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    Savouring Sicily

    Your humble narrator was dining at a fancy Italian restaurant last week, when the tuxedoed server suggested pairing the first course with a Sicilian wine.

    While your globetrotting liquor reporter is well-versed in the wines from the famed Italian wine regions of Piedmont and Tuscany, the island of Sicily had always remained somewhat mysterious.

    Located off the southern coast of Italy, the island of Sicily is the warmest wine region of Italy, and has been producing wine for over 3000 years.

    In addition to being the largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily is also the largest wine growing region of Italy, and has been since winemaking practices were brought to the island by the Greeks in the 8th century BCE, where the rich volcanic soils and long hot summers proved ideal for grape cultivation.

    Sicilian wines were prized in the heady days of the Roman Empire, and have remained popular ever since.

    While it has since fallen out of favour, a particular fortified wine called Marsala was born in Sicily way back in 1796. Named after the city of the same name on the western coast of Sicily, Marsala is a fortified wine that was at the top of the wine world for over a century, and was considered the equal of Port, Sherry, and Madeira.

    Indeed, so popular was Marsala, that the bulk of production would be shipped off the island of Sicily for consumption by the noble classes, which was reflected in the high prices that Marsala was able to command.

    Unfortunately, by the 1950s, Marsala production had nearly disappeared, and those few still left on the market were of poor quality, and often relegated to the role of a cheap cooking wine. If you have ever eaten a Chicken Marsala, now you know the origin of the cooking wine in the recipe!

    The Italian government tightened the regulations around Marsala production around 30 years ago, so Marsala is slowly recovering from its tattered reputation, but is still usually relegated to the under-$20 bin at your local booze merchant.

    While its origins have been largely forgotten the Sicilian grape known as Primitivo has gone on to great success in the New World, when 18th-century Sicilian immigrants to California brought along clippings of Primitivo, but quickly renamed the grape to Zinfandel.

    Zinfandel was roundly mocked by the wine snobs of the world for decades, particularly in the 1980s, when a large production surplus led to millions of gallons of cloyingly-sweet White Zinfandel being produced by immediately removing the red grape skins after pressing.

    Your intrepid liquor reporter recalls his first taste of Zinfandel in the early 1990s, and it put me off the grape until the turn of the new millenium. Although my first warning should have been the $3 price tag on the bottle in a Las Vegas convenience store, I was young and foolish enough to give it a try. Much to my dismay, even the $3 price tag did not justify the syrupy sweetness, so most of the bottle was poured down the drain.

    Fortunately, the Zinfandel producers of California have upped their game over the past few decades, now producing a much drier and more balanced wine. Zinfandel is now considered the signature grape of California, with its Sicilian origins largely forgotten.

    The island of Sicily grows another darling of the wine world, in the form of the Nero d’Avola grape, which is by far the most widely planted grape on the island.

    The unimaginatively named grape comes from the Sicilian city of Avola, which even the non-Italian readers in the audience should be able to translate Nero d’Avola to mean nothing more than black grape from Avola.

    Nero d’Avola is often compared to Syrah, as both vines are partial to hot and dry climates. When grown closer to sea level, Nero d’Avola tends to be a big full-bodied red with plenty of tannic structure, making it suitable for extended ageing in oak barrels.

    Most of the Nero d’Avola wines available in the Alberta market are of the medium-bodied variety, and are usually priced in the $18-$25 range, making them quite the bargain. You can find a wide selection of Nero d’Avola at your local booze merchant, or at any Italian restaurant, so try one out today!