A Wine Lover’s Diary, Part 513: Sicily

Sicilian souvenirs

Thursday, September 18: Deborah dropped me off at the airport for my flight to Rome. I connected with Sheila Swerling-Puritt, who is joining me on this trip to visit several wineries in Sicily. We are booked Business Class and the stewards wanted to take selfies of us to send to our wine writer colleague Tyler Philp, who is an Air Canada pilot. Watched Million Dollar Arm and slept for three hours.

Friday, September 19: When we arrived in Palermo it was 35°C with a warm sirocco wind. We were met by our hosts, Mariza and Maria, who drove us to our hotel in a small town called Alcamo, 20 minutes west of Palermo. We checked into the Hotel Centrale and walked around the corner to the oldest bar in the city, Bar 900 (since 1937) and tasted the local speciality arancine – deep-fried balls of rice, saffron, mozzarella, minced beef and peas – the size of soft baseballs. Apparently, the shape varies as to where they are made; they can be log-shaped or, in Palermo, pyramid-shaped. We also tried a biscuit called Lingua di Suocera (mother-in-law’s tongue), made from orange, honey, almonds and butter.

Arancine – deep-fried balls of rice

Selection of dolce at Bar 900

Put my head down for a couple of hours before dinner. We were driven by Maria’s husband Stefano to Adragna Fiori (Via Ellera, 17, Alcoma), a beautiful Relais & Châteaux property about 15 minutes away. It used to be a former Tasca winery and was converted to a restaurant and hotel eight years ago. We dined with the three winery owners we’re here to visit, although the owners of BioViola, Davide Adragna and his wife Irana, arrived when dessert was being served, as he had to fly in from Rome. We started with a variety of appetizers – tuna with melon, raw swordfish with pineapple, swordfish caponata, deep-fried squid and shrimps, served with Cassara Zibi 2013 (100% Muscat of Alexandria, called Zibbibo here). With the strozza preti (“choke the priest”) pasta in a sauce of shrimp and sea urchin, BioViola Yule 2013 (100% Cattarato). The main course was amberjack with grilled zucchini and eggplant and boiled potatoes, served with Possente Grillo 2013. Dessert: prickly pear in a citrus and honey sauce followed by cassatelle (deep fried sweetened ricotta dusted with caster sugar) with Oro del Mille Marsala Superiore Secco. Got to bed around midnight.

Saturday, September 20: A surprisingly good sleep – God bless melatonin – and up at 7:30 am. After breakfast Sheila, Marzia and I went on a conducted tour of Alcamo with our knowledgeable guide, Sandra. She recounted the history of the town. It was founded in 828 by the Muslim commander al-Kamuk (after whom it is named) and is today a town of 45,000 inhabitants. The most prominent feature is a Norman castle begun in 1340, Castello dei Conti Modica, built in a rhomboid shape, with two square towers and two circular. It used to be a prison up until 1968, when it was abandoned after the great earthquake as unsafe.

Castello dei Conti Modica, Alcamo

We toured several churches and were impressed by the sculptures of Giacomo Serpotta (1652–1732), who worked in stucco but his pieces look as if they were executed in marble. The secret of his technique died with him; he didn’t even pass on the knowledge to his son.

Giacomo Serpotta’s stucco sculpture


At noon we all met with the president of the Strada del Vino Alcamo DOC, Vincenzo Cusumano, for a briefing on the wines of the region. Strada del Vino Alcamo is one of 13 wine routes in Sicily and the first to be founded (in 2000). The concept covers wineries, vineyards, hotels, restaurants and agri-tourism. Alcamo, he told us, is the largest vineyard area in Europe. Sicily has 110,000 hectares of vines; Alcamo has 10,000 hectares. The region became a DOC for white wines in 1972 and in 1999 a DOC was added for red wines. The history of Sicilian wines is reminiscent of the Pays d’Oc; the deeply coloured, high-alcohol wines were transported north to give colour and backbone to the wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and northern Italy. Lunch: a salad at a local restaurant, brushing away the flies.

In the afternoon we were picked up by Davide and his friend Francesco Pirrone, who runs a tourism business called My Sicily (www.mysicily.it). I stopped to pick up a canister of mosquito repellant on the way to BioViola’s vineyard in the Valle di Calatafimi (which has its own DOC). The owner of the property, Anthony Adragna, Davide’s uncle, showed us around the vineyard, which has been organic for 20 years. Anthony is obsessive about keeping it so and would not disturb a spider’s web (“Spiders catch the insects,” he told us). We all had to limbo under the web that stretched between two rows of Nero d’Aavola. BioViola also produces tomatoes, honey (from black bees), olive oil and wheat (they make their own bread and pasta) as well as table grapes. Anthony prepared sandwiches of pecorino with tomatoes and olive oil, and the pecorino with honey, as we tasted BioViola Yule 2013 (Catarratto), BioViola Rosato 2013 (Nero d’Avola) and BioVila Merlot 2013 (the first vintage of this wine).

Davide and Irana Adragna at BioViola

Then we drove to Segesta to see the magnificent Greek temple as darkness fell. When we arrived the manager of the Sicilian guitar virtuoso, Francesco Buzzurro, was introducing his client who, for the next two hours, performed the most spectacular concert I have been privileged to attend. He made his electric guitar sound like an orchestra with a variety of works that covered flamenco, fado, George Gershwin, a Beatles medley, Nessun Dorma and a rock concerto – as well as his own compositions. At the end of the concert we purchased two of his CDs which he signed and had his photo taken with us.

Francesco Buzzurro performing

Then we drove over to La Agorà di Segesta, a huge restaurant complex where there was a wedding in progress. From our table outdoors we could see the illuminated Greek temple on the hill in the distance. We started with a seafood platter of octopus with cream cheese, swordfish carpaccio, oyster, shrimp and tuna in a sweet and sour sauce with onions. The accompanying wine was BioViola Alcamo Gillo 2013 (reminiscent of a Vernaccia di San Gimignano). Next dish, loup de mer with couscous followed by agnolotti stuffed with ricotta and fish roe with a swordfish and pistachio sauce, and then grilled swordfish with artichoke pudding and giant prawns. Finally, dessert of fresh fruit and lemon sorbet. And then almond parfait with chocolate sauce and cassaletta. A Bianchi Grappa to end the dinner. Back at the hotel by 1 am.

Maria Possente and husband Stefano

Sunday, September 21: A late morning start, thank goodness. Had breakfast at 9:30 am and Stefano and Maria picked Sheila and me up at 10 am to drive to the Riserva Naturale Orientata Bosco d’Alcamo atop Monte Bonifato. It was a steep walk up to the tower, a small chapel and the ruined castle at the top (800 m), marked along the way by the ceramic signs depicting the Stations of the Cross. After visiting Al Sanctuario Maria SS. Dei Miracoli with its ornate pulpit we drove to the Possente winery.

Possente’s winemaker Antonio Possente

The Possente family own 33 hectares of vines in the Alcamo and Salaparuta DOCs. They also produce olive oil and five different types of honey. It was 37°C by the time we arrived for a tour. Winemaker Antonio Possente showed us around and offered us tastings from the tanks and barrels. We tasted Grillo 2014 from Salaparuta, Zibbibo 2014 from Alcamo, Nero d’Avola and Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Syrah from barrel that will be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon.

The lunch in the fermentation cellar started with octopus, celery and carrot salad and progressed, through swordfish and eggplant casarette pasta, then spaghetti with sardines, walnuts, raisins and onion followed by swordfish caponata. Dessert: melon and prickly pear, followed by homemade cannoli that Stefano filled himself. The wines: Possente Kima 2013 (a blend of 60% Cattarato, 30% Grillo and 10% Viognier), Possente Nero d’Avola 3013 and Possente Zohra 2013 (60% Nero d’Avola, 30% Syrah and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon). Finally, Limoncello or Amaro Punico and fresh Zibbibo grapes. Staggered up from the table to tour the rest of the winery before driving to see the Possente’s Alcamo and Salaparuta vineyards.

Stefano filling cannoli with sweetened ricotta

Then on to the towns of Gibellina and Poggioreale which were destroyed in the Belice earthquake of 1968. We walked around Poggioreale, which looks like a war zone. The quake happened on January 14 and 15, 1968, killing some 320 people and rendering 100,000 people homeless. A very sad sight.

Monument commemorating the 1968 earthquake in Poggioreale

Had dinner in the Hotel Centrale dining room. A mixed grill with roast potatoes and a bottle of Cusumano Syrah 2012 which we didn’t finish and gave the quarter of a bottle left to the owner of the hotel, who was sitting by himself surfing the TV channels.

Monday, Sept. 22: Lidia from Cassará picked us up and drove us to the winery, a large industrial-looking plant in the valley below the town of Alcamo. The vineyards are around the winery. Cassará produces some 400,000 bottles (16 different wines) as well as grape concentrate for the food industry. They also bottle wine for other producers. Rocco Antinello Cassará, who is always on the phone, started bottling his own wines under the Antinello Cassará label in 2007.

