At times it seems silly to me, how “into” wine many of us become. And I’m just as guilty as anyone. We study it, explore it, taste it, analyze it, debate it, praise it, criticize it, discover it, discuss it, write about it, share it, hoard it, celebrate it, and sometimes we just drink it — and that’s when I enjoy it the most.
But why do we make such a fuss about wine? For me, that fuss is all about enjoying it more. Wine is more than a beverage, it’s an experience. Even simple things like pulling the cork from a bottle of wine or reading the label are part of the experience and add to the enjoyment.
Understanding perfect food pairings, knowing stories about the winemaker or the history of a wine can further enhance the experience.
Sometimes wines become connected to personal experiences and pouring a glass brings back the memories of people, places and events. It could be that a wine reminds you of a special occasion, a trip, a celebration or just time spent with good friends & family. That’s when wine becomes the most meaningful to me. And that’s where my thoughts are as I sit down to write about a wine called grillo.
Visiting Western Sicily
I recently visited the Marsala and Menfi wine regions in Western Sicily, where I was introduced to grillo and where it became special to me. In full disclosure, my trip was sponsored and organized by Regione Siciliana – Istituto Regionale Vini e Oli in collaboration with Fermenti Digitali / Proposta.
Istituto Regionale Vini e Oli is an organization in Sicily responsible for research, training and data collection to improve the quality of Sicilian wines and olive oil. Promotion of Sicilian wine and olive oil is also part of their charter, which is why they invited me and a number of other wine bloggers to visit the region.
This institute is a true asset to Sicilian wine producers. They collaborate with winemakers and universities to study the effects of different methods in vineyards and wineries, experiment with native grape varieties and transfer their findings to producers in the region. They are the only organization to do all that they do in all of Italy.
Getting to Know Grillo
Getting back to grillo… I can’t recreate for you the same experiences I’ve had with grillo. If I were a better writer, perhaps, but it still wouldn’t be the same as living the experience yourself. But I will try to give you a better sense of what this wine is all about and the place where it thrives.
I’ve noticed a trend in recent years where more and more wine consumers want to discover something unique. They’re more adventurous. They’re curious. They want to try wines that stand out and are connected to a specific place. Native varieties are sought out as wine lovers look for something more than the typical wine varieties they see on the shelves. Grillo is a grape that delivers what these consumers are seeking.
Grillo is believed to be a cross of catarratto and zibibbo — two other grapes common in Sicily. It’s a white grape that tolerates the hot Sicilian climate well and reveals a few different personalities in wine produced by it. Sometimes tropical fruit qualities are very prominent, other times it shows more mineral or citrus characteristics and often it’s somewhere in between.
Through the research done by Istituto Regionale Vini e Oli it’s been discovered that there are actually two different “biotypes” of grillo.
- Biotype A has high productivity with lower sugar, lower pH and higher acidity. Wine produced from biotype A tends to have vegetal and citrus characteristics.
- Biotype B has lower productivity with higher sugar, higher pH and lower acidity. Wine produced from biotype B tends to have better structure along with tropical fruit and spice characteristics.
While I found the information about biotypes to be interesting, most producers in the region don’t yet know which biotypes they are growing and using in their wines.
Grillo and Marsala
My visit to West Sicily centered around Marsala, which is a city, a wine region and the name of a type of fortified wine (similar to Madeira) produced in the region. I would venture to guess that most wine consumers in the US would think of Marsala only as a cooking wine, but that is a sad misconception. I’ll explain Marsala wine (the fortified type) in greater detail in a future post, but I bring it up to clarify the type of wine I’m focused on today.
Grillo is the most important grape used in making Marsala wine. It’s used in all Marsala wine and I know of at least one producer, Marco De Bartoli, that uses only grillo in their Marsala. But while grillo is used extensively for making fortified Marsala wine, its use to produce unfortified vintage wines is also growing in popularity. And those are the wines that made me fall in love with grillo.
Made into vintage wines, grillo offers bright citrus and tropical fruit flavors, vibrant acidity, refreshing aromatics and salty mineral characteristics — the things I love in a good white wine. It’s most often produced in stainless, but some winemakers are putting it into oak, which also impacts how it shows up in your glass.
Grillo by the Sea
During this trip we visited Barraco’s Vignammare, which translates as “vineyard at the sea.” And that’s exactly what this vineyard is. It literally sits on the beach, only a short walk from the water. We took a long, slow journey down a bumpy dirt road in rural Sicily to reach this vineyard. The sun is bright here but the breezes from the sea cooled the sun’s heat slightly. Cloth wind barriers protect the vines from the perpetual breeze. The air is salty and refreshing, and the soil sandy and calcareous. A few small sand dunes and beach grasses are all that separate this vineyard from the sea.
There we tasted Barraco’s Vignammare wine, made with grillo from that vineyard, and observed how the aromatics of the wine mirror the aromas of the breeze blowing in from the sea. This is something I’ve observed in other wine regions too, most notably in the aromatic vineyards around Mt. Etna.
Along with tasting the wine at Vignammare, we enjoyed some fresh red shrimp and sea urchins. And this is when I had an “aha moment” that truly connected me with this wine. The wine is a reflection of the environment where it was produced, and that is no exception in this wine. The food of a region is also a reflection of the environment and when you put the two together it is harmonious. When tasting grillo along with the local Sicilian cuisine it’s not just a nice pairing, but a symbiotic pairing — each making the other one better.
While we only had local shrimp and sea urchins while tasting the wine at Vignammare, I realized then that the pairing of grillo with much of the other Sicilian food I had during that visit was also perfect. Caponata, eggplant Parmesan, octopus salad, fresh fish, pasta, olives, cheeses, and other local foods all go spectacularly well with this wine. It’s an incredibly food-friendly wine to begin with, but the food from this region goes particularly well with grillo.
