Monday, December 04, 2006

Lanzara: Fine Wines From Sicily That Beg Reflection

Sicily is Italy's latest enological hotspot, a land that is attracting the attention (and praise) of the wine press, and a tremendous amount of investment on the part of winemakers, especially those from outside the island, who are buying in.

Giovanni Lanzara isn't quite an outsider -- he's Sicilian -- but he is buying in, because he's an engineer by trade, and a few years ago seized the opportunity to purchase a beautiful property in Menfi (the Agrigentino), consisting of a sprawling farm complex that looks like it belongs in the movies, and 35 hectares of vineyards that start out at about 270 meters above sea level, and gently slope towards the sea.

Some of the vineyards are older, while others are new and just beginning to enter into production; the varietals include both autochthonous and international grapes, including Catarratto, Grillo and Nero D'Avola in the former camp and Chardonnay and Merlot in the latter.

I tasted them in the course of a lunch in Florence's Ristorante Oliviero that was organized by Marina Thompson's studio, and did enjoy them, though they also made me think.

First, the white wines:

Ipsas is an IGT Sicilia made from Catarratto, an autochthonous varietal; the 2005 vintage was pale gold with a fairly rich bouquet that had tropical fruit and sage mingled with minerality, and on the palate was deft, with clean minerality supported by butterscotch that flows into fairly long mineral notes. Nice balance, and I scored it 2 stars.

Elìtre is an IGT Sicilia made from Grillo, another autochthonous varietal; the 2005 vintage is pale brassy gold and has a fairly rich bouquet with eucalyptus and herbal notes laced with petroleum and some bread crumbs. Interesting, and the palate reflects the nose, with herbal notes and minerality supported by warm citric acidity that carries into a fairly long finish. Considerable character and depth, and I scored it just shy of 3 stars.

Sèrico is an IGT Sicilia made from Chardonnay; the 2004 vintage is pale brassy gold and has a powerful bouquet with smoky tropical fruit and quite a bit of butterscotch laced with bitter minerality. On the palate it's full and quite smooth, with clean minerality and butterscotch laced bitterness flowing into a clean crisp finish; I scored it a low two stars.

And then the reds:

Merlot IGT Sicilia 2004: It's deep pigeon blood ruby and has a powerful bouquet with freshly squeezed black currants mingled with violets and berry fruit jam, and some slightly herbal raspberry acidity. Fresh; on the palate it's full, rich, and quite smooth, with powerful black currant fruit supported by smooth sweet tannins that have some bitter herbal notes and carry into a fairly long fruit laced finish. Pleasant in a decidedly international key, and I scored it 2 stars.

Nero D'Avola IGT Sicilia 2004: It's deep pigeon blood ruby and has a rich nose with red berry fruit supported by some mineral-laced sage and balsamic overtones. On the palate it's full, smooth, and quite soft, with full rich berry fruit supported by considerable bitterness that carries into a clean berry fruit finish. I found it a touch dry, and also found a lack of complexity that I attribute to youth of the vineyard -- it's 8 years old -- but scored it a solid 2 stars in any case.

These are the wines, and the thoughts?

I found the Grillo to be the most interesting of the whites, followed by the Cataratto, both of which display varietal characteristics and reflect Sicily. The Chardonnay, which, Mr. Lanzara told us, is the white they are proudest of, was good, indeed quite good. However, it was also anonymous -- Another well made, heavily oaked hot-climate chardonnay, and to be frank there are a great many of those out there on the world stage. I didn't pick up on anything that would lead me to think Sicily if the label were covered, and so I found myself mentally shrugging my shoulders and reaching for the Grillo.

The reds? Well, the Merlot was quite good in a completely international key, and resembles some other Sicilian Merlots I've had: up front, turgidly opulent, and rich, what an American friend used to call a "sex-pot wine." In short, it’s a head-turning package, but what you see is what you get. In its defense the vines are only 8 years old, but it's behaving as one would expect a northern varietal to when transplanted to a vastly hotter clime: by letting go.

The Nero D'Avola displays greater depth and offers more to think about, though it's more obviously from immature vineyards than the Merlot; at present the Merlot may be the better of the two, but I expect that the Nero D'Avola will eventually surpass it.

My one objection to the Nero D'Avola was the use of small wood, which added oaky nuances I'm not sure I feel are necessary; the grape, like many Italian reds, has sufficient tannin, structure and aroma to do quite well without the contribution of the barrique, which ends up (at least for me) distracting rather than enhancing. I'd have liked large wood, which has less of an impact.

And this brings us to the reflection. Mr. Lanzara is Sicilian, but isn't a winemaker -- rather, he's an engineer who loves his homeland and has decided to invest in it. So he has followed the same path investors in other parts of Italy, especially Tuscany, have followed when they buy a winery, and hired a top-notch enologist who has done a superb job of making wines by the book; the result is, especially for the Chardonnay and the Merlot, faultless wines that are frankly anonymous.

The estate certainly has the potential, which will only increase as the vineyards mature, and there is also an obvious desire to make superb wines. I would simply like to see the direction change some, away from the international style, because we have lots of Merlot, and even more Chardonnay to choose from, and there's also an abundance of deftly oaked red wine out there too.

While it may be more difficult to sell well made traditionally made Sicilian wine at the outset -- there is a "what's this? reaction on the part of consumers new to it -- well-made traditional Sicilian wines do enjoy a devoted following that will not be drawn astray by the introduction of yet another international wine from a new wine-producing region.

Staying in the pack is more predictable, and may feel safer, but one is still a member of the pack.

Lanzara's Site

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