Summer with Sicilian Wines

Maybe I have a slight Italian prejudice, but this time of year my gustatory thoughts wander to the island of Sicily. Sicily plus summer equals eggplant and tomatoes, zucchini, herbs, beans and cheeses—it’s a time of year and a region that has charmed the world with its flavors. It’s the largest island in the Mediterranean, Italy’s largest region, and the producer of about one sixth of Italy’s total wine output. Sicily’s wine culture dates back over 4,000 years.

Thanks to multiple cultural invasions, Sicily’s cuisine is filled with exciting twists and turns, with ingredients used in unexpected ways and combinations. The reputation of their wines, however, has suffered a bit. In the early 20th century, the wine culture was hijacked by the bulk wine industry. But about 30 years ago it began making a comeback. I think we can safely say that Sicily is serious about quality wines once more.

It is impossible to discuss wine in Sicily and not mention Marsala, such as the Paolo Lazzaroni & Figli Marsala Fine I.P. Ambra Secco DOCG ($10). In the Old World, wine labels are almost universally intimidating, be it France, Italy, Spain or Portugal. Don’t be intimidated. What these exhaustingly wordy labels do is tell you very precisely what is in the bottle. If all else fails, consult your smart phone. For this bottle of Marsala, “Paolo Lazzaroni & Figli” is the producer, “Fine” signifies it as the basic level of aging (1 year)—one qualified for sipping or cooking (and I would never want to cook with any less dignified Marsala). “Ambra” designates color (amber-yellow—it also comes in light golden and ruby red), and Secco (dry) the level of sweetness (Marsala comes in dry, medium and sweet). It’s Italy’s most famous fortified wine, and is prized the world over for its culinary versatility—think about a risotto with mushrooms glazed in Marsala, or a savory-sweet chicken Marsala or silky warm zabaglione with berries. But for a change of pace, a lovely Marsala like this one with its notes of dried fruit brown sugar, and flavors of nutty-caramel and tobacco is delightful as an aperitivo, served lightly chilled next to a platter of cured meats and aged cheeses like Beemster or a very old Parmigiano-Reggiano. I have also paired a dry Marsala with a not-too-sweet pumpkin flan for dessert.

The Poggio Anima Asmodeus Nero D’Avola 2014 ($15) is made from the main red grape variety produced in Sicily and the primary grape in Sicily’s best wines. This grape varietal is a favorite of mine. If you can’t find this exact Nero d’Avola when wine shopping, by all means give another one a try. They are always great values and great wines for accompanying foods. This wine has hints of blackberry and black raspberry, with a wonderful acidity that almost feels like effervescence on the tip of your tongue. I can’t think of better partner for the BLTs we ate with it.

Thick slices of crispy bacon, rustic bread, lettuce, delicious heirloom tomatoes from a friend’s garden, mayonnaise, and a hint of garlic imparted by rubbing a piece of garlic on the surface of the toasted bread—it was a perfect summer combination. The wine even went beautifully with our spicy-peppery fresh slaw. And since we’re drinking from this hot little island, I had to make a little eggplant Parmesan, and I must say it was a match made in Sicily.

Our final wine—and my favorite—is the Benanti Etna Rosso 2014 DOCG ($26). Hailing from the cool vineyards of Mount Etna, the highest active volcano in Europe, this lovely blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes is absolutely delightful on the palate. Notes of red and black fruits, spices, and herbaceous notes like anise made this a beautiful companion to chicken braised with pancetta, new potatoes, artichokes and tomatoes. The tannins were a perfect balance for the tomatoes in the chicken (and the leftover eggplant Parmesan), but they weren’t overpowering. This is a lovely wine for sipping in the afternoon. And all of the wines we’ve discussed (and actually most red wines in the summertime) benefit from a slightly cooler serving temperature. As a general rule, I put red wines in the fridge for just a few minutes before serving, especially in the summer.

For your next Kansas City summer feast, filled with local tomatoes, eggplant and other seasonal highlights with a Sicilian heritage, just remember the old adage “what grows together goes together.” Keep Sicily in your heart and these wines in mind.

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