Sicily is known for its cuisine — a hodgepodge of Italian, Spanish, Greek and Arab influences centered on seafood and vegetables, olives and pasta. But as with all of Southern Italy, Sicily is also better known for its red wines than its whites. Many wine drinkers think that it is Sicily’s unique red grapes, most notably Nero d’Avola, that give its wines their memorable bright and fiery flavor. But grapes often get more credit than they deserve.
Nero d’Avola does indeed make delicious wine, but the more distinctive variable is that the local version of the Mediterranean diet has strongly influenced how these reds are made. The traditional method of red wine production pioneered farther north, where oak barrel aging is used to intensify red wines, is far more flattering to fattier foods such as red and white meats or dairy products such as butter and cheese.
When dinner is more likely to consist of sardines, swordfish or anchovies than beef, chicken or pork, it makes sense for winemakers to prioritize flexibility over power, to retain freshness of fruit flavor rather than to develop concentration and complexity in casks over time. As a result, red wines like this example from Sicily, loaded with fleshy blackberry flavor and peppery spice, are rarely given maturation in new oak barrels. This has the double advantage of making these wines more seafood-friendly and less costly to produce.
Cusumano Nero d’Avola, $10.99 (sale price through Sept. 1; regularly priced $12.99), 13.5% alcohol, PLCB Item #1222