevitably forces you to go slower than they guy at the front of the room. Taking the time to really understand just one wine is a luxury. And you can really learn something.

A year later, I learned something different.

“Nero,” says Francesco, making a diving motion with his hand, “is having a tough time.”

We opened a 2006 Nero di Lupo (a 2003 version of which we tasted last year when it was called Pojo di Lupo) and talked about it.

“Traveling in Italy and abroad, I started to notice its absence in the last couple of months,” says Francesco.

At Milan’s best wine shop, the owner put it to him bluntly. “Nero d’Avola? It’s over.”

The Nero di Lupo name change was a clue; after a several-year run as one of Italy’s trendiest wines, everybody wanted a piece of wines made with Nero. Producers started growing the grape in regions less suited to its production - often far from Avola. Though quality winemakers are still making excellent wines, the bottom of the market has been flooded, dragging the good wine’s good name down with it.

“It’s been sold improperly,” says Sicily’s top chef, Ciccio Sultano, who is upset with both rising Nero prices and an overall quality decline. “Demand grew, but the wineries multiplied…It’s too much.”

“Take Bordeaux - it’s crazy,” he says, pointing to his head, “you can’t justify the price. It’s for the Russians.

“What’s the difference between this and a Mouton Rothschild?” he asks, holding up a glass. “Is that 30 or 40 times better? It’s marketing. Wine is like a cuisine – there is art and craftsmanship, but it’s outrageous to pay too much for food and wine.”

Luckily, the good stuff is still out there. Though it took our Nero di Lupo three hours to open up (why they consider this stuff currently ready to sell at a grocery store is beyond me).

Once it was ready, it was a beautiful thing, full of autumn leaves along with more typical leather, licorice and berry smells. Flavors of orange zest and chocolate emerge.

“Eureka!” deadpans Francesco. “Sometimes, we face hard times in drinking.”

A few days later, after sitting in on an almond tasting with sensorial analyst, Giuseppe Cicero, the good doctor broke out a bottle of Terra delle Sirene, clearly one of his favorites.

Big, a little brash and quite tasty with almonds, this was the wine I remembered going nuts for last year.

“It’s not hard to find good red wine among the Sicilian wineries,” says Cicero who’s partial to one made by Rosso Del Conte.

We’re just going to have to do a little more homework.

This is Joe Ray reporting from the Motherland.

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