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January 2009


WINE & SPIRITS

Romancing the Vine
By Baroness Sheri de Borchgrave

NOTEWORTHY ITALIAN GRAPES FROM SICILY TO CHIANTI TO FRIULI

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Though the natural beauty of Sicily has been well documented—from the ancient stone village of Taormina, to the dramatic, looming, forever-smoldering Mount Etna volcano—I was still surprised to discover another wonder: a winery appearing like an oasis in the desert of south-central Sicily.

After an endless stretch of isolation on the drive from Catania to Palermo, the arid hills gave way to a several-hundred-acre property, lush with grape vines, thousands of olive trees, huge pear cacti and citrus trees. In the 14th century, this was the most important estate for the feudal Princes of Butera; now, it's the Feudo Principi di Butera winery.

I entered a Moorish structure with towers and turrets that stood like a welcoming sanctuary and joined winemaker Antonino Tranchida for a lunch featuring Nebrodi pasta with a sauce made from wild black pigs, along with a tasting of ruby-red Nero D'Avola wines.

Nero d'Avola is Sicily's indigenous grape. When vinified, it has a bouquet of almond blossoms and an earthy depth of flavor that expresses the island terroir. With its high acidity and flavors of dark cherry and spice, the wine perfectly matches the region's rich, hearty food. The 2003 Deliella, aromatic with sage, eucalyptus and mint, is made from Nero d'Avola grown 1,000 feet above sea level. The cool desert nights make for a long growing season, which adds extra complexity to the wine.

This unique oasis winery, after centuries of neglect, was rescued just 10 years ago by the Zonin wine family. Though the Zonins have been in the wine business since the 19th century, only recently have they begun to acquire high-end estates. In the last 20 years, when they purchased most of their 11 properties in Italy, the family has diversified from mostly inexpensive table wine production (at their main property in the Veneto region) to handcrafted age-worthy wines.

After visiting their Sicilian estate, I flew north into Tuscany and then drove through the wind-swept hills of the Chianti Classico DOC region. There, set among the steeply sloping vineyards and towering cypress trees, was the 2,000-acre Castello D'Abola winery. The original fortress that anchors the property dates back to the 12th century, when it was home to a noble family from Florence. Gianni Zonin, who bought the property in 1979, expanded the main building into a summer retreat for his family.

Castello D'Abola's garnet-hued Chianti Classico, made from 100 percent Sangiovese grapes, is a velvety wine with bright dark cherry and wild berry flavors. The same winery also produces an astonishingly good Super Tuscan, a blend of Sangioveto and Cabernet Sauvignon, under the label Acciaiolo. It is an elegant, fruity wine with good, strong tannins. During my visit, I also tasted another Super Tuscan, Sassabruna, from the family's nearby Rocco di Montemassi estate. A blend of Sangiovese, Merlot and Syrah, it was vibrant, with flavors of berries, licorice and spice.

Soon Tuscany gave way to Friuli, Italy's northernmost wine region. It was a four-hour drive past Venice to the dazzling Tenuta Ca' Bolani winery, which boasts 1,000 acres planted with vines. The sprawling property, with its six-mile-long driveway cutting through vineyards flanked by precisely 999 tall cypress trees, is the largest wine estate in northern Italy. Wine has been produced here since Roman times.

Seventy-five percent of Tenuta's vineyards are planted with white grapes, much of them dedicated to mass-market Pinot grigio and prosecco. Our tasting included a lovely Pinot grigio with notes of acacia. We also sampled the family's very fine prosecco, which will soon be making a big splash in the States. Family patriarch Gianni plans to dispatch his matinee idol, middle son Francesco, to the United States where, as star of a new ad campaign, he will become the face of the family to American consumers.

The story of the Zonin wine empire centers around Gianni's three sons—and the rumors swirling about who will become the seventh generation to head the enterprise. All of Italy is speculating and taking bets. I met the three contenders: The oldest, at 35, Domenico, shares the name of the company founder, and is as enigmatic and complex as a Nero d'Avola. Francesco, 34, is hip and sexy, just like a Super Tuscan. Michele, 31, is as youthful as a Dolcetto. The wildcard might be their cousin Lorenzo (the empire's reigns did once pass to a cousin), a princely heartthrob as refined as an aged Chianto Classico. Though the future of the family remains undecided, we can look forward to seeing Francesco (who's the odds on favorite) popping Zonin Prosecco—and spreading la dolce vita—on our side of the Atlantic.

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