Discovering Sicily: True Cooperation at MandraRossa and Canicatti
If Sicilian wines are still being incorrectly identified as emphasizing quantity over quality, another anachronism is that production by cooperatives automatically means poorly made wines. But, with MandraRossa’s intensive adaptation of technology and careful attention to every last detail, it’s clear that striving for quality isn’t restricted to family-owned wineries.
When I arrived at MadraRossa’s Casa Natoli, it was bustling with activity and after the relative quiet of being on my own since Monday morning, I was a bit flustered. But, after introductions were made by MandraRossa’s Brand Ambassador, Maria Isolina Catanese, I soon discovered how much I had actually been craving a full conversation in English. And, as my fellow guests were a group of restaurant managers from London, it wasn’t just English, it was English-English.
Built in 1830, Casa Natoli features the architecture of a typical country house and serves as home to MandraRossa’s cooking school. Ensconced in the Slow Food movement, the Kitchen Brigade at Casa Natoli prepared a multi-course meal featuring not just one, but several dishes comprising different varieties of artichokes (there’s more than one type of artichoke, who knew?), an especially bold move given that artichokes are often considered to be among the most challenging to pair with wine. Fortunately, the Fiano poured with lunch was indeed an excellent match.
After lunch, I was treated to a more formal presentation of the MandraRossa wines with a tasting out in the garden with the winemaker. The wines were quite lovely and the setting was simply heavenly. Then, the agronomist showed me their territory and provided additional details about their operations. Suddenly, we were back to speaking Italian, with the occasional translation from his more English-savvy colleague, when my requests for slower speech or repeated sentences proved insufficient to follow his meaning.
Named for the local district, MandraRossa was founded in 1958 and is part of Cantine Settesoli, which manages the largest single vineyard area in the whole of Europe. However, only the top 10% of Settesoli’s production goes into MandraRossa wines. Today, the cooperative has 88 members, who farm a total of 7,000 hectares. Among the most planted varieties are Chardonnay and Syrah, followed by Nero d’Avola.
The agronomist was keen to let me know how important it was to understand one’s terroir, explaining that they have spent significant time and effort to determine which varieties grows best where and then planting accordingly. In a further focus on quality, growers are advised by the agronomist when to harvest their vines and with which parameters to select their grapes. Moreover, harvesters are monitored by GPS, keeping careful tabs on what is going on within the region. Upon arrival at the winery (the cooperative maintains three), grapes are classified as A, B or C, depending on the quality of the crop, which consequently impacts the price paid to the grower.
Once the tour was over and I had checked into the hotel, it was time for dinner. The Brits and I all climbed into a van and were taken to a seaside restaurant where we kicked off the evening with an aperitif on the beach, just as the sun began to set. We were joined by a local dog (who likely belonged to the restaurant) and I somehow managed to step (barefoot) on a bumblebee (yes, ouch!), but the view was too stunning to worry about the pain for long.
Dinner itself was an exquisite array of fresh seafood, including raw gamberi (shrimp) that were so sweet, it was like eating candy. The Brits were a rowdy bunch to put it mildly, freely admitting to having been literally under the table the night before at Planeta’s La Foresteria. Thankfully, they were more subdued that night (perhaps too tired out from the night before?), although one woman proceeded to regale us with stories of her battle with Nutella addiction (she was joking, at least I hoped she was joking). And, when sorbet was served at the end of the meal, they were all anxious to convert them to sgroppinos (a slushy cocktail). The waiter was only too happy to oblige, bringing the entire bottle of vodka to the table and letting us pour at will. I declined the first round, but gave in on the second (if you can’t beat ‘em…and all that).
I encountered a similarly positive experience with another cooperative the following morning. Established in 1969, Viticultori Associati Canicattì, alternately referred to as CVA or simply Canicatti, is now home to 480 vinerons and 1,000 hectares. The vineyards are situated in the sunniest and driest part of Sicily, stretching out to the coast of Agrigento and comprising a wide range of altitudes from sea level to 600 m above the water.
As with MandraRossa, each vine is constantly monitored so as to identify the optimal moment for harvest. The vineyards are planted to both indigenous and international varieties, including: Catarratto, Inzolia, Grillo, Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio, as well as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.
Given the cooperative’s proximity to the Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples), the winery has a unique relationship with the park. Consequently, I was blessed with the opportunity to taste through their extensive portfolio just steps away from Greek and Roman ruins. Led by Technical Director, Angelo Molito, we started with a lovely, slightly sparkling wine, Satari Frizzante 2012, before we tasted through a selection of still whites. We then shifted to a Nero d’Avola-Nerello Mascalese rosato blend. Next up were the lighter-bodied reds, including the Aquilae Nero d’Avola, their most sold wine.
Finally, we turned our attention to a mini-vertical of Aynat, the winery’s flagship wine produced in very limited quantities from low yielding, 25-30 year old Nero d’Avola vines and aged in barrique and bottle before release. I was astounded by the beauty, depth, elegance and age-worthiness of this wine, particularly when tasting the 2006.
Just outside the Park Authority’s boundaries, Canicatti has recently taken possession of 3 hectares of 20-25 year old vines, situated in the shadow of the Temple of Giunone. The fruit from these vines will make their debut at VinItaly 2014 in the guise of Diodoros 2012 – Nectar of the Gods. A blend of Nero d’Avola, Nerello Cappuccio and Nerello Mascalese, the wine was first vinified in stainless steel in November 2012 and then, in May 2013, was transferred to barriques. Since the wine still has a full year of oak aging ahead, my preview tasting of a tank sample was an honor, but not a real assessment of what this wine will be upon release.
As we walked through the Diodoros vineyard, Angelo told me that the almond trees are strikingly beautiful when in bloom. I joked that I would be back in January to see them and, given the warm welcome I received that day, I’m almost convinced that if I were to show up on his door next year, he wouldn’t miss a beat before inviting me into his home and then taking me to see the trees.
While I would love to return to Sicily someday, I am pleased to know that there are many wonderful wines being produced by both families as well as by conscientious cooperatives, so that, at the very least, I can reach for a glass and be transported back to that very special week.