Most visitors who arrive in Sicily, using the ferry from Reggio Calabria, travel south towards the chic upmarket resort of Taormina and the ancient Greek city of Syracuse but instead try heading in the opposite direction. If you follow the A20 autostrada to the right, you will have occasional glimpses of the Tyrrhenian Sea and, on the horizon, smudges of land, these are the Aeolian Islands, a very popular holiday destination with Italians. The full name of our destination is actually Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto, which is a bit of a mouthful. The first part, Barcellona, is believed to have originated from the Spanish city and was given to the town during the Aragonese domination of Sicily whilst the second part refers to a well dug in the 16th century by one Filippo Gotto.
In the countryside behind the town are the tiny vineyards of Vigna Nica. Nica in Sicilian means small and here it could not be more apposite. The owner, Maria Genovese, produces around 10,000 bottles of Mamertino wine from four hectares of land. Mamertino is a DOC wine, specific to a small area on the northeastern tip of Sicily and it comes with a lot of history. Its name derives from the Mamertini who were soldiers of fortune or, more bluntly, mercenaries from mainland Calabria. In the 4th century BC the Greeks of Syracuse employed them in a campaign against the Carthaginians. However, mercenaries owe their allegiance to no one and at the end of their mission they decided to stay on the island and took over Messina and the surrounding area.
Historically, the wine from this area was enjoyed by no less a person than Julius Caesar. Sadly, we will never know what the wine tasted like when it delighted the great man. Grape varieties and production techniques have changed too much in the ensuing two millenia. To produce her fabulous reds, Maria uses a blend of three native varieties, Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, and Nocera. The first originated from the area around the town of Avola in the far southeast of the island several hundred years ago. The second takes its name from the town of Mascali on the eastern slopes of Mount Etna, and the last is a very localised variety from the northeast, in fact around the area of Vigna Nica. In other words, this is a blend that is as local as it is possible to be.
Maria produces two reds and the first is 60% Nero d’Avola, 30% Nerello Mascalese and 10% Nocera. After a lengthy period of maceration the wine spends two years maturing in steel tanks. The result is a semi-opaque dark ruby colour. On the nose there are rich flavours of ripe blackberries and cherries. On the palate the tannins have softened over time and are balanced by the acidity that the Nocera brings. Pair it with roast red meat or a strong pasta like Pasta alla Norma.
The second is a riserva that is blended slightly differently with 60% Nero d’Avola, 25% Nerello Mascalese, and the remaining 15% Nocera. This wine then spends 16 months in 500l oak tonneau before being bottled. Again, the wine is a bright dark ruby colour with an elegant bouquet of mature plums and rhubarb. The rhubarb comes from the acidity provided by the extra Nocera. On the palate there is a hint of the oakiness that comes from the tonneau but again the structure is good and the finish is long. This will go well with grilled meat.
Both these wines can be drunk now but equally, for those with the strength of will to resist, they can be laid down. In fact, having a bottle or two of the riserva in your cellar will allow you to relive a hot summer’s day in Sicily with just the help of your corkscrew.