Sambuca di Sicilia: Grapes from the South, ‘Cabbage’ from the North

by Silvestro on January 9, 2010

Feudo Arancio feels like a New World winery, a four-year-old, massive city-block of a building, modelled after a cloister, located on top of a beautiful hill in a part of Sicily that could be anywhere in the world. That’s assuming, of course, you’re in stunning, rolling wine country, the sleepy horizon broken only with olive, orange, lemon and Cyprus trees. Flash a picture of this to any foreigner and you can bet you’d hear the word ‘Tuscany’, first sentence. What’s odd about Feudo Arancio, is that there are no signs announcing the place whatsoever, not in the parking lot, not on the building itself, not out front, not even once you stumble inside and have actually started doing something that feels a whole lot like trespassing.

Through an office window I see a sole human being, an attractive woman that doesn’t look surprised to see me, nor bothered by my presence. Five minutes pass and then she surfaces and presents herself as Irene Luppino, in charge of Feudo Arancio’s External Relations. She’s pretty, well-dressed and eager to show me around and answer my barrage of questions, so eager in fact that an hour into the tour I’m convinced she’s mistaken me for someone else, someone much more important.

Do you take this kind of time for everyone that comes, I ask. She smiles the most incredible smile I’ve ever been responsible for and my heart cracks.  It’s a big, almost horse-like, generous and toothy smile; Julia Robert’s long lost Sicilian cousin. Each time she smiles I feel like I’ve done something meaningful, almost noble and within minutes I notice what, in fact, is making her smile, -what kind of questions and comments- and then like an idiot I start to construct my sentences thusly, almost forgetting about gathering any information about wine. At one point she asks me if my face is always so red, or is it just from all the bicycling: I catch my reflection in the polished surfaces of the stainless steel tanks and realise that I’ve been blushing the entire time.

I ask Irene three, very pointed questions, to which she doesn’t back down even a half-step. I ask, 1) Is Feudo Arancio seen internally as really just a major must provider for Mezza Corona, 2) Why do they make more non-autochthones-based wines than auctoctounous and 3) How mixed are their wines and what do they hope to gain from that mixing?

She smiles again (and I quickly scan the room for a defibrillator) and she says that, 1) Some of the must IS sent up north to round out the Mezza Corona line, but that it isn’t the primary purpose for the Sicilian operation. That, 2) the non-autochthonous grape-based wines are market entry ones, that consumers are likely to try an insolia only after they have tried and liked a chardonnay. And further, that many New World shop-keepers shelf their wines by grape, not brand nor nation. That it’s just simple marketing. That, 3) Feudo Arancio doesn’t mix grapes at all: Their Grillo is straight Grillo, their Cabernet straight Cabernet, etc.

I’ve been talking Sicilian wine fifteen hours a day for a few weeks now and this is the most alarming news to date. It simply doesn’t fit into my mental model, whatsoever.  When you ask other Sicilian producers, they will tell you that the so-called International Varietals are used to round out and compensate for the gaps that occur between indigenous grapes and what the international market wants today, the Parker-esque, high-alcohol, dry but fruit-forward powerhouses. But Feudo Arancio doesn’t mix their grapes at all, and the only compensation going on, is where the wines fit on the shelves around the world.

The must question is an interesting one, something approaching a dirty little secret in Italian wine. It’s so illegal to chapitalize in Italy- adding table sugar to a wine to boost it’s alcohol and thus body- that Irene says that they even have to report how many sugar packets they use at the company coffee machine. Many, many of your favourite central and northern Italian wineries are actually rounding out their wines with must (grape juice, or raw, unfermented wine) from the south, something to think about the next time you see an article about ‘the power and structure of Barolo’ or ‘the nobility of Barbaresco’. But then again this is somewhat common knowledge, up there with the fact that your supermarket Tuscan olive oil isn’t really Tuscan (if it’s even Italian, it’s from the south) or the amount of famously-celebrated vegetables that no longer grow anywhere near the cities they were named after.

The Feudo Arancio line is sort of the like the California-based Gallo used to be, in that it produces good, solid wines that hover around the 5 Euro mark (a bottle of their Grillo was excellent and the most pristine example of the grape I’ve had, the bottle coming in at Euro 4.20). It’s unlikely they will be your favourite wines from Sicily, but it’s also unlikely that you’d ever feel that your money was wasted on a bottle, or that you’d be embarrassed to serve them to even cherished guests. For North Americans and those in Northern Europe, these wines represent serious competition to the New World wines you’re drinking on Tuesday nights. (I didn’t think to ask for those of you residing in Australia, New Zealand or South Africa, but you can certainly find out on their site).

Mezza Corona, a massive-industrial winery in Trentino, invested 45 million Euro in Sicilia. This is a drop in the bucket compared to what Italy and the rest of Europe have invested in Sicilia, the difference being that a private company is going to actually micro-manage its investment, where as governments tend to follow investments about as well as someone giving coins to a panhandler. I’ve been to Mezza Corona and have had a number of their wines over the years. I prefer their Feudo Arancio Sicilians, which are gutsier, as opposed to what wine writers often refer to as ‘Northern Austerity’, which to me is just another phrase for ‘boring but expensive’. If you’re really interested in Sicily and Sicilian wines, you’ll skip their French-based wines but try their Grillo, Insolia and Nero d’Avola, which all represent not only excellent value but intriguing wines based on what are likely to be unfamiliar grapes. They’re wines that somehow make the world seem a little bigger, that there is still so much to learn about Italian wine, but in a good way.

I spent the second half of the day at the ruins of Akragus at Agrigento, wandering among throngs of tourists for the first time since I’ve been in Sicilia. Elderly Germans snapped pictures. Bus-fulls of Japanese all nodded when prompted by their ear-phoned audio tours. Scottish children bellied up fallen pillars. I thought about the role Sicily plays with respect to the outside world, both what Sicilian wines represent when consumed in Sidney, Toronto or San Diego, and too, how many foreigners are willing to take the trouble to seek out that elusive algebra of influences that sets Sicily apart from the rest of Italy.

In my saddle bags I had a bottle of Feudo Arancio’s Grillo, which I am drinking right now from the bottle, sitting up in the hotel room bed, typing into this computer, my dusty red shoes, connecting the two.

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