Italy, despite being one of the oldest and largest wine producing countries in the world, oftentimes seems to play second fiddle to the wines and grapes of France. Within Italy, the wines of Sicily are often overlooked in favor of the wines of Piedmont and Tuscany. As a result, a grape like Nero d’Avola, one of the most widely planted red grapes in Sicily, doesn’t get a whole lot of respect. The NYTimes tasting panel described a tasting of Sicilian Nero d’Avola’s done last year as for the most part “powerful, oaky, heavy and ponderous,” while another taster said “It’s not one of my favorite grapes.”
Much of their criticism of the grapes seemed to have more to do with producers who over-used oak and produced plush, fruity wines. It also may be due to large swaths of plantings in potentially less-than-suitable terroirs. Sicily has traditionally been seen as Italy’s bulk wine region, and Nero d’Avola’s sunshine loving, drought resistant properties made it incredibly useful. The members on that tasting panel no doubt have much more experience with wine than I do, but I think that they’re selling Nero d’Avola a bit short. Based on a few Nero’s I’ve drunk recently, I think that the grape has much untapped potential.
These Nero’s have an easy-drinking fruit freshness, moderate tannic bite, and lovely herbal and berry aromatics. You just need to look for them not in Sicily but in Australia and California. Broc Cellars Nero d’Avola from Mendocino and Brash Higgins Nero from McLaren Vale both defy the critical descriptions of the grape raised above. Granted, these are not wines from your typical winemaker. Both of these wines were aged in clay amphorae instead of oak, and both of these producers have conscious philosophies that prioritize lighter, more drinkable wines over massive and ponderous fruitbombs.
I’m actually incredibly excited to see what will happen with Nero d’Avola in “New World” wine regions over the next few years. Nero is a grape that is well adjusted to the hot and drier climate that many of the world’s best wine regions are becoming, and it’s a grape that can make both the ever popular big red wines and, as described above, a much lighter style. Much like Zinfandel, perhaps it’s a grape that needs to travel to find its true home.