A Perfect Day in Sicily

The tyres kept slipping on the smooth, wet boulders and the car I was driving would not go further, the engine stalling with a jolt. After emitting a few gentle well-meant expletives, I admitted that we were stuck at the bottom of a steep valley just outside the town of Sambuca in south-west Sicily. The haunting theme from The Godfather chimed through my heated head, having an unexpected calming effect, helped on by the sight of the fine countryside, all green and forested with a scattering of autumnal vines.

A few kilometres off, the folk at the Planeta Ulmo winery – our destination – listened to our SOS phone-call with apparent disbelief. Following Googlemaps, we had taken the wrong turn down a road apparently reserved for Sicilian mountain-sheep, motocross riders training for Paris-Dakar or cyclists trying to work the anabolic steroids out of their quad-muscles. “In all of my years, nobody has ha-ever taken that road on the way to Planeta,” came the reassuring voice of Alessandro Serughetti, winemaker and viticulturist at this famous Sicilian winery.

Well, if there was going to be a first, be sure a party from South Africans would be involved. In this instance, said group comprised Monché Muller, chef at Pink Valley in Stellenbosch, photographer Toby Murphy and myself, all out here on a photography-writing-wine and cookery project. And the only way out of the valley was a steep walk back up the road, photography kit in-tow, while the Sicilians made a plan to get the car out.

As I have experienced in lands of visceral beauty and warm-hearted people such as Sicily, distress and pain – the latter being that lung-bursting lug up the slope – is followed by light and calm, and a lifting of the spirit. Beginning with a visit to the Planeta winery to get to the wines of Serra Ferdinandea, one of the global wine operations of the Oddo family from France.

Walking out the valley of the stuck vehicle: Joubert, Monche Muller and Toby Murphy.

For innovation, you must grab imagination. And this Serra Ferdinandea has done, surely. To emphasise the partnership between the Oddos French roots and their vision in Sicily, wines are made from grape varieties honouring both countries. On the white side, Serra Ferdinandea brings the Sicilian Grillo grape to partner Sauvignon Blanc. Over red way, Syrah finds itself blended with the famous Nero d’Avola. Combinations, I assume, to be world-firsts.

“The French varieties Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc work very well here in Ulmo, outside Sambuca,” says Allesandro, whose gentle manner and polite energy – coupled with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the wine world – makes for an engaging wine guide. “Here the soils are clay, sand and limestone – the Syrah especially pretty on the limestone. Rainfall is between 700mm and 800mm per year, and the sea blows the wind in all of the time.”

On the white side, Allesandro – who spent six months working in New Zealand – knows his Sauvignon Blanc almost as well as he does the Grillo from his native Sicily. “Both grapes very aromatic, high in thiols, we think they work very well together,” he says.

Going by this description, I expected the Serra Ferdinandea white 2019 to be a wine with paradisical, tropical nuances, all floral and hip-swaying in reed skirts. But this was not to be. Whether it is the deep clay soils or rugged topography, both Grillo and Sauvignon Blanc turn firm in this world. The wine is salt-scented, dry and stern with an undeniable old-school classical backbone. Eight months in foudré forces out any wispy, fleetingness of the overly aromatic, leaving behind wax, stone-fruit, lemon-peel and a long finish of quince and loquat.

The San Ferdinandea red, also 2019, blends Syrah and Nero d’Avola 50% both ways and is aged in 500l barrels, French. This was a cool, greyish day, the Sicilian countryside wet and muddy after weeks of constant rain. A good day for red wine, a good day made better by the taste of this wine.

I’ve always found something feral, unharnessed, free-spirited in Nero d’Avola. A wine from hills and forests, scented meadows, old leather and wild blackberries. And it is all here, in this wine, thrusting with a foreign, unhindered continental accent. Teamed with Syrah, though, the wine gets a sleek, regal cloak – not quite plush, but one of ripped silk, lengthening the tannins of the Nero and enveloping the wine with a rim of cherry, damson and violet.

A walk through the area surrounding the winery brought further peace. It is all farming and forest, trees of pine and oak running next to the vineyards, the plants tired after last month’s harvest and the soils wet and muddy as the water from the drenched high hills continues to seek lower ground. Raptors and magpies flew lazily across the sky, which was beginning run blue again, and in the distance the surface of a lake shimmered under the light ripping through the clouds.

Our hosts sensed these souls needed sustenance, which was provided with plates of pasta covered with a sauce made from the sweetest fresh tomatoes permitted to grow on earth. Bread, brown and yeasty, was drenched in olive oil the colour of pale gold, glistening and fragrant and flavours all nutty and citrus.

Then a sight for sore eyes, that of our car which had, by hook or by crook, been pulled out of the valley, seemingly still in one piece. Which allowed us to follow Allesandro to a dairy set in the middle of nowhere, just in time to see the flocks of sheep lining-up to be milked for the making of pecorino and other cheeses. The sheep were white and all had kind eyes, and easily submitted themselves to the milking-process, done by dark, brooding Sicilians with black eyes and gentle hands.

We bought a huge wheel of pecorino that had been aged in Nero d’Avola wine and drove back to town knowing that the day had ended better than it had begun.

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