Rich, voluptuous and complex. No, I’m not about to review a recent episode of the diatribe that the Kardashian clan masquerade as acceptable television content, but rather discuss the Nero d’Avola grape that is Sicily’s best known native red wine varietal.
Often compared to Shiraz or Grenache, it has the fullish body of a warm climate red, but the natural acidity and firm tannins of a Mediterranean import. Nero may not yet be a household name in Australia, but it is leaving its Sicilian calling card in dry, warm climates like the Barossa, Mc Laren Vale and Heathcote regions where it grows exceptionally well. Ripe fruit, spicy characters and medium palate weight – what’s not to love?
The Nero story begins in Avola on the southern tip of Sicily, where according to historians, transient Greek residents planted the varietal and the vines proliferated from there. The dark coloured grapes (“Nero”) thrived in the hot and dry conditions and retained their natural acidity through a warm ripening process. Considered environmentally friendly due to its need of little by way of irrigation, the grape has become a pin up poster boy for warm dry climates around the globe, including regions like the Barossa and McLaren Vale in South Australia and the Murray Darling regions in NSW. Where once, the style was used primarily to blend with other wines like Frappato, the wine is gaining traction as a single varietal and now kicking goals in Europe, the USA and even here in Australia.
I have long been a fan of Italian wines, but until a friend recently pontificated the virtues of the varietal, I has been in the dark as to its appeal. Sleek, balanced and fruit forward, the Nero d’Avola was always going to arouse and seduce the taste buds while on the finish, ample acids and obvious tannins would tightly herd the fruit through a lingering, if not cheek sucking, conclusion.
If you’re looking for a gold medal winning athlete from the Nero team, your search should start in Mt Etna on the East coast of Sicily where the fertile volcanic soils support prolific and high quality Nero production. There, Nero grapes have a surprising depth of colour, full body and ripe fruit. If not for the firmness of tannins and potency of acids, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were drinking a robust shiraz! But despite the depth of colour in the glass and savoury aroma on the nose, Nero wines from native Sicily are generally lower in alcohol than Australia warm climate reds. At 13 – 13.5% concentration the impact and power of the style is driven by fruit, rather than alcohol but well constrained on the finish to avoid any lingering impression of flabbiness. It’s fruit forward, aromatic both on the nose and across the palate, yet delightfully rustic on the finish.
I haven’t enjoyed a wide range of examples of the style, but the Feudo Arancio that my friend Skye raves about, is a worthy contender for wine of the month! There’s all the dark fruit influence of plums, red fruit and spice that you’d expect of a warm climate red, but also a tobacco, licquorice and gamey conclusion that lets you know that your taste buds are on some sort of international excursion! The linear conclusion is a winner and the balance is sublime – especially for a wine that retails at only an $18 price point.
If you are looking at an Australian example of the Nero d’Avola, it’s likely to have been spawned by relatively youthful vines so you can’t expect the robustness of fruit and abundant tannin that a Sicilian cousin will offer. But in our Mediterranean climates like the McLaren Vale, the Nero should do exceptionally well, and I’d expect to see the style populate and a wider range become commercially available over years to come. I can’t wait for winter and the opportunity to pair this with garlic and herb infused lamb shanks as they emerge from a 10-hour slumber in my slow cooker!