The Boston Phoenix
May 11 - 18, 2000


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Italy's islands

Where ancient history meets modern winemaking

by David Marglin

Most wine imported from Italy comes from the Italian mainland. But some distinctive wines -- and some of the country's great values -- come from Italy's two major islands: Sicily and Sardinia.

Mythologically speaking, wine may have originated in Sicily. According to Greek myth, Bacchus (a/k/a Dionysus) was on his way to Sicily when he saw a strange delicate plant, which he uprooted and took with him in a hollowed bird bone. As he traveled, the plant kept shooting up, so he transferred it into a lion's bone and then finally an ass's bone. When he reached Nasso, on Sicily, he planted the root and it bore fruit; he then used this fruit -- grapes -- to make the world's first wine. Some say the symbolism of this myth is that a little wine will make you light as a bird, a bit more will make you brave as a lion, and too much will make you dumb as an ass.

Mythology aside, Sicily produces a huge amount of wine; nowadays, more wine is made in Sicily than in all of Australia! Sicily's best-known wine is far from its best: Marsala, made on the western shores. Marsala is a fortified wine of uneven quality, and in this country it has been relegated (for the most part) to cooking.

But Sicily has tremendous potential to make fine wine, and with Italian wine going through a renaissance in the US, it is to be hoped that we'll be seeing more of it. As far as fine wine goes, Sicily has nine distinct approved wine regions, or DOCs. Most of the wine from these regions doesn't reach the US (it's not always easy to find in Italy outside of Sicily, either). But you can usually find bottles from Sicily's most respected wine producers, Corvo and Regaleali.

Regaleali's wines have been stunning the past couple of years, and their rosé, which I have reviewed before, is one of the best for the price ($11.99). And the Tasca D'Almerita family, which owns the winery, also produces Rosso del Conte, one of the most exciting red wines I have tried this year. It's an absolute behemoth, a field blend that includes Sicily's most distinctive red-wine grape, nero d'avola.

Historically speaking, Sardinia may have been one of the first places in Europe where wine was made. It was a major outpost for the Phoenicians, who are said to have invented wine.

Many of its major grape varieties, however, come from Spain, planted during the Aragonian monarchy in the 17th century. That's when cannonau grapes were first planted -- a grape related to grenache, and a personal favorite of mine for the delicious, fruity wine it makes.

I first became interested in Sardinian wines when I ordered, off a wine list, a 1990 Sella & Mosca cabernet sauvignon. Sella & Mosca is the heavyweight winemaker on Sardinia, and its Marchese di Villa Marina -- a 100-percent-cabernet wine that probably released for around $50 -- got the top "three glasses" award from the Gambero Rosso (the Italian equivalent to the Michelin Guide). It absolutely blew me away with the fullness of its cabernet taste -- I couldn't believe this was from an island in the Mediterranean -- and now I'm a huge fan of all things Sardinian.

I love cannonaus, because they fill the mouth with fruit, and I've also become a fan of the island's main white grape, vermentino. A Sardinian vermentino is similar to a good sauvignon blanc in some ways; it's more vivacious, though nowhere near as deep. Sardinia also makes a few good wines from carignane (which is called carignano there), though I could not find any sold in Massachusetts.

In general, the 1997s and 1998s from both islands are excellent, and if you serve them, you've got a good story to tell: the liquid in your glass may be descended from some of Europe's original wines. The greatest wines from these islands may cost you some dollars, but the good ones are great buys -- well worth keeping your "isles" open for.

1998 Argiolas Vermentino di Sardegna Costamolino (Sardinia) ($7.99). Some people don't like vermentinos, but I find them grapefruity and refreshing. This wine is a winner with pizza, fried clams or oysters, or any kind of hummus. It is crisp and citrusy, with not a long taste, but a very clean one.

1998 Regaleali Tasca D'Almerita Rosato Sicilia ($11.99). Very spirited and lively (think strawberry cheesecake), this rosé works well with Thai food or spicy chicken salad. One of the world's absolute best rosés, especially for the price. I'd buy a few bottles and serve it, well chilled, all summer long.

1996 Sella & Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva ($12.99). A big bold fruit gob o' wine. Lots of blueberry, a hint of licorice, allspice, and oak. Nice with hamburgers, chicken stir-fry, or anything that needs a big fruit-laden wine to hold its own against the flavors. Great value.

1998 L'Arenarie Sauvignon Blanc Sella & Mosca (Sardinia) ($12.99). Loads of grapefruit. This is one of those witty wines with great flavor. It is a lovely value, and I was surprised that Sardinia could deliver such a classy SB. Superb with shellfish or pesto chicken.

1997 Rosso del Conte Tasca D'Almerita (Sicily) ($39.99). Pricey, but worth every penny. A fruit roller coaster, swirling flavors, sweet raspberries, lots of jam, almost papaya-like. A major cocktail. Works well with venison or fruity pork dishes. A thriller.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

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