Drinks

The Grape White Hope

Sicilian winery Stemmari has big plans for Grillo
Stemmari Vineyards
Photo: Courtesy of Stemmari Vineyards

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Winemaker Lucio Matricardi calls Sicily "the new old continent"—or "the old new continent," depending on the day. The island's "old" designation is validated by a history of more than 2,500 years of wine production. And it's what Matricardi is doing now with the ancient grapes at the Stemmari winery in Sambuca di Sicilia that—relative to Sicily's time line—is very new indeed.

Thirty years ago, the vast majority of Sicilian wine was produced for Marsala and fortified wines. The region is so hot that grapes would literally bake in the sun, creating supersweet raisins that were juiced and blended with Northern grapes, adding structure to bulk wines. But in the 1990s, winemakers began shifting focus from quantity to quality, tearing up vineyards and replanting them with plenty of red, international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. And by the 2000s, indigenous grapes such as Nero d'Avola had come to the forefront of the Sicilian wine industry in purezza, bottled independently to represent the land in their purest form.

Now Stemmari is fine-tuning the use of another similarly unique berry: Grillo, a white grape used for centuries in blended Sicilian wine, prized for its ability to withstand high temperatures. Though the exact origins of Grillo are uncertain (some historians speculate it originally came from Italy's Puglia region), the grape now indisputably calls Sicily home. If Nero d'Avola—friendly, fruity and juicy—is Stemmari's flagship red wine, Grillo is its white counterpart. Matricardi calls Grillo the Cabernet of white: Bold and complex with plenty of body, it thrives when paired with food (richer fish, such as salmon, works wonderfully). But it is also nuanced with floral notes and hints of spices, dried fruit and nuts.

Stemmari is breathing new life into this workhorse grape, creating a fresh, modern, single-varietal wine that—with continued development—could eventually compete with some of the finest and most established white varietals in the international marketplace. To get the most out of this rediscovered grape, Matricardi must "speak with the vines," experimenting from year to year, continually tweaking vineyard management techniques to improve quality and maximize aromas and flavors. For example, he and Maurizio Maurizi, the winemaker who oversees day-to-day production at the facility, have tried harvesting at different times to hone in on Grillo's ideal level of maturation (earlier seems to work better in the hot climate).

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Though they're not afraid to use modern technology to optimize results, these winemakers seem to have a deep respect for tradition and balance. They utilize machines for pruning and picking to maximize efficiency but still employ people in the fields to do much of the hands-on work. Certified EMAS III (the highest level of European certification for an environmentally friendly organization), the winery uses solar power and recycles its water. "The water that we waste, we clean, and we use for irrigation, so it's a closed circle," Maurizi says.

Perhaps most intriguing, they forgo insecticide in favor of a "sexual confusion" system to thwart the efforts of unwanted pests. By hanging wires filled with the hormones of female insects all over the vines, male bugs are confused by the widespread smell and are unable to actually pinpoint eggs so they may reproduce. Thus, the vines are protected from being eaten or destroyed.

The result of all of this hard work is the cleanest, most authentic versions of these wines at extremely accessible price points: Stemmari's Grillo and Nero d'Avola are both available for under $10 in the United States. As an Italian winery, Stemmari makes the obligatory Pinot Grigio, too, and it's just fine (after all, parent company Mezzacorona does have more than 100 years of experience making Pinot Grigio in Trentino, so why not put it to use?). But in a market so saturated with international grapes all fighting for the same dollar, much more exciting is the newcomer with its own unique virtues to praise. Especially for the price, Stemmari's Grillo and Nero d'Avola are must-buys.

It's worth mentioning that in addition to using these two native grapes in their pure form, Stemmari does incorporate Grillo and Nero d'Avola in two higher-end blended wines: Dalila is an 80 percent Grillo, 20 percent oaked Viognier blend that has a sweeter fragrance but is quite balanced overall (the touch of oak rounds out Grillo's edge). And Cantodoro is an 80 percent Nero d'Avola, 20 percent Cabernet blend—also very much worth a try for only a few dollars more than the single-varietal versions.

In the future, Stemmari plans on developing more expensive products by blending Nero d'Avola and Grillo with outsiders such as Petit Verdot or Pinot Noir. But that's not to say the native varietals are ever to be outshined. "We are in Sicily; we are to produce Sicilian wines," Maurizi says. "When an American drinks our wine, he has to think about Sicily. There are 1,000 years of history of viticulture here—we have to put this history in the bottle."

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