While not all vineyards in the region are right by the sea, the region in general is a coastal region. And the grillo from throughout the region all does well with the food from the area.
Finding grillo in the US may require a little hunting. But if you’re up to the challenge, here are some you may want to seek out and try (in no particular order).
Marco De Bartoli, Grappoli del Grillo 2011
Marco De Bartoli doesn’t use any chemicals in the vineyard, hand harvests the grapes and processes them at controlled cold temperatures to create a quality wine. This grillo is fermented in steel, finished in partial oak and aged in oak. It offers straw, baked apple, oak and nutty aromatics. In the mouth it’s an exotic wine with a creamy mouthfeel, rich lemon and tea-like flavors and outstanding mineral characteristics. The finish is long and rich. This is a very good wine and one that I tasted at least once every day I was in Sicily.
The vineyards for this wine are certified organic and are a bit inland, near the temple of Segesta. It was produced in 100% stainless and is a great example of a citrus-mineral style grillo. The nose of this one presents zesty citrus aromas along with some peach and apple. On the palate, concentrated lemon flavors give vibrancy to this wine. It also has some apple and salty mineral flavors. It has a very nice mouthfeel too with a creamy, almost oily texture. It finishes with salted citrus flavors. This is a great wine for seafood.
Cristo di Campobello, Lalûci 2012
The nose of this wine is gentle and refreshing with herbaceous aromas along with almond and apple. The mouthfeel is also gentle. This wine is a bit more on the salty/mineral side of the spectrum but also offers some crisp green apple flavors.
Fazio, Aegades 2012
This wine is an Erice DOC wine in terms of territory. It’s fermented in stainless under controlled cold temperatures. This one shows apple, mineral, straw and citrus aromatics while the flavors are really bright lemon/lime along with salty mineral. This is a really crisp and vibrant wine.
Caruso & Minini, Timpune 2012
Fermented in oak under controlled cold temperatures and aged in stainless on the lees, this wine has a lot of depth. The aromatics reveal light oak, apple, herbs and mineral. The palate brings concentrated, lemon-drenched apple flavors along with some peach. It has good acidity and a creamy, luxurious mouthfeel. It finishes with lingering lemon flavors. It’s delicious!
Barraco, Grillo 2011
This is the most unique grillo we tasted on this visit to Sicily, and perhaps the most controversial. It’s produced by Nino Barraco, a winemaker who employs “natural” (for lack of a better word) techniques in winemaking. His approach is to use spontaneous yeasts, no temperature control, no filtering, sulfur only added at bottling and minimal involvement from the winemaker in order to allow the wine to best express itself. The result is a wine with intense aromatics such as cooked peaches, hazelnut, coriander, herbs and a slight oxidation. The palate offers intense hazelnut, cooked peach, apricot, spices and fresh lemon flavors. The long finish has flavors of cooked stone fruits. It’s funky and different, but enjoyable. It’s not for everyone but those who do like it will love it.
Fondo Antico, Il Coro 2011
Fermented in stainless and aged in oak, this is a very tasty grillo. It has intense lemon, floral, nutty and mineral aromatics. The flavors are very concentrated and balanced lemon, fresh apple and salts. There’s a lot of depth and character to this wine. The acidity is good and the mouthfeel is nice and creamy. It has a very long finish with mellow lemon and salty mineral characteristics. This is a very good grillo.
Donnafugata, Sur Sur 2012
Donnafugata is a pretty big producer in Western Sicily, but this vintage is their first release of a single-varietal grillo. It’s soft on the nose with salty-citrus aromas. The palate continues that theme with soft lemon, light apple and salty mineral flavors. This is a fairly simple grillo, but it’s very approachable and very drinkable. It’s an easy wine for salads or seafood.
Alessandro di Camporeale, Grillo Vigna di Mandranova 2012
This is the first vintage of this wine from Alessandro di Camporeale after three experimental harvests. This is a tasty wine with vibrant peach and citrus aromas. The flavors are like peaches drenched in grapefruit and lemon. The acidity is superb.
Curatolo Arini, Coralto Grillo 2012
The producers of this wine have been producing Marsala for five generations. Their Coralto Grillo has a refreshing nose with pear and lemon aromatics. The palate brings lemon and green apple flavors with a vibrant acidity. The finish is long with delicious lingering citrus flavors. Try this one with grilled swordfish.
Cantine Paolini, Gurgo’ Grillo 2012
The grapes for this wine are grown at sea level and they are all hand harvested. There’s a lot going on in this wine. The nose offers a broad range of lemon, melon, tea, spice and salty mineral aromatics that are well balanced. The nose hints that the wine had good skin contact during fermentation, although I didn’t get confirmation of that. It has intense lemon and mineral flavors on the palate with stellar acidity and great structure. The finish is long with a slightly tannic feel. This wine is fantastic.
Tenuta Gorghi Tondi, Kheirè Grillo 2012
This one was produced in stainless and is a great example of a tropical fruit style grillo. It has lively aromatics, such as passion fruit, cut grass, banana and citrus. Aromatically you might liken this to a sauvignon blanc but the flavors are much more restrained than what you’d find on a typical sauvignon blanc. It has fantastic acidity with soft, tart apple and salty flavors. The finish is long and tart. Overall, it’s an excellent wine.
Disclosure: I tasted these wines as a part of a sponsored blogger tour of the Western Sicily, organized by Regione Siciliana – Istituto Regionale Vini e Oli in collaboration with Fermenti Digitali / Proposta. My travel and accommodations were provided by the sponsor.