Rocco Antinello Cassara

Sheila and I sat down to a tasting of the following wines:

  • Fritz Vino Frizzzante (Zibbibo): aromatic, dry and light with a faint spritz; flavours of orange blossom, honey and citrus peel. (86)
  • Antinello Cassará Grillo 2013: minerally, spicy, citrus peel, dry and soft on the palate with a touch of bitterness on the finish. (87)
  • Antinello Cassará Catarratto 2013: pale lemon colour; oily-minerally nose with a light floral note; dry, honey and lemon flavours, good mouth-feel with a smoky finish. (88)
  • Antinello Cassará Jacaranda Sauvignon Blanc 2013: lemon yellow colour; grassy, green plum and green pepper nose; crisply dry with a grapefruit and green pepper flavour. (87)
  • Antinello Cassará Kilim Chardonnay 2013: straw colour; spicy, pineapple nose; flavourful New World style with a warm finish. (88)
  • Antinello Cassará Nero d’Avola Rosato 2013: deep salmon pink; on the nose, strawberry with minerality; dry, strawberry and grapefruit and orange peel flavours. (87)
  • Antinello Cassará Nero d’Avola 2012: ruby colour; plum nose; firmly structured with evident tannins; earthy with a lively acidic spine and a salty note on the finish. (87)
  • Antinello Cassará Shiraz 2012: deep ruby-purple colour; floral, vanilla oak and blackberry nose; dry, elegant and well structured. (89)
  • Antinello Cassará Ellissi 2009 (60% Nero d’Avola, 40% Merlot): deep ruby colour with a mature rim; tomato paste, balsamic and prune nose; rich and pruney flavours with evident tannin.(87)
  • Antinello Cassará Solcanto Nero d’Avola 2010: ruby colour; raisiny, plum and licorice nose; dry, plum flavour with grainy tannins and lively acidity (like Barbera with muscle). (88)
  • Antinello Cassará Adelante 2008 (60% Nero d’Avola/40% Syrah): mature ruby colour; meaty, dried fruit nose; spicy, licorice and plum flavours with a tannic bite on the finish. (87)
  • Antinello Cassará Kilim 2008 (60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot): mature ruby colour; claret nose – warm cassis, plum and cedar; soft mouth-feel, rich and full on the palate with disty tannins. (89)
  • Antinello Cassará Passitto de Pantellaria (NV – Zibbibo): deep amber colour; high-toned, spicy, orange and honey nose, rich and full on the palate, sweet but well balanced with acidity. (91)

Tasting of Cassará wines

After the tasting the winemaker, Giovanni Angileri, took us into the cellar to taste the 2014 wines from the tanks – Inzolia, Zibbibo, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Nero d’Avola and Syrah. Then we sat down to a picnic-style lunch of barbecued pork sausages, tomatoes, salami, olives, anchovies and cheese in Rocco’s office.

Rocco told us about the first time he was in New York and saw a sign for hot dogs. He ordered one and told his friend that he must have got the dog’s penis. His lawyer, who turned up, inspired by Rocco’s story, told us a joke about a man who walks into a restaurant with three beautiful women and a parrot and asks for a table for twenty. The joke lost a lot in translation and had to do with an Italian slang for penis.

A rest at the hotel before Lidia came to pick us up at 5 pm to take us back to Cassará where Rocco drove us all to Castellammare del Golfo, a charming coastal town and to see the rocks at Garaglioni di Scopello. Then we stopped for fresh orange juice in the town of Scopello before driving back to Alcamo, where we attended a lecture by a famous Sicilian chef, Filippo La Mantia, sponsored by the local Rotary Club. The lecture was held in a church, which was very hot. The women were all fanning themselves like humming birds. After a 20-minute introduction in Italian, the chef began (in Italian). We were almost falling asleep so we got up and left. We were meant to join the chef and the rest of the audience for dinner but since the proceedings would be in Italian and the chef apparently spoke no English we decided to have a quiet dinner of arancine and a beer at Bar 900.

Tuesday, September 23: Slept till 9 am! After breakfast I walked around the town. They have a novel way of putting out garbage for collection: from the upper floors of the buildings (and most are three or four storeys) they lower plastic bags of garbage by rope from the verandas that hang suspended about three feet above the sidewalk, out of reach of the stray dogs. Lunched at La Buffalotta in Alcamo’s main square: Spaghetti Bottarga e lime (a sauce of dried fish rose) followed by grilled tuna and salad of lambs leaf lettuce and detterino tomatoes with a bottle of Azienda Agricola Milatzzo Maria Constanza Bianco 2013 (Inzolia and Chardonnay – delicious). Tried to do some shopping in the afternoon but the shops close until 4:30 or 5 pm.

Castellammare del Golfo

Stefano, Maria and Marzia picked us up to drive to Castellammare del Golfo, where we would catch a boat to San Vito lo Capo to attend the 17th annual Cous Cous Fest – a six-day event featuring chefs from ten countries. (Their motto is “Make Cous Cous Not War.”) The open boat held 19 people and as we cleared the harbour it began to take on water as the bow dipped in the choppy seas. One guy was drenched head to toe and the deck was flooded. Everyone demanded that the “captain” turn back. So we drove to San Vito lo Capo instead and had to park a couple of miles from the town centre, where the stalls had been set up. Eventually, we got there by shuttle bus and wandered through the outdoor stalls selling all manner of Italian foods before taking our seats in the Cous Cous lab.

