story and photos by Fred Swan
San Francisco-based restaurant A16 hosted a very educational—and delicious—“MasterGlass” on Nero d’Avola with Alessio Planeta on August 17 at its Oakland, California, location. Alessio is head winemaker at Planeta, one of Sicily’s largest wineries, which he co-owns with other members of his family. His presentation on Nero d’Avola, the king of Sicilian red grapes, was much more informative than typical master classes. And A16, a James Beard Award winner for its outstanding wine program focused on southern Italy, was the perfect venue.
Nero d’Avola is the seventh-most-planted red grape in Italy. However, it’s the most-planted red grape in Sicily and accounts for 16% of all vineyard acres there. That’s more than twice the acreage devoted to the next most popular Sicilian red, Nerello Mascalese.
Nero d’Avola may date back many centuries and is clearly documented in the late 17th century. It now grows successfully all over the island, except for the small, cool climate Mount Etna. The variety’s character clearly reflects the unique climate of each region.
Planeta has Nero d’Avola in five areas: Menfi DOC, Cerasuolo di Vittioria DOCG, Vittoria DOC, Noto DOC, and Mamertino DOC. Planeta was the first to plant it in Menfi which, at that time, was almost solely dedicated to white wines.
Nero d’Avola ripens relatively early, typically mid-September, in Sicily. That’s about the same time as Syrah and well before either Frappato or Nerello Cappuccio. The grapes and bunches are heavy, 50% larger than those of Merlot. The Nero d’Avola grapes, then, offer less sugar, color and tannin than Merlot. However, despite having lower total acidity by volume, Nero d’Avola is much zippier, because it carries more malic acid and thus a substantially lower pH.
This tasting seminar was dubbed a “MasterGlass” because Austrian glass manufacturer Riedel has created a glass specifically for Nero d’Avola wines. Riedel leveraged its wealth of experience in optimizing the size and shape of glasses for specific varieties and regions. However, they also consulted extensively with dozens of Sicilian winemakers. A number of blind tastings guided, and then determined, the final design.
The glass has a tall bowl that is broad at the bottom but tapers dramatically to the top. It is similar to the Riedel Syrah glass, but with a much narrower aperture. Alessio Planeta told me this glass focuses the varietal’s aromas optimally, creating the best experience for consumers. Attendees tasted six Planeta Nero d’Avola wines in the new stems.
Sandy-soiled Vittoria delivers Nero d’Avola that is lively, red-fruited and ready-to-drink, in part due to blending with Frappatto. The Planeta 2015 Cerasuolo di Vittoria ($23.99) is juicy and ripe with fresh and baked red cherry and strawberry, spice, and sweet herb. The palate is medium-bodied and tangy with a light dusting of very fine, soft tannins. The Planeta 2015 “Dorilli” Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico ($32.99) is a little less intense, but darker, longer, and more structured—well-suited to a meaty meal or a few years in the cellar. Aromas and flavors include cherry skin, raisined cherries, blackberry, spice, earth and orange-inflected acidity.
Mamertino is in the extreme northeast of Sicily, not far from the mainland and facing the Tyrrhenian Sea, rather than the Mediterranean and Africa. It’s a new planting for Planeta, the first wine being a 2013. The Planeta 2015 Mamertino ($32.99) is a 60/40 blend of Nero d’Avola and Nocero. It has medium-plus body with plenty of fine-grained, grippy tannins balanced by acidity. Aromas and flavors include carob, dusty black cherries, tamarind and oak.
Noto, in the southeastern corner of Sicily, has calcareous soil and its warm, dry climate yields complex, structured Nero d’Avola with dark fruit flavors, laced with balsamic. The wines are tannic and reward cellaring. Planeta poured three vintages of the Planeta Santa Cecilia ($40.99) from Noto. The 2013 is ripe and aromatic with dark cherries, plum and balsamic. That ripeness is offset by tart acidity and robust, chalky structure. The benefit of aging Noto Nero d’Avola was illustrated beautifully by the 2007 vintage. Structure remains ample in the full-bodied wine, but is very refined. Complexity has blossomed with notes of tart strawberry, rhubarb, tobacco, tomato paste, dried fruit, spice and wood. It’s drinking very well now, but still has life ahead. Adding emphasis to aging capacity, the 2005 is still tightly wound on the nose and sumptuously tannic on the full-bodied palate. Flavors include black olive, dried black fruit, balsamic and dewy forest floor.
Nero d’Avola is increasingly popular with consumers in the United States. Its combination of approachability, ripe fruit, and reasonable pricing makes it an easy substitute for many New World reds. And, with the different personalities it shows due to regionality and blending, it can make sense to have more than one on a list.
Planeta is imported by Taub Family Selections.