Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and the largest province of Italy. Its proximity to the toe of the Italian boot and to the coast of North Africa, and its geographical convergence in ancient sea-lanes means not only that the island was settled early by seafaring peoples from eastward — first the Phoenicians, then the Greeks — but that it served as a flash-point for contention, conquest and subjugation, all the way through the 19th Century. It strikes the heart of the history-lover with awe to think that cities like Syracuse and Palermo are among the oldest continuously inhabited population centers in Europe. The former was established by Greeks on the island’s southeastern coast in 734 B.C. The older Palermo, on the northwest coast, was settled by the Phoenicians, who explored the island’s western regions, in the 10th Century B.C. In fact, as you stroll down the long, straight, narrow main street in Palermo’s oldest quarter, still battered by the Allied bombing of World War II, guides will tell you that it was laid out by the Phoenicians, so you are walking where feet have trod for three millennia.
When you travel through western Sicily, you could readily believe that the island was dredged from the sea by Neptune’s trident and hammered out on Vulcan’s forge. The rugged hills stand precipitous, seemingly random in configuration in great blocks of granite and sandstone. Among those green-swaddled hills and valleys, near the commune of Sambuco di Sicilia, lies Stemmari, a wine estate dedicated to producing enjoyable and authentic varietal wines at affordable prices, aimed primarily at the American market. Stemmari is owned by Gruppo Mezzacorona, the well-known producer in Trentino, in the foothills of the Italian Dolomites. Mezzacorona’s other brands include Castel Firmian; Rotari, which makes traditional method sparkling wines; Tolloy; and Feudo Arancio, also in Sicily.
The winery of Stemmari, spread along a gently sloping hillside, looks out to a succession of crests and valleys that march to the sea. The architecture — clean and elegant — echoes the traditional style of the region, and when visitors stand in the palm-shaded courtyard, they have no idea that behind several of those chaste white walls are arrayed the tanks and barrels and other equipment of winemaking. Winemaker for Stemmari is Lucio Matricardi, a man who defines the notions of affability, volubility and good humor. A tour of Stemmari’s estate vineyards — I and several other winewriters on a sponsored trip — is an exercise in education, information, folktale and local lore, all embellished and enhanced by comedic asides that somehow contribute to the overall learning experience.
The winery is completely solar-powered, recycles water and employs sustainable practices in the vineyards. Stemmari was the first winery in Italy to receive EMAS 2 certification on the entire production and is certified according to UNI-ENISO 14011 environmental guidelines. The estate continuously experiments with grape varieties planted in different plots, and if that variety doesn’t perform as anticipated in that particular climat, the vineyard is torn out and replanted. I mentioned to Matricardi that such a procedure must be expensive. “That’s true,” he said, “but we want to get things right. And the money is there. Mezzacorona sells grapes to producers in Trentino that would surprise you, such as –,” but here his importer representative cut him off. The importer is Prestige Wine Imports, based in New York and a subsidiary of Gruppo Mezzacorona.) The implication was clear; Mezzacorona possesses deep pockets since the company controls one-third of the production in Trento and sells surplus grapes to other producers.
And what about the wines?
Of the 11 products in the Stemmari roster, nine are 100 percent varietal and two are blends. The indigenous grapes grillo and moscato, for white, and nero d’avola, for red, are made as varietal wines and also blended into the proprietary Dalila (80 percent grillo, 20 percent viognier) and Cantodoro (80 percent nero d’avola, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon). The “international” grape varieties pinot grigio, chardonnay, pinot noir — which Matricardi called “the mother-in-law” grape for its difficulty — and cabernet sauvignon are also made into 100 percent varietal wines. Nero d’avola, in addition, is made into a rose. The use of oak barrels, for the chardonnay and the red wines, is discreet.
As I mentioned, the Stemmari products are designed to sell inexpensively, that is, for about $10 and can be found throughout the country priced from about $9 to $12. Within that range, these are bargains. In fact, I’ll go farther and say that the Stemmari Pinot Noir, stamped with varietal and geographic clarity, ranks among the best moderately priced pinot noirs available in America, followed, in my estimation, by the robust, earthy Nero d’Avola and the charming, fruit-filled Dalila. Stemmari fashions grillo grapes into the delicate, slightly effervescent, wildly floral Baci Vivaci, a delightful quaff our group must have consumed gallons of with our meals. These are not wines intended for the ages or to compete with the world’s prestigious labels. They are, instead, wines made thoughtfully and seriously and offered at a more than decent price.
The dominant force in Sicilian cuisine, not surprisingly, is the sea. Every meal consists of a procession of crustaceans and fish prepared by different methods, though often served raw and lightly dressed. The famous deep-water red shrimp — Aristaeomorpha foliacea— make a regular appearance at the beginning of lunch and dinner, the tiny fire-engine-hued crustaceans bathed in olive oil and lemon juice and eaten au natural. Grilled octopus is a requirement, sometimes accompanied by white beans. Grilled or seared fish are presented simply, straight from the fire or the saute pan, keeping them as fresh as possible. Pasta dishes tend to have a seafood component, sea urchin being a favorite ingredient.
Our introduction to Sicilian fare was dinner at Restaurant Porto San Paolo, located in a 400-year-old fortified tower that looms over the harbor of the town of Sciacca, on the island’s southwest coast. Our table on a second-floor balcony gave us a wonderful view of the fishing boats tied up at twilight and the vista of clouds at dusk. Lunch the next day was at the beautiful Da Vittorio Restaurant in Porto Palo di Menfi. It’s a beach-front establishment that allows a breathtaking panorama of the aquamarine Mediterranean, just beyond the windows. (That’s their red shrimp in the image above.) The food here seemed incredibly fresh and briny, deeply flavorful and handled with minimum interference in the kitchen. Our final dinner was in Palermo, at the chic and sleek one Michelin Star Restaurant Bye Bye Blues, where the chef, Patrizia Di Benedetto, a native of Palermo, prepares elevated and imaginative versions of the island’s traditional cuisine.
Here are the websites of these restaurants, all of which I would return to in a heartbeat: