One of the best discoveries during our visit to Sicily: Grillo.
A true chameleon! A grape variety with “super camouflaging powers.” The wines made from it can have so many different styles. It’s interesting that I’m calling it a chameleon… Grillo means “cricket” in Italian… Yes, a cricket that can come in many different shapes and colors!!!
Before this trip to Sicily (more specifically, to the Marsala and Menfi wine regions in our “Western Sicily Wine Bloggers Tour 2013”), I started to do some research in my books as I knew very little about this indigenous Sicilian grape variety. David Lynch and Joseph Bastianich, had this to say about it in their book (“Vino Italiano – The Regional Wines of Italy”): “The historic base for Marsala; it is now on the wane.” And: “Plump white widely planted in western Sicily, where it is used in Alcamo and Marsala DOC blends, among others.”
In the book “Brunello to Zibibbo” by Nicholas Belfrage, I found some more information. ‘In the early part of the twentieth century Grillo was the main grape for the making of Marsala, but it was overtaken by Catarratto in the race for quantity over quality. Now that quality is “in” again, so is Grillo, able as it is to climb to impressive sugar levels if left to “grill” to over-ripeness in the sun on the low-yielding alberello vines. Producers like de Bartoli swear by it, saying that it is the only grape for quality Marsala.’
In “Wine Grapes” by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, and Jose Vouilamoz I found: “Grillo is a classic Sicilian variety… DNA studies have shown that Grillo is the offspring of a natural crossing between Catarrato Bianco and Muscat of Alexandria (Zibibbo) – Vigorous, productive and resistant to winter cold. Mid-ripening. Susceptible to powdery mildew.”
To finish my homework, I acquired “The World of Sicilian Wine” by Bill Nesto, MW and Frances di Savino (by the way, this book is a must for anyone who wants to learn more about Sicily and its wines). I have selected a couple of important things from almost two pages about the variety that I found in the book: “Late-harvested coastal Grillo wines can be a distinctive gold that turns amber with time. They have a light nose of citrus fruits, apple, and almonds. Wine texture is solid, by virtue of high glycerin content. The taste is slightly astringent and salty in the mouth. These wine’s acidity remains average, yet their alcohol levels can reach 18 percent… – If Grillo is protected from oxygen before, during, and after a cool fermentation, it can acquire grapefruit and passion fruit smells not dissimilar to those in Sauvignon Blanc… – Overmature Grillo grapes are the preferred materia prima (speaking of