COVID-19 has us all grounded. Europe (and especially Italy) is off limits. Since we can only travel in our imaginations right now, I would like you to come along with me to Sicily and share my memories of the wine adventure of a lifetime.

Our first Sicilian surprise came before we even started our wine travels. We flew to Palermo, which we were warned was “filthy and chaotic,” and probably not worth a one-night stopover.

Say what???

We were enchanted by the city (accent on the word city…and you know they can often be noisy and crazy…) We did a walking tour, then spent time at Mercato Vucciria. We sampled some traditional street foods (Arancina, Pane Panella e Crocche, even a piece of Sicilian Pizza). Then we topped all this yummy stuff off with some “who knows what wine,” which came in a bottle with no label. Who cares? It was wonderful.

We then moved on to Marsala, an important Sicilian wine region. Again, a surprise to me, since when I hear the word “Marsala” I think of cooking wine, the kind you pick up for a chicken recipe, then push into the back of a kitchen cabinet, rarely to be seen (or used) again.

Marsala is actually a fortified wine, similar to Port or Sherry, with an alcohol content of 15-20% percent. It is typically made from native Sicilian white grapes: Grillo, Catarratto, Inzolia.

We experienced a wonderful wine tasting and warm hospitality at Marco de Bartoli Winery in Marsala. Again the unexpected, as our tasting included a sparkling wine, a still white and a red, all made from indigenous Sicilian grapes. Then came the Marsala, which was about as far from the cheap wine we know (and dislike) as you can possibly imagine. We fell in love with (and purchased) the 1987 Riserva Marsala Superiore. Our friends loved the Bukkuram, a Passito di Pantelleria. I will never refer to Marsala as “just a cooking wine” again.

We next headed south to the town of Vittoria, where we visited Azienda Agricola COS. The well-respected red wine Cerasuolo di Vittoria is produced here. This blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato grapes represents the only DOCG designation in Sicily. DOCG is an acronym for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, a guarantee of quality and geographic authenticity. Only a handful of wines in all of Italy can be classified as DOCG.

At COS, we enjoyed not only excellent wine, but the finest Sicilian hospitality. We were first greeted by Elena, who was about to start our tasting, when one of the owners, Giusto Occhipinti, graciously offered to show us his winery. At COS large terra cotta vessels known as amphorae are used for fermenting and aging. Giusto was so passionate about his philosophy of winemaking (“Let the wine be itself”!) that we were sold, sold, sold…even though he was speaking Italian, and we only understood about every 3rd or 4th word!

Giusto Occhipinti charmed us so thoroughly that we almost forgot what were there for, which was a wine tasting paired with “local delicacies.” We were eventually rounded up by Elena, who took us through the COS product line. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, Elena served us a dessert called ravioli dolci di ricotta. This is a crescent-shaped piece of fried dough filled with a creamy mixture of ricotta cheese and chocolate chips… kind of a cross between a donut and a cannoli…pure heaven!

We left COS with memories that would last a lifetime. The experience would be impossible to top, we believed, until we headed north and arrived at Mount Etna.

How do you grow grapes on the slopes of an active volcano, we wanted to know…by the way, a volcano that had erupted only a little more than a year ago.

We got our answers from Dante, an uber-likeable (and talented) winemaker at Girolamo Russo in Passopisciaro. This town is on the north slope of Mount Etna, in the northeastern corner of Sicily.

Etna’s soil is rich with volcanic nutrients, he told us. And the grapevines at these high elevations benefit from the hot Mediterranean sun while the warm Mediterranean breezes help extend the growing season.

Dante started our tasting off with a 2016 Etna Bianco called Nerina, which is made from 70% Carricante and 30% other indigenous white grapes. We then moved on to a 2016 Etna Rosato, made from Nerello Mascalese, an indigenous variety produced only in the Mount Etna region. We finished up our tasting with a 2015 Feudo, which is a classic example of an Etna Rosso and is made almost exclusively from Nero Mascalese.

I know I have not done justice here to our exquisite experience at Girolamo Russo. It’s hard to describe the beauty of Mt. Etna…and even harder to convey the warmth of its people and their passion for what they do. I’m guessing none of the wines we tasted with Dante are available in the States, but they are distinctive and delicious. His heart is in those wines. If you ever see the Girolamo Russo label, grab a few bottles. They will not disappoint.

One of the great things about traveling is how it can change you if you let it. We went to Sicily with thoughts not just of hearty red wines, but of macaroni and Mafiosi. What we found was an intensely beautiful island with diverse cultural influences, incomparable local food and wine, and people…mostly people…warm, welcoming…surprising...

As I sit here in my TV room with my computer on my lap, I’m reading through this article while I look at the magnolia tree in my back yard in full bloom. It’s hard to even imagine being so far from home…amid the throngs of people at the Mercato Vucciria and drinking wine with Dante on the slopes of Mt. Etna. I want those days back! But even more, I want us all to stay safe so we can travel to these amazing places again someday… very soon…

Christine Carroll is a Certified Specialist of Wine. She is also a columnist for Wines and Vines Magazine in San Rafael, California, and one of the principals of Crossing Vineyards and Winery. You can contact her at: info@crossingvineyards.com

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