I explained to Vinnie that it all happened on the 11th January, 1693, at around 9pm. At 7.5 on the Richter scale, it was an earthquake of epic proportions that shook the southeastern region of Sicily. The enormous damage that resulted meant that there was a period of reconstruction that gave birth to an architectural style known as Sicilian Baroque and it is particular to this part of the island. This is not the more static Baroque of northern Italy – rather, here the churches have wonderfully plastic, almost fluid, facades that reach towards heaven like nouveau riche wedding cakes. The secular palazzi have wrought iron balconies supported by stone corbels carved into fantastic ornate representations of people, beasts, or mythical creatures. Nothing was ruled out of the fevered imaginations of the masons that carved these amazing works whose modest structural purpose is belied by their visual extravagances. But while you admire these astounding facades don’t miss the grotesque sculpted masks above the doorways and windows. Paradoxically, in this most Catholic of countries, they are there to repel evil spirits.
But we were in this area with a more particular purpose in mind. This is the only area in Sicily where they produce a wine with the prestigious DOCG status. It is called Cerasuolo di Vittoria which translates as the cherry of Vittoria, the central town in the area. This wine is a blend of two Sicilian grape varieties, 50% to 70% Nero d’Avola, with the balance made up of Frappato. To find out more about this pre-eminent Sicilian delicacy we went to a winery called Poggio di Bortolone. This estate has been in the Cosenza family for over 200 years, handed down from father to son. The current incumbent is Pierluigi and all around there are echoes of the past; there is the old watermill, down by the river Para Para, that used to crush olives prior to pressing as well as the old wine press. The story of Italian wine in the south of the country is one of strong, rich wine exported in bulk to the north to add body to the weaker products of the colder northern climes of France. This began to change in the last decades of the 20th century and in Poggio di Bortolone it was Pierluigi’s father, Ignazio, who set the estate on the road to modernisation when, in 1982, he bottled the estate’s first Cerasuolo. Innovations followed at regular intervals culminating in 2009 in the construction of the modern underground cantina that allows optimal control of temperature and humidity. All this allows Pierluigi to continue his pursuit of quality as he produces around 80,000 bottles of wine a year from his 15 hectares of vines.
Today, the estate produces three versions of Cerasuolo di Vittoria and all are delightful. The first is a Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico blended at 60/40 Nero d’Avola and Frappato. The vines are on average 15 years old and the harvest is around the end of September to the beginning of October, depending on the climatic conditions of the year. Following a fermentation of at least 10 days, the wine is aged for 18 months in stainless steel. The result is a deep red ruby colour with hints of purple and a bouquet full of bitter cherry and plums. On the palate the structure is good with medium tannins. Try pairing this with a traditional Sicilian dish such as Pasta alla Norma.
The second is called Contessa di Costanza and is blended at 50/50 Nerod’Avola and Frappato. It has an intense ruby colour. On the nose there are aromas of red currant and cherry. In the mouth there is a rich fresh acidity that accompanies an excellent structure and a fruity and persistent finish. Pair this with red meat or mature cheese.
The final Cerasuolo di Vittoria that Pierluigi produces is called Para Para and is named after the river that runs through the estate. This is blended 60/40 Nero d’Avola and Frappato and after a 15-day maceration, the wine matures for 18 months in stainless steel tanks before spending another nine months in tonneau of French oak. After bottling, another six months must elapse before Pierluigi will allow the public access to this wine. The colour is an intense ruby with a bouquet full of morellino cherry and plums, with a hint of cinnamon. On the palate, the tannins have softened to provide a complex structure giving a long finish with a hint of chocolate. Enjoy this Sicilian wine with mature cheese or game.