August-September 2014

Sicily Rising
By: Lana Bortolot

Francesca Planeta, of Pioneering Sicilian Producer Planeta, Is Planning the Future of This Misunderstood Island, One Wine at a Time

Francesca Planeta (center) is flanked by Enologist Patricia Tóth (left) and Export Manager Penny Murray (right). Photographed at Sophia Wine Bar in Manhattan.

If you think you know something about Sicilian wines, your assumptions are likely to be overturned by Francesca Planeta. And there will be no arguing with her, thank you. Francesca, whose family owns the pioneering Planeta wine empire, consisting of six estates ringing the island, has all the expected attributes of a Sicilian woman: strong, self-possessed, passionate and opinionated.

But she also has the unexpected: a British mother, a London education, Master's degree number two at age 22 and a former career as global marketing executive at Nestlé S.A. All this bodes well for not only Planeta, but for all producers in Sicily, because when Francesca speaks about the wines her family makes, she is also speaking for all of Sicily.

"Sicily had a very bad image for wine—so I had to create something and show people that something new was happening," she says. "I had to give an image that was fresh and new. I really tried to break that classic image of Italian wines and move into something fresher and younger."

She says it wasn't always easy with people thinking Sicily was a backwater—and the wines not much better. "When I started, we had only the really bad connotation. Now things have changed because of tourism and quick communications. People [see] Sicily as a beautiful, pure authentic place to visit, and the attitude about Sicily is very positive." Francesca is hoping that will help change the attitude about Sicilian wines.

Sicily's 2011 upgrade from IGT to its own DOC (DOC Sicilia) should help. Sicily has 22 DOC regions and one DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Francesca says the uplift helps give a stronger identity to blended wines such as those produced at Planeta (the lower tier of wines is now known as IGT Terre Siciliane).

It's an initiative the Planeta family has supported for nearly all the 19 years it has made wine in Sicily. Francesca's father, Diego, was president of an influential wine cooperation and director of a research institute for nearly 20 years before starting Planeta with her cousins in 1985. The first vintage was in 1995.

Though not trained in enology, Francesca brought her brand sense into the mix. She created new labeling and messaging, repackaging not only the Planeta brand, but also Sicilian wines in general. "I started here with no money and tools. Creativity was much more important than the business itself. I had to think of everything myself," she recalls. She knew she needed unique positioning, and considering the locations of the six Planeta estates, she created a messaging that spoke to the diversity of the island.

"Our project has been to discover different terroirs. You never can generalize about Sicily. You get different styles and characters as you go from Mount Etna to the sea," she says. "We don't talk any more about the variety; we talk about the areas and those characteristics that give an identity to the wine."

Planeta winemaker Patricia Tóth, a Hungarian-born enologist, was making wine in Fruili-contentedly, until her former cellar master advised her to go to Sicily. "It looked so far . . . over the sea, and much more exotic," she says. "I took my luggage in 2005 for one harvest and I forgot to go back." She says other young winemakers like herself have put Sicily on the map in the past 20 years and "now is the right moment for sophistication and getting to the details and the richness of the region."

Export Manager Penny Murray, who has been with Planeta since 2002, says the education about Sicilian wines is an ongoing project. "It's still a battle to get people to understand Sicily—some regions are not well known," she says. "A lot of people look to Sicily as hot and wild and they don't realize how diverse it is. The wines are aromatic, bright with good acidity."

The six estates produce 2.2 million bottles per year, sold in 70 countries. The United States is the largest market, with the distribution focused in California, Florida, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York and Texas. Murray makes about six trips a year to the U.S., noting, "It really makes a difference when you explain person by person what Sicily is about."

People tend to know Etna and Nero d'Avola, but the lesser-known appellations are a hand-sell. Planeta hopes to put them on the map with unique wines focused on indigenous varieties. From the Dorilli Winery in Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Sicily's premier region, with only 34 producers, a soft, supple blend of Nero d'Avola and Frappato found big success when Murray sampled it by the glass and positioned it as Sicily's answer to Pinot Noir.

"It's a wine that people love, but its success is very much by trial," Murray says. She hopes to replicate that with Moscato Bianco from the Buonivini Winery in Noto. The super-dry white bears no resemblance to its sweeter cousins produced elsewhere, overturning assumptions not only about the variety, but how a warm-climate appellation can produce a crisp and fresh white.

Francesca cites Chardonnay as another Sicilian sleeper. "This wine has become the image of the changes in Sicilian wine. After a long journey full of surprises and successes, Planeta Chardonnay is today an icon for the whole of Sicily," she says. "The vines that produce it are unique in their location and terroir, and with calculated, careful fermentation and maturation in French wood, we have produced a wine unique in its grace and power."

"I hope in ten years' time, we're not going to talk about Nero d'Avola as a variety but we'll be more precise on the area," Francesca says, adding it is her hope that people will ask not for a wine from Sicily, but from Noto or Menfi.

"It's going to be the future of Sicily: not to have one idea of Sicilian wine, but to have many different areas that are going to be known."

An Island Dynasty

Planeta's six estate wineries represent every corner of Sicily and offer a cross-section of Sicilian wine.

Sambuca di Sicilia (Agrigento)
93 hectares (230 acres); acquired in 1995 (the original Planeta); vineyards since 1985
wines: Alastro, Plumbago, Chardonnay, Sito dell'Ulmo Merlot, Maroccoli Syrah
varieties: Grecanico, Nero d'Avola, Merlot, Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot

Dispensa Winery, Menfi
158 hectares (390 acres); two wineries acquired in 2001 and 2005; vineyards since 1996
wines: La Segreta Bianco, La Segreta Rosso, Rosè, Cometa, Burdese
varieties: Nero d'Avola, Grecanico, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Fiano, Chardonnay, Merlot, Viognier

Dorilli Winery, Vittoria (Ragusa)
34 hectares (84 acres); acquired 2001; vineyards since 1997
wines: Frappato, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Dorilli Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico
varieties: Nero d'Avola, Frappato

Buonivini Winery, Noto (Siracusa)
51 hectares (126 acres); acquired 2003; vineyards since 1998
wines: Santa Cecilia, Passito di Noto, Moscato di Noto
varieties: Nero d'Avola, Moscato di Noto, Merlot, Syrah

Feudo di Mezzo Winery, Castiglione di Sicilia (Catania)
26 hectares (24 acres); acquired 2012; vineyards since 2008
wines: Brut, Etna Bianco, Etna Rosso, Eruzione 1614 Carricante, Eruzione 1614 Nerello Mascalese
varieties: Carricante, Nerello Mascalese, Riesling, Pinot Nero

La Baronia, Capo Milazzo (Messina)
8 hectares (20 acres); vineyards since 2011
site of experimental ancient varieties; 20 hectares of olive trees
varieties: Nocera, Nero d'Avola

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