One of the nicest things about the world’s nicest wines is that—almost invariably—they are grown in some of the most BEAUTIFUL parts of the world. Think of Tuscany, Burgundy, New Zealand, Napa, South Africa, Greece… even Traverse City, Michigan (not exactly Queenstown, N.Z., but not too far off).
Since Wine Geek has to travel a bit in order to stay informed and ahead of the pack, we are frequently asked for recommendations regarding travel, i.e. wineries-restaurants-accommodations—by our clients when they set out on wine country journeys. We are, of course, always happy to oblige. Happily, Geek recently had an opportunity to travel to Sicily, so what follows are some specifics about that trip.
We strongly encourage everyone that has an opportunity to visit this fabulous island. Going to Italy is a special treat regardless of which region one visits. And typically—since such trips are rare or perhaps once in a lifetime—a first time visitor will go to Tuscany or Piedmont if on a wine-centric trip, and perhaps throw in Venice or Rome or the Amalfi coast as well. Rarely is Sicily an ‘add-on’ for these trips and that is a good thing: Sicily requires a trip focused on Sicily. Geek was there for a week recently and barely scratched the surface. There are few places in the world, and surely no major wine producing regions, that have such a depth of history, as diverse an array of food products and cuisine, and such striking landscapes as Sicily. If one looks at a map of Europe in the era of the ‘Modern History’, say from the time of the Phoenicians thru World War II, it is quite obvious that Sicily sits in the middle of it all. Indeed, it was near impossible not to pass by Sicily as the various societies took their turns at running this part of the world and it is because of this that Sicily is a virtual melting pot of various societies and displays this in their current culture. The food, and of course the wines, are incredible. Sicily is not the first place that might come to mind if one were to plan a gastronomic visit to Europe, but frankly it could be. The cuisine is mostly about fish, and then seafood, and then more fish. Of course, shellfish and things like octopus are big too (the octopi aren’t big… just served frequently!).
As for the wines, Sicily finally joined the 20th century… right around 1980. And the improvements in quality, and lately the whole culture of wine and interest in wine is palpable; two of the hottest addresses in Palermo are wine bars, and in all good restaurants there is more than reasonable knowledge of wine and a sense of pride as they recommend the local wines to diners. This is a trip worth making.
Transportation: Unfortunately, not the easiest place to get to from Michigan. There are flights to Palermo from Rome and/or Paris, as well as flights to Catania (the island’s other large city) from Rome. However, non-stops from Detroit to Rome only take place in the summer months (but there are non-stops to Rome from O’Hare throughout the year). Upon arrival, contrary to popular belief, it is very easy to get around by car, and the roads are great. The only exception to this is if you choose to try to drive around in Palermo—especially in the ‘old town’ section, where the streets are about 1.5 inches wider than most cars. You’ll need nerves of steel if you want to attempt this (and yes, of course, Wine Geek took the challenge). Do pop for the GPS in the car by the way. As always when in Europe, we used rentalcars.com; great service, uncharacteristically good prices. If you do fly into and spend the night in Palermo, the famous Ballaro or Vucciria Markets are indeed worth seeing.
Hotels: If you are fortunate enough (or smart enough) to spend a week there, you’ll need to do the whole island and there are two approaches: Since it’s really not that big (the size of Vermont), if you don’t mind driving, you can likely set up a base camp or two, and do day trips from there rather than change hotels every day or two. Indeed, a couple Geek met while there recently did just that—and chose the best place as their base… brilliant. Happily, there are many county inns/agriturismos sprinkled throughout the region—many owned by the top wineries. The prestigious Planeta winery has a fabulous hotel near Menfi called ‘La Foresteria’, in Sicily’s Southwest. It is billed as a four-star property, but it sure seemed like a five-star place to Geek (usually the reverse is true). The best restaurant in the area as well—you can crawl to your room after dinner if you choose. And they have a great, intimate cooking school. Of course, we can hook you up with a visit to one of their wineries while there. Highly recommended. Another country inn—this near Noto in the Southeast—is Masseria Degli Ulivi. Under construction when Geek was there, but you can see great things coming. Assuming your visit will include a visit to Mount Etna (and if it doesn’t, what’s wrong with you?), Taormina is the place to stay—and just make daytime jaunts to the mountain. One can stay up the mountain—lots of luxe options—but Taormina is a special place, so Geek highly recommends it. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had both of their honeymoons here, so no need to say more! TONSof hotel options here (it is a tourist town), but if you are willing to spend a few extra bucks, stay at Villa Sant’Andrea (in Mazzaro just below Taormina); it is heaven on earth. All the way back over to Palermo—the bustling capital of Sicily (in the Northwest)—many wine tourists skip this city… no wineries after all. But this is a mistake, because there is much to see and do. Again, many, many hotel choices, but Geeks recommendation is the lovely Hotel Palazzo Brunaccini which also happens to be about 25 feet from the aforementioned Ballaro Market.
