How hard could Sicily be?
Never mind the clichés about coppola caps, ladies in black and Omertà, the Mafia code of silence … simply hire a Vespa and head into the hills of Europe’s wine region of the moment (“undreamed of character and potential” say the buffs at Decanter). Easy pickings, surely …
Well, within an hour of arriving I felt – and looked – like part of a Tin Tin adventure! The Curse of the Crimson Scooter. Lost in the ancient streets of the old Jewish quarter in Trapani. Empty. Doors and shutters closed. No transport. Then one shop window with a solitary scooter in it. Perfect. Can I hire it? No. Hiring starts in April so we have no insurance. Not possible. Blistering barnacles, to coin a phrase.
In the end I secure a 1962 red Vespa. How I do it says much about Sicily. Once I started to explain what I wanted to do – champion their local star wines and the people who make them – doors opened and favours were shared. Maybe I could borrow trade plates to bypass the insurance, says old Calogero … better still, a winemaker’s friend’s cousin just happened to be the President of the Vespa Club of Sicily. Job done. Contacts!
Like dinner with Pino Maggiore, self-taught local hero and king of the slow-food movement at Cantina Siciliana. A man brimful of tips that flowed with the grappa …
Revving up for La Dolce Vespa! Salty sea air in the hair. Pino had pointed me along the coast to the Firiato winery, via the famous salt pans with their windmills, or mulino. The hot African wind whips the salt off the sea and crusts cars, people, buildings – and scooters – like salt-baked cod. Seaweed grows in between old bush vines. I taste their golden yellow white Favinia. Hints of brine and oysters like some long-lost evolutionary memory. You lick you lips at the saltiness. Delicious. But with a nose of dried figs and candied orange peel.
Next we taste the rare grape Perricone – Sicily’s juiciest secret red. A real highlight and very affordable. There’s the possibility of a new Chardonnay too. Huge potential here.
And it doesn’t get any more authentically Sicilian than the winemaker, Pepe Pellegrino. You couldn’t make it up!
Then it’s off into the hills to meet Leonardo and the guys behind our brightest new Chardonnay, I Corleonesi. Skirting round the large Orange Tree Lake, I keep an eye out for the tip of a submerged Moorish temple which they say is visible in the hottest, driest years. Sadly it’s been raining for days. What I do spy is the Planeta winery, home to a delicious £25 Chardonnay … but the smart money has to be on I Corleonesi and I’m head over heels for this one.
This is proper Godfather country now! The lake is oddly green, luminous even. At the winery the new vintage Chardonnay is tasting fantastic. They also have exciting plans for a lush, inky dark Cabernet. More on that soon, I hope.
There’s also a reserve wine which the winemakers keep to themselves and the growers, made only in the best years. Working on getting some for you!
Now through winding roads past the hillside town of Corleone … just the name is vaguely intimidating and I find myself humming Nino Rota’s score for The Godfather, although this former Mafia stronghold seems determined to put the past behind it and the central piazza is named in tribute to Judge Falcone (as is Palermo airport).
Am heading for a real next-door find. Di Prima winery has a spectacular set of vineyards that aren’t just bang next door to the world famous Planeta estate (which helped put Sicily back on the quality map in the 1980s) … they actually look down on them. Gaspare and Davide Di Prima are delightful. Charming, friendly, helpful to a fault. This is a real family operation – the kids are playing hide-and-seek among the barrels, popping up with Nerf guns as we taste. Loved the winery’s peachy Grillo Di Lago, straight from the tank. Grillo – remember that grape name, it’s a beauty.
Driving back through the hills, I remember why the supermarket lorries don’t stand a chance. Roads have a habit of disappearing in the hills. Washing away by landslides, swallowed by earthquakes. Four dead ends in a row would get anyone fuming, with no warning until you hit the end. The most communicative the signs get is a giant exclamation mark. No clue what’s ahead, just the suggestion that you should panic.
Trying to cross the island via the hills, I stumble on the ghost town of Poggioreale, abandoned since the 1968 earthquake. It’s eerily silent, genuinely haunting … and you expect something (zombies or similar) to leap at you from behind each crumbling facade.
What’s that sound? Bells ringing. Lots of them … and coming this way. Pah – some stray goats!
I have been called something! No idea what the word meant but my guess is that it isn’t complimentary. I am in Palermo. Traffic grinds to an irate halt here. I am terrified. And the local drivers can “smell your fear”. You must drive like a Sicilian or be eaten alive.
I escape the city and zigzag up to Montereale – spectacular views across the city and a magnificent medieval Norman church. Time for a moment’s reflection on a whirlwind trip. I linger a little too long and nearly miss the plane. The last to board, in fact. So many new wines to look forward to from this amazing place and such great value. You have to be on the ground here to find the best. Get a really tasty snapshot with the Sicily Wine Trek Collection.
I’ll try to add little updates as the weeks pass and news of any new developments roll in – please do stay tuned.
Thank you and ciao,