By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 9 March 2019
If you like your red wine with plenty of colour, sweetness and structure, you will love the king of Sicilian grapes – Nero d’Avola.
In the last twenty years, this esteemed Sicilian grape has started to produce really refined examples – but still on offer at fabulous prices. As Sicily’s most widely planted grape with over 20,000 hectares, there are plenty of grapes available from this high yielding variety to keep prices down – but the key is growing it in the warmest sites to achieve the best results.
When grown in the most sundrenched vineyards, Nero d’Avola makes a wine with great power, berried fruit and attack. Tastewise, it is a bit like a blend of a full robust Malbec and sweet spicy Shiraz with its ink-black colour, rich high sugar, liquorice fruits and spicy savoury notes – but Nero d’Avola also has a firm fresh acidity to liven up the finish.
No surprise that this Sicilian grape is a popular blender with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot bolstering up these elegant French grapes when grown in Sicily. In the not-too-distant past, the ‘black grape’ (as Nero was called) was regularly exported to Tuscany and Piedmont and even Languedoc to strengthen their lighter reds. In Sicily it is also found blended alongside the lesser known lighter Frappato and Nerello Mascalese grapes.
Recently Nero d’Avola’s fame has spread and is often made as a respected single varietal – many of which are now on our shelves. Some have been enriched with the appassimento technique – using dried grapes similar to the Amarone technique – which adds glycerol texture, complexity and raisiny notes.
Nero d’Avola’s homeland is near Syracuse in south-east Sicily, where it is believed to originate from the town of Avola itself. This is a land of baking hot parched flat vineyards with barely a hillock in sight. Plantings of the grape here used to be much higher, until it lost out to the increasing number of fruit and vegetables tunnels.
In the official Italian register of grapes, it is listed as Calabrese - it was first mentioned under this name in records in 1696 – but the name Nero d’Avola is the one that appears on our wine labels. It certainly rolls off the tongue a little easier - so I guess the Nero name is here to stay now.
Sicily’s heat-loving Nero d’Avola grape is also emerging as a great success story down-under too. For a grape that has a strong affinity with the sea, relishing sun-drenched maritime climates, McLaren Vale in South Australia (pictured below right) is a near-perfect location for it. Plantings are still small here, with at least five producers in McLaren Vale: Coriole, Sabella, Kay Brothers, Alpha Box & Dice and Pertaringa. In Clare Valley, renowned winemaker Jeffrey Grosset is experimenting with the grape – as is the Politini winery in King Valley, Victoria.
Nero d’Avola is starting to prove very popular with Aussie winemakers as this sunburn-resistant grape also requires far less water than other grapes – almost half the water required to grow Merlot or Chardonnay.
It was first imported by the Chalmers family into Victoria – they make a high quality example from Heathcote in northwest Victoria - and there are now 200,000 Nero d’Avola vines down-under from a single vine imported just twenty years ago. As temperatures continue to rise and droughts continue, we will see more of Aussie Nero d’Avola appearing from Riverina and Riverland regions. There is also a little of this sturdy workhorse ’black grape’ planted in California, Malta, Turkey and South Africa.
Sicily: TERRE SICILIANE NERO D’AVOLA 2016 (13%)
The cheapest Nero d’Avola in our tasting – shows the soft light milder side of this grape. Our tasters thought this quaffable, but unremarkable compared to other heftier more robust styles.
Sicily: NERO D’AVOLA LA FERLA 2017 Canicatti (13.5%) ***BEST VALUE***
£7.25 The Wine Society
Sourced from grapes grown on sandy silt and limestone soils in Palermo, Agrigento and Caltanessetta, this co-operative near Agrigento makes a very respectable wild plum and silky cherry fruited example.
Sicily: NERO D’AVOLA 2017 Mandarossa (13.5%)
£9.99 Valvona & Crolla, Edinburgh
A step up in quality to a damson, sweet chocolate and savoury red – served ‘blind’ this could be confused with an Argentinian Malbec.
Sicily: NERO ORO APPASSIMENTO 2017 (14%) ***BEST VALUE***
£8.99 Majestic Wine
So much colour and fruit for your money here, for those who like a sweet rich dense Nero d’Avola – this is made using dried grapes – it has a similar textural feel to Amarone, but in fact tastes more like an Australian Shiraz. Suit a big bold red lover.
Sicily: NERO D’AVOLA LA SEGRETA 2017 Planeta (13%)
£11.69 Valvona & Crolla, Edinburgh; Great Western Wine
Plummy spicy powerful example with dry tannins; rich cherry and blueberry fruits, lacking a little of the elegance of previous vintages. Made by the renowned Planeta wine estate.
Sicily: DEPASSO NERO D’AVOLA LEGGERMENTO APPASSITO 2017 (14%)
£14.99 Virgin Wines
A clever blend of two parcels from coastal vineyards: one where the grapes were dried and the other fermented just after picking. The result is deliciously raisiny with licquorice hints, deep complex layers of flavours with a freshly acidic bite to the finish.
McLaren Vale, South Australia: NERO D’AVOLA SIREN 2016 Alpha Box & Dice (12.7%)
£24 Woodwinters; Drinkmonger; Vincognito
Nero d’Avola grows well in the sun-drenched Trotts vineyard of maritime Blewitt Springs subregion of McLarenVale. It makes a raisiny sour-acid cherry fruited red with savoury, spicy with burnt beeswax note. Shows good potential for this grape in maritime climates in Australia.
Heathcote, Victoria, Australia: NERO D’AVOLA 2015 Chalmers (13.5%)
£16.30 www.theaustraliancellar.co.uk; Great Western Wine
Nero d’Avola has found a home in Heathcote’s ironstone red soils, producing this vibrant juicy example with delicious raspberry fruit and cherry notes.
Love Italian wines? Join Rose’s Hidden Wine Gems of Italy wine & Italian charcuterie tasting on Thursday 20 June at The Royal Scots Club in Edinburgh £45pp www.rosemurraybrown.com