2020 Valle dell'Acate "Il Frappato" Vittoria ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle
2020 Valle dell'Acate "Il Frappato" Vittoria ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

A Thanksgiving Wine Ode to the Swiss Army Knife

425 Words (Or So) on Sicily's Versatile Red Wines

5 min read

Here is a list of dishes that don’t come to mind when considering Thanksgiving: fried rice balls, pasta alla norma, gambero rosso prawns, tuna steaks with a tomato-caper salsa, swordfish. But these are exactly the dishes that Sicilian red wines were born to play with: flavorful yet nuanced foods that trigger all five tastes at once. Often upright, fruity, assertive, but not overly taxing on the palate, the red wines from this diverse island are like a multitool in the gourmand’s pocket: the equivalent of a vinous Swiss Army Knife. And because of this, they have no problem shifting gears to the riot of flavors that is our uniquely American holiday.

Often upright, fruity, assertive, but not overly taxing on the palate, the red wines from this diverse island are like a multitool in the gourmand’s pocket: the equivalent of a vinous Swiss Army Knife.

But you need to be choosy. The most common grape is Nero d’Avola, a blue-skinned grape that can be utterly dazzling when it grows in the right conditions. Far too often though, it endures Sicily’s North African-like heat and whimpers into the bottle with stewed fruit tones. But in the right conditions and with careful winemakers overseeing its ripening, it can take on any role you want it to at the table with its fruity-spicy-floral character. Look for COS, Gurrieri and Gulfi especially, as well as Arianna Occhipinti, Planeta, Valle dell’Acate, Feudo Montoni and Alessandro di Camporeale (whose listed below). In California, Martha Stoumen makes a killer version of Nero d’Avola that can compete with the best of them.

Wilder still are the wines made from Frappato, a red grape that loves heat and somehow still yields low-alcohol wines of incredible freshness. Frappato conjures strawberries every time, and its lightness of being unifies the table. What it does with the fatty, iron-tinged flavors of swordfish, it transfers to roast turkey brilliantly. Look for the same producers as Nero d’Avola, as the two grapes both reach their apex in the same place (southern Sicily’s Vittoria region) and are also blended together into the island’s only DOCG-level wine, Cerasuolo di Vittoria. If you have guests who prefer more robust wines, perhaps look for the Cerasuolo instead.

Lastly, if you are dying to impress this Turkey Day, head up the volcano to Etna, where some of Italy’s most electrifying wines are made. We talked at length about Etna Rosso earlier this year, where Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio find the perfect alchemy of power, dark fruits, smoky tones and saline-like acidity. I cannot imagine a single Thanksgiving dish that Etna Rosso couldn’t handle.

Well, except for maybe that yam-marshmallow casserole disaster sitting over there. I can’t help you there.

Three Sicilian Reds to Look For


2020 Valle dell’Acate “Il Frappato” Vittoria

2020 Valle dell'Acate "Il Frappato" Vittoria ©Kevin Day/Opening a BottleVittoria DOC (Sicily) 
Grapes: Frappato (100%)
Alcohol: 13%
Opinion: ★★★★ 1/2 (out of five)
Food-friendliness: Impeccable
Value: Exceptional

   

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A beginner might like … discovering that “lightness” doesn’t always equal “wimpiness” in red wines. Frappato takes a few sips to get used to, but it never tires or wears out its welcome because of its awesome freshness. Valle dell’Acate’s version is lean and beautiful, carrying that signature sour strawberry tone along with almond- and white flower-like aromas, and a tinge — most appropriately for this holiday — of baking spice.

A wine obsessive might like … the thirst-quenching-to-complexity ratio of this wine. Just as wine beginners often think of light red wines as lacking power, wine obsessives often get trapped into compartmentalizing thirst-quenchers as being incapable of complexity (case in point: how many 100-point Frappato’s have you seen lately?). I found myself spending just as much time noodling on the fascinating details of Valle dell’Acate’s version of Frappato as I might a Nebbiolo or Sangiovese wine.

2018 Ciro Biondi “Cisterna Fuori” Etna Rosso

2018 Ciro Biondi "Cisterna Fuori" Etna Rosso ©Kevin Day/Opening a BottleEtna DOC (Sicily) 
Grapes: Nerello Mascalese (80%), Nerello Cappuccio (20%)
Alcohol: 13.5%
Opinion: ★★★★★ (out of five)
Food-friendliness: Impeccable
Value: As expected

           

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A beginner might like … something with a little bit more tannin than Frappato. OK, a lot more tannin. Etna Rosso has emerged as one of Italy’s most complex and rewarding wines, and this sterling wine (a top-tier selection) shows you why. It has a depth of fruit and smokiness that is quite complementary at the table, and a texture of grip-and-gloss that is endlessly interesting.

A wine obsessive might like … getting to know one of the underrated stars of Sicily. Here we have one of the finest examples of Etna Rosso, coming from a small winery on the volcano’s south slope. You’ve gotten this far in the article, dear reader, so you may as well take advantage of your subscription and check out our exclusive page on Ciro Biondi in the Essential Winemakers of Italy section where, among other things, we have embedded an aerial video of his gravity-defying vineyards.

2018 Alessandro di Camporeale “Donnatà” Nero d’Avola Sicilia

2018 Alessandro di Camporeale "Donnatà" Nero d'Avola Sicilia ©Kevin Day/Opening a BottleVittoria DOC (Sicily) 
Grapes: Frappato (100%)
Alcohol: 13%
Opinion: ★★★★ 1/2 (out of five)
Food-friendliness: Versatile
Value: Exceptional

     

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A beginner might like … the peppercorn-like spiciness of this red-fruit tinged wine. Oftentimes, Nero d’Avola has a savory streak that — as best as I can describe it — reminds me of salumi. Countered with even acidity, mild tannin and a tart snappiness on the finish, it strikes me as a very good, simple option for Thanksgiving.

A wine obsessive might like … the lack of stewed-fruit tones on this Nero d’Avola. If there is a knock against Nero d’Avola, its the sameness of its fruit, which — as noted earlier — gets bogged down in the flatness of cooked-raspberry-like flavors that smother out the details. This producer, whose Grillo has enormous bell-pepper overtures, appears to favor a leaner style of wine where the floral, spicy and even vegetal qualities are accentuated. Perhaps this is the result of their vineyards’ higher elevations (between 300 and 350 meters), but in this Nero d’Avola, we experience something new about a tricky class of wine.

Note: These wines were provided as samples by their respective importers and/or wine consortia. Learn more about our editorial policy.

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