Fly on the Wall
Sicilian wine: A Renaissance with Arab Roots
Notes & thoughts on food and wine from RON ALONZO aka DON MERLOT
This column starts the completion of the three stages of my wine education. The first stage is where have I been; the second stage, where am I; and the final stage, where I'm going. This article is going to open the future of wine and food. I have chosen Sicily as the theme to kick off the journey to the future.
During my first trip to Italy (1972) I had an opportunity to speak at a sales conference about my products. During the social exchange after the presentation, one of the prominent hotel/catering officials was telling stories (in Italian as I found most Milan business men spoke some French, but not a lot of English at that time. Their English was “British English” and not American English). He mentioned that Sicily was given the Nobel Peace prize in 1967 for being the only Arab country that had not declared war on Israel. The group of Italians customers thought that his was hilarious.
I accept and understand the concept “that the truest things are said in jest,” but here I am seeing that Italians had their own profile of fellow Italians. Although I had studied European history and had an idea of where Italy fit into the Western World, I did not know that the Italians differentiated themselves by their own DNA. I guess I was quite naïve. I thought about it and thought how little I knew about Sicily versus the concept of homogenous Italians. (To me Americans are very quick to judge cultures in a homogenous formula. Yes, I had talked to my Italian-American roommates in college (really, other than some conversations with other Italian-Americans was about the Mafia, and I did not want to throw that in that ring because Mafia means different things to various groups).
I was in Milan and part of an American company that were bringing Ice makers to the Italian hospitality industry, and I did not want to discriminate against Italian customers. Our business preparation had included not being an “ugly American” and in this environment was cognizant I was in the middle of cultural dichotomy even though it was a cultural inside joke. There were no Sicilians in the audience, and there was no one to defend the Sicilian character. The fact was that all Sicilians are Italians, but I also know that all Italians were not Sicilians. As an American all Italians were Italians. A homogenous thought as I grew up knowing several Italian-Americans, and they were treated as Italians. The concept of being a Sicilian never entered my mind. What I did know was that the early Mafia in the USA had a Sicilian connection, and I was told by my roommate in college that all Italians are not Mafia. (He was an American and had a DNA that was Anglo-Saxon and Italian). When I lived in New Orleans I knew that the large population of Italians was Sicilian, because the Port of New Orleans welcomed Europeans as much as New York and other East coast ports. Sicilians liked New Orleans and Louisiana because the climate was parallel to Sicily. For me the story was important because I understood that other cultures look at themselves differently than we look at them. We are a hodgepodge that is called American by other countries, but within their own environments, we have a profiling system that also judges cultural/country origins.
That meeting day, my host was from Milan and Italian, and he worked for the importer that brought in my products and that company was a French company, So I was given additional insight as to not only how the Italians viewed Sicilians but how the French perceived the Italians. I was reluctant to talk about the story until after the reception and was told that history and perception are what determines the Italian character. I also found out that each province has its own menu and each restaurant menu focuses on the provincial favorites. (Do not ask for Saltimbocca in Milan because it is a Roman dish). Milan, my main port of call, was in Lombardy. I learned to appreciate its food, and I found I could never pass up Bresoala (with Grana) and Costoletta alla Milanese. My European responsibilities and assignments took me to Northern Italy and I was able to learn and see, the Piedmont (Turin), where my favorite was Tajarin al Tartufo – noodles, butter, shaved parmesan; Veneto where I encountered Pasta e Fasioi (I knew it in New York as Pasta Fasu and at the end of that sound, someone would call out “Thursday night dinner”; Bologna, where I found my favorite Italian Cheese GRANA Parmigiano-Reggiano. I had arrived being in love with basil and loved pesto all Genovese, but never got to Genoa.
The wines from these provinces are very famous today and the best are very expensive. When I was there in the early 70’s, the “cognoscenti” said the Piedmont had the Nebbiolo and the Barbera varietals, the best was Barolo the “king of Italian wines” that rivaled all European reds. Wines that I sampled and were ordered for me in restaurants were Dolcetto, Barbera, Barbaresco, Gattinara, Gavi (white with Roman roots), Gemme, Grignolino, and Spanna. They were the pride of Italians. Since then, Italian vintners have upgraded wine making by modernizing the vineyards to the point where today their offerings are in the yearly top 100 wines of the world.
The current ratings of wine are based on American food and wine publications, but with the support of the oenological world. The top 100 wines of the year are judged by a panel and given a ratings of 100 (tops) or less. The selection process is done by the publishing organizations and having top tasters, world renowned sommeliers.
So why Sicily? For the past several years the trendy wine magazines have mentioned that Sicily was producing award winning red wines. So what do we know of Sicily and where are the voids?
So what is the DNA (the terroire of Sicily)? Is it really driven by an Arab culture as I heard back in 1972? None of the wine books on wine that I had purchased back in the 70s had anything interesting on Sicilian wines with the exception of MARSALA. But until the last two decades there has been a renovation of the Sicilian wine culture.