Restaurants: As alluded to above, the food is absolutely amazing. It appears that all of the dozen-plus civilizations that ruled Sicily over the millennia—including Greeks, Romans, Arab Muslims, the Normans, the Spanish and many others—all left some food culture here, so it is an amazing amalgam of cuisines. However, it is indeed mostly about fish; it is an island after all (if you don’t like fish, you might be a little hungry when you leave). So seriously do the restaurateurs there take their seafood, many of them don’t just boast that they ‘go to the docks every morning and buy the best available’…. instead, they have their own boats! We mean full-sized, commercial fishing boats that fish just for their owner’s restaurant. That’s commitment. Near Menfi, in addition to the fantastic restaurant within La Foresteria, about 2km away, right on the sea is Da Vittorio Ristorante. Though it is not the most exquisitely appointed restaurant (many of the best restaurants here don’t appear to be luxuriously appointed—and many have florescent lights rather than candles), they do have the most exquisite seafood Geek has ever had. Over near Noto, the restaurant at Degli Ulivi is really nice, but if you’re up for the 25 minute drive into Noto, the place to go is Trattoria del Crocifisso—superb… worth the drive for the rabbit alone. Once in Taormina, the options are limitless. However like any tourist town, there are some (many) less than extraordinary restaurants. We happened to find a great one however: Nero d’Avola. Chef-owned (as is Crocifisso) by Salvatore Siligato who is even more impressive than the food (and the food is great). We told several winery owners how much we enjoyed our visit there, and each said ‘you must have met Turi’. A must visit.
A few other places of note: smack dab in the middle of the island in the charming town of Piazza Armarina is the fantastic Al Fogher. Drive an hour (or more) out of your way to hit this spot (not to mention the drive there is gorgeous). Once up on Mount Etna, there is a fabulous country inn called Etna Quota Mille (and yes, it sits at 1,000 meters up Etna. All the way down on the sea in Scoglitti is the famous Sakelleo—some say the best seafood on the island. Indeed, when we stopped for lunch, we were told “the boat is just coming in now, so we need a half hour to prepare the fish, please come back in 30 minutes” (lunch commences around 1:30 in Sicily by the way). Of course, no menu: our server (the owner’s daughter) just detailed verbally what they caught that morning. In Palermo, Geek dined in a classic Sicilian restaurant—like being in someone’s living room—with enough antipasti to feed one for days… and then the true meal after that. It was Trattoria Buongustaio (try the tortellini with pistachios!). There are also two cool wine bars/trattorias in Palermo: Enoteca Buonivini—very cool, international wine offerings—sort of a store meets a wine bar with great small plates, and Vinodivino, more of a full restaurant with a great ALL Sicilian list—boasting many things you’ll never see outside of Sicily, and a very enthusiastic owner eager to share.
Wineries: Of course, the reason for visiting here for us in the business is business, meaning wineries. Though the island had few quality-oriented, family-owned wineries until recently, the mini boom since the 90’s has changed all that, and there are dozens and dozens of stellar producers, all very keen to show off their wares and their hospitality. An absolute must is the Planeta Family—whom can take much of the credit for getting Sicily to join the 20th century (albeit just before the 21st century)—has five wineries, scattered among the key regions on the island. Their main facility however is in Sambuca di Sicilia near Menfi; with a tasting bar, gift shop and other features that you rarely find in European wineries (and the wines are great). Another must is a visit to Mount Etna, where Geek thinks the best wines on the island are made. A couple dozen cool wineries, but the grand prize is a visit to Passopisiciaro, owned by visionary Andrea Franchetti (who also owns cult winery Tenuta di Trinoro in Tuscany). Sitting at around 800 meters ASL, located in the Contrada of Passopisciaro, Mr Franchetti resurrected some mostly abandoned Nerello Mascalese vineyards—ungrafted and approximately 80-100 years old–at 600 to 1,100 meters ASL and makes several soulful ‘single contrada’ wines; world-class is an understatement. Lastly, a trip down to the Pachino Peninsula, south of Noto (and where allied troops first landed on Sicily) is home to the island’s best Nero d’Avola. Bring your sunscreen and fan—the Sirocco winds from N. Africa are very impactful here. If you can get an appointment at Feudo Maccari (owned by the Tuscan family that owns Tenuta Sette Ponti), you will receive a warm welcome… and have some great wines.
Needless to say, we are more than happy to help our clients arrange visits to wineries.
Go see the world!