Candy stall at the Cous Cous Fest

Maria Possente, whose company supplied the wine and the olive oil for the lab, was on the panel. She was interviewed by an extremely loquacious moderator who, it turned out, came from Brooklyn. Eventually we were all served a dish of couscous prepared by Chef Fabrizio Barontini, who looked every inch a chef with his bulging stomach. The accompanying wine was Possente Kima 2013 (Grillo, Catarratto and Viognier) that went very well with the couscous (decorated with slices of peach, dried tomato, artichoke, carrot and squid). Stopped for ice cream on the way back to the car park and made it home to the hotel by 1 am.

Chef Fabrizio Barontini with his cous cous dish

Wednesday, September 24: Marzia picked us up after breakfast to drive us on a sightseeing tour of Erice. To get to this walled village 750 metres above the city of Trapani you can take a 20-minute ride on a cable car, which gives you a commanding view of western Sicily and the islands.

The church in Erice

We stopped at La Pasticceria di Maria Grammatico for an espresso and some local pastries – Genovese, a short crust pastry filled with custard, Pasta di Mandola (an almond cookie) and Buccellati (a pastry filled with fig jam). Then we drove to Marsla for lunch at Osteria il Gall e l’Innamorata – arancine stuffed with smoked salmon to start, followed by Busiata (a tight spiral pasta) with cuttlefish and squid, accompanied by a glass of Gorghi Tondi Grillo 2013.

At 3:30 pm we presented ourselves at Florio for a tour of this vast Marsala enterprise. (They have 6 million litres of Marsala ageing in their cellar. The oldest barrel dates back to 1939. The plant was bombed in 1943 by the Americans and much wine was lost.) At the end of the tour of the cellar we had video tasting (led by an actress) of three Florio products – Terre Arse Virgin Marsala, which was paired with parmesan cheese, Targa Semi-Dry with gorgonzola and Grecale Moscato with a biscotti.

Barrel of 1939 Florio Marsala

Then we drove over to Isola di Mozia to see the salt pans and the 14th-century salt mill. Along the coast between Marsala and Trapani are mountains of white salt 100 to 200 tonnes each which are covered with tiles to protect them from the winter rains and allow the salt to dry. Back in Alcamo, Marzia, Sheila and I went for pizza at La Gattopardo, with a bottle of Possente Zhora 2013.

Salt mill at Isola di Mozia

Thursday, September 25: A threat of rain today. Being a passenger in Sicily is a nerve-wracking experience. Nobody obeys stop signs and cars suddenly appear out of side streets. Cars double-park all over the place and pedestrians wander out in the streets as if there is no traffic. Drivers will stop in the middle of the main street to talk to friends they meet. It’s a game of chicken as to who will get into a line of traffic before the next guy.

This morning Marzia drove Sheila and me to Castellammare del Golfo to tour the castle that stands at the end of the jetty. It was built by Arabs in the eighth century and completed by the Normans. Inside is an exhibition of the tuna industry showing how the fishermen trapped the tuna in nets and hauled them into their open boats with grappling hooks at the end of long poles.

Lunching with John and Marzia

Stopped for ice cream and then drove back to Alcamo for lunch at La Buffalato with Marzia and her fiancé, John Meli, who is growing wine in his family’s home town of Pachino. I started with caprese salad and then Pasta Norma (served in a hollowed out eggplant). The wines: Possente Grillo, 2013, Possente KIma 2013 and Possente Zohra 2013.

Pasta Norma (served in a hollowed-out eggplant) at La Buffalato

A rest before dinner – the last supper with the group of wineries we are here to visit. The venue is La Batia, where other parties are in progress. We are in a room with 30 people noisily celebrating a birthday, adjacent to another room where a bunch of 18-year-olds are also celebrating a birthday. There are ten of us at table and an endless possession of antipasti dishes arrive – caponata, pickled pumpkin, ricotta and honey, spinach wrapped in pancetta, Carpaccio, stuffed mushroom caps, deep-fried chick peas, stuffed dried tomatoes, mashed potato patties stuffed with ham, eggplant, fried cheese, salami, olives and more cheese. Then the main course, pappardelle with wild boar ragu. Dessert: prickly pear and pastries filled with sweetened ricotta. The wines: BioViola Merlot 2013, Possente Zohra 2013 and Cassará Shiraz 2009. Left the table around midnight just as the eighteen-year-olds began dancing to DJ’s music at the threshold of pain.

The “last supper” at La Batia, Alcamo

Friday, September 26: Packed and ready for my flight to Barcelona to attend Torres’s Wine and Culinary Forum.

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