• Simon Reilly

Keep it in the family

This article was originally published in Issue 16 of Root + Bone magazine.

Illustration by Ellis Van Der Does

When writing about Sicily one must do so with caution. I don’t know how many mafiosos read Root + Bone but one loose word from me that inadvertently disrespects the family could see a body part being posted through my letter box.

However, some of the wines coming out of Sicily just now are so exciting that I’m willing to put myself in the firing line to aide your vinous pleasure.

Sicily’s wine making community is diverse. Large cooperative producers sit alongside small scale, dynamic producers making natural wines from indigenous grape varieties grown on the slopes of Mount Etna.

Cooperatives or “cantina sociale”, as they are known in Italy, are groups of (typically small scale) growers or farmers who pull their grape harvests together and wine is produced under a single brand. Costs and profits are shared amongst the members. They are a vital cog in the Italian wine industry wheel, accounting for more than 60% of Italy’s wine production.

One of Sicily’s best cantinas is Centopassi. Not only do they make excellent wine but they are making it with grapes grown on land once owned by some of the most feared mafia families. In 1996 the so called Rognoni-La Torre law was introduced, following a petition by Sicilian farmers, which allowed the confiscated land to be used for farming rather than sitting derelict. The law was named after the outspoken anti-mafia activist Pio La Torre.

An organisation called Libera Terra (meaning “freed land”) was created to manage this confiscated mafia land across Sicily, promoting high quality produce and organic farming methods through social cooperatives. Centopassi is the wine making entity of the Libera Terra, producing a range of high quality, organic wines grown with (largely) indigenous grapes on high (500-950m above sea level), rocky vineyards on “freed land” in the Upper Belice Corleonese region of Sicily, not far from Palermo in the west of Sicily.

Each wine they produce is dedicated to someone who opposed the mafia in pursuit of freedom and peace. The delicious Rocce di Pietra Longa (2015), is made from the local Grillo grape. It has floral, peachy aromas and a Chablis-like mineralilty, finishing with a saline bite. The wine is dedicated to “Nicolo Azoti, a trade unionist of Baucina murdered in 1948 by the mafia, so that his memory may dwell forever in our conscience”. (£15.50, Astrum Wine Cellars)

At the opposite end of the island, on the slopes of Mount Etna, one of Sicily’s most exciting winemakers is, in my opinion, making some of the finest wines available to humanity. I am not talking about a native Sicilian who has grown up in the family vineyard, but a Belgian bloke called Frank.

Taking the concept of laissez-faire to the extreme, Frank Cornelissen spurns not just chemical intervention in the production of his wines, but refuses to recognise any sort of “minimal intervention” philosophy at all.

While others faithfully follow organic or biodynamic treatments in the hope of producing a wine created alongside mother nature, Frank is simply not interested, claiming these to be “a mere reflection of the inability of man to accept nature as she is and will”.

Frank produces a series of single cru wines made from the indigenous Nerello Mascalese grape grown on old, ungrafted vines on Mount Etna. These are expensive, world class wines which need time and food to fully appreciate. However he also makes more approachable blended wines which are a delicious introduction to the great man;

The Susucaru (2016) rose, which doubles up as a light red for me, is a delicious, heady concoction of tart redcurrants and under-ripe raspberries which should be chilled and quaffed before every meal you eat. (£27, Noble Fine Liquor)

The Contadino (2015) is his entry level wine but it is a light-weight, mouth-wateringly strawberry chewit-esque delight. Chill this down and guzzle with pasta once you’ve demolished the Susucaru. (£18.60, Raeburn Fine Wines)