Fiddling with the Sicilians – Nero d'Avola
One of the most lasting images of decadence and detachment is that of the Roman Emperor Nero allegedly fiddling while Rome burned. This, of course, is an apocryphal story. Nero reigned over the Roman empire from 54 to 68 A.D. The violin wasn't invented until the 1500's. This doesn't rule out the possibility of him doing some mean lyre plucking while the conflagration raged about him -- but fiddling…not so much.
What's this Emperor doing in a wine column? While I'm all about decadence (and not so much about pyromania), the only direct link between our day's topic and ancient Rome is the name. Nero, translated from Italian, means "black." Nero d'Avola is a grape varietal. Thus, the name is "The black [grape] of Avola." Avola is a small town in southern Sicily where this varietal was largely first cultivated.
Sicilian wine has had a bad rap for quite some time. The best known grape from Sicily is Marsala. Yes, the Marsala that you've probably seen used as cooking wine, right there next to the sherry on a well-stocked kitchen's shelf. Sicily made a few other wines largely for local consumption, but nothing really stood out on the world market.
However, like many other places in the world, as cultivation and wine making techniques continued to improve, and Sicily discovered that they could crank out some decent product. One of the great benefactors of these improvements was Nero d'Avola.
Nero d'Avola (also known as "Calabrese") was used for a long time as a blending grape, largely used for its inky color to add some heft to some of the other local product. However, cultivated properly, this varietal produces a very solid wine in and of itself. It's now the most cultivated grape in Sicily. Neros are generally big, fruity wines. They're usually very straightforward, and they have enough tannin to age pretty well -- but most are drunk relatively young.
While I don't think it will replace Montepulciano or Barbera on my table on a regular basis any time soon, I've tried a few and was pleasantly surprised:
Dievole "Pinocchio" 2007 Nero d'Avola - Dievole Winery itself is not in Sicily, but in Chianti. They imported grapes from there and found that they enjoyed the Tuscan soil. I can't lie, this is very fruity for a wine from Chianti. I'm used to wines from this region having a "chalky" taste. The chalk doesn't bother me when I'm drinking Chianti with food, but I usually won't drink one on its own. This wine is easy enough to drink on its own. It's soft and fruity, with a little bit of a floral nose. The finish is medium length and light. Pork or roast chicken would go well, as would a spicy fish preparation. $9-13.
Arancio 2007 Nero d'Avola - Feudo Arancio wines are Sicilian in origin. This wine is a decent representation of what the grape has become in its native soil. It's not as fruity as the first one -- considerably earthier, and with a little bit of that Italian chalk. It's still pretty fruity, but has a nice spicy undertone that I liked. It would be a great pairing with almost any hearty Italian food. We had it with chicken tortellini soup and it was fabulous. For the price, you can't beat it. $6-10.
Morgante 2006 Nero d'Avola - When I was a teenage sci-fi/fantasy geek, I read a series of books by Steven Brust. In this series of books, there was a type of weapon called a "Morganti" weapon that would destroy a person's soul. This similarly-named wine didn't do anything like that, but it did leave my soul weakened. Available for $11-18, this was the most expensive of the wines that I bought, and was by far the most disappointing. The nose was nice enough -- lots of fruit. The taste of the wine was unimpressive, however. No pronounced character of much of anything, and a finish that could only be described as flabby. Perhaps I just got a bad bottle, but I'd snag two bottles of the Arancio in a heartbeat in its place.