For my purposes I wanted to see what the Sicilian history of wine and food is. So when did Sicily begin? History says that Ancient Greek or the Mycenae culture goes back to the Bronze Age or 1000 BCE. So I’ll start my time line there.
734 BCE the city of Siracusa was founded by the Corinthians (Greeks). The Punic Wars in 242 BCE had Rome controlling that area. Rome delegated Sicily as an agrarian estate and did little to influence the wine culture.
The Roman period starts as Rome grew and they took political control over Sicily in 241 BCE. Rome dominated Sicily until the Vandals broke the Empire in 440 ACE. This was followed by the Byzantium Period. (East Roman division.)The Ostrogoths (Eastern Germans) appeared and fought the East Romans.
The decline of Rome left the Island of Sicily open and in 827 ACE there were 10,000 Saracen Troops landed and that became the Arab domination of Sicily, they controlled the East side of the Island). In 878 Palermo (the west side of the Island) was controlled and the capital was moved to Palermo. The Western Part of the Island was traditionally called the Arab side. There were religious changes. Sicily became one of the wealthiest states in Europe under Arab control. The capital was moved to Palermo. In the 11th Century Southern Italian hired the Normans who were Christians and descendents of Vikings (Normandy). These Normans were under the control of Roger II who conquered Messina, 700 knights ended the rule of the Arabs. The final battle occurred in Palermo in 1091 .Some historians see that this was the start of the First Crusade.
In 1060 Normans Kingdom began at the end of the 11th Century. It was the Normans who re-conquered Sicily and took control away from the Arabs. Normans changed Sicily’s religion and population. Immigration was encouraged from Northern Italy. Eventually the faith was Roman Catholic and the language became a new Vulgar Latin. Roger’s grandson William II ruled from 1166 to 1189. In 1177 he married Joan of England she was the daughter of Henry the II and sister to Richard the Lion Heart. After William died, he had no Issue and rule fell to William’s Aunt Constance who had married the Norman Hauteville dynasty and that replaced the German (Swabian). Hohenstaufen ruler who was Joan’s husband Henry the VI rule was contested. Tancred was preferred and he was an illegitimate grandson of Roger II who ruled until his death.
The Hohenstaufen reign was 1194 to 1266. Constance gave birth to Fredrick I of Sicily; In 1244 Fredrick expelled the remaining Muslims.
In the 11th C Sicily was conquered by Charles of Anjou (the Angevin ruler) in 1266 .This government lasted until the Sicilian Vespers (1283), when a rift occurred after Charles had been given control of the kingdom to the two Sicilies (under the Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick II. Anjou was part of France and there was a bitter dispute with the French occupation in Sicily), so Spain’s Pedro III (house of Aragon) was given the Anjou controlled Sicily, Whom gave control of Sicily to his son Fredrick III of Sicily. Spanish Sicily is called the Aragon period at first then it changed to the Bourbon period . (Italy remained under the control of the Angevin. It reunited with Sicily in 1442.)
In 1656 the devastating Black Death came to Sicily. During the Bourbon period the Spanish Monarchy lived in Sicily. The Kingdom of Sicily and Naples was merged in 1866, the 1861 unification by Garibaldi unified the Italian territory.
Sicilian food followed the conquerors, some developed in Sicily and others were created as families grew in Sicilian life, and as I interpret it this was not an exportation to other countries, but an adoption by other parts of Italy and wherever the émigrés went.
After the Corinthians settled in the southeast coast of Sicily; the uncultivated lands were filled with orchards and fields of grapes, figs, pomegranates, wheat, walnuts, and hazelnuts. Vineyards and olives followed. Wines from Sicily were given a good reputation. Native bees made honey that Greeks made into offerings to their Goddess Aphrodite. Pastures supported sheep and goats. The milk was made into Cheese that today we call RICOTTA. Writings from that era have been found that sweets were called “dulcis in fondo” made of very sweet wine – Malvasia using dried and fresh grapes crushed together. Greeks (in Sicily) made custard of ricotta, honey, and eggs called “tyropatinum”, a sweet version of the Modern Greek cheese by called as “tyropita”
The Romans occupation of Sicily the fields became an agricultural supplier to the Roman government (the Republic) When the empire was going strong, the Romans planted Hard Durham (the secret of Italian superior pastas). Fava Beans, grapes, to make “Mamertino” wine. [The Romans (under General Lucullus) imported Cherries, plums, and Citrons. Spices also came into the culture: cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. The wine Mamertino the Roman dominated vineyards
The Arabs introduced: new cash crops: Cotton, linen, rice, and sugar cane. Lush gardens provided lemons, bitter oranges, bananas, date palms, pistachios, mulberries, watermelon, apricots, (and tangerines that had been brought by the Greek but expanded by Arab gardens called HORI Arab spices were Saffron, cloves, & sesame. Exotic drinks (alcohol is prohibited by the Koran) were introduced by using Flowering Jasmine, roses, and bergamot and could be mixed with snow from Mt Etna. – Sharbat which we now call Sherbet. Famous desserts of Sicily are Cannoli and cassata which can be traced to the Arabs. Saffron, Cinnamon, cloves, sesame, were brought in to add the Sicilian kitchen. The tuna hunt was introduced by the Arabs, who also introduced couscous and marzipan. Coffee could have found its way to the island. Arabic became the official language and many foods derived their name from that period. Riccota cake called Cassata comes from “quas’ta”, which is a big round pan; the Cubbaita which has the torrone of honey, sesame seeds and almonds comes from the Arabic “qubbyt”. A historical note says that geographer IDRISI noted that vermicelli was being made in 1154, a century before Marco Polo’s travels.
Some of the cross cultural dishes that have each other’s recipe are “Pasticio di Pollo” of the Emir of Catania as it contains olives, capers, and Pistachio nuts which the Arabs found in Sicily. The Arabs altered the meal serving process. Traditional meals are served by having separate servings of pasta or rice and then fish or meat but the Arabs created a rice casserole dish like Riso al Forno or baked rice casserole, as a one dish serving instead of two.
The Norman period brought appetites and changes to the Islands cuisine.Meat (beef) or their meat orientation to adding to their diet the Arab influence dishes. Some Gallic influence is the “Farsumagru” (Stuffed beef rolls at first called “rollo” from the French “roule”. Cooks during that period were controlled by family secrets and recipes.
The Spanish influence following the conquest of Spanish America brought to the Sicilians Tomatoes and Chocolate. Towns like Modica became a center for Chocolate production. Squash and cactus were brought to the island. The prickly pear is known as fichi d’India, or Indian figs.
The vinifying process of Sicilian wine included their own creation of the famous Marsala wine. Vinifying the Sicilian wine went through the cycles of their occupiers. Greek vinifying history covered the famous Marsala wine. Influence that it was Greek one of the first (The other was Malvasia) and then the journey of wine and vineyards is older than the wine culture of France, Spain and/or Portugal. Relegation by the Romans, which used Sicily as a grain supplier and knocked back the vineyards as a lesser crop.
Marsala was first made in a town of that name, which is on the western coast. Marsala is a fortified wine with an alcohol content of twenty percent. It is usually made of native grapes: Grillo Catarratto, or Insolia grapes. John Woodhouse an Englishman who also provided Port established a winery in Marsala in 1796. For more than century Marsala was a rival to Sherry, Madeira and or Port. It fell from its stature when vineyards in California made copies of that wine, so Marsala vintners set up controls to keep Marsala authentic. Three classifications were developed: Oro, Ambra, and Rubino. There are Sweet and dry versions. Sicily also makes a sweet wine “Passito” which is sold as a dessert wine. Unlike Marsala, it is not fortified and made from the Moscato grape. Zabaglione the Sicilian dessert of made with Marsala.
A red grape used for red wine that is now famous in the USA is Primitivo. Oenologists in California have traced the Zinfandel grape to the same DNA as Pimitivo. This varietal is believed to have originated in the Balkans. It may have been transferred to Sicily before the Sicilians went to the USA and was grown by Italian vintners once they arrived in California.
In the 1970s and 1980s when wine consumption exploded around Europe and the USA, Italians to compete improved their skills in making table wine. A success story was CORVO. It came into the US market as an economical but superior product. In the USA varietals became famous and CA started exporting Cabernet Sauvignon, pinot Noir, Syrah. Sicily also worked at developing a product to compete with the European markets and the US Market.
The Sicilian red that sticks out as wining a following is the Nero d’Avola. Very tannic and at first was used as a blending wine, where some local oenologist found a way of avoiding its over powering taste, by holding the grapes before they ferment in cool vats. This has brought this varietal to compete in the top 100 worldwide wines published by Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. Mt. Etna has had it elevated fields planted with wines and has a reputation for having ideal conditions to grow premium wines.
A perusal of recent editions of wine magazines revealed some interesting ratings on Sicilian Wines (100 of the top and the very best released that year)
Cusmano -Sicilia Sagana Tenuta San Giacomo 2011
Donna Fugatta – Contessa Entellina Mille a una Notte 2008
Tasca d’Almerita – Contea de Sclafani Rosso del Conte 2010
Article of Sicily’s Sunny Future
Planeta 2011Santa Cecilia - NOTO
Zisola 2011 Doppiozeta - NOTO
Feudi del Pisciotto Nero d’Avola Sicilia Versache 2012
Scilio Etna Orphus 2011
To make sure I experienced good Sicilian wine I went to our local purveyor and found some Nero d’Avola.
Stemmari 2012 Nero d’Avola $7 range
Nero – Nero d’Avola 2012. $12 range.
Both wines are exciting finds. I prepared a Sicilian steak and angel hair pasta with a spicy tomato sauce. It was mentioned that there was a Syrah similarity and I found it The price was right and was a better value but equal experience to Chianti’s or Montepulciano. When considering a good match I will search for other medium Red from Sicily. Certainly I will have as many as I can before the price goes wild as there is a demand for the wine.
I found that the above mentioned wines were listed in the top 100 wines of the year. I think Sicilian wines will get more attention in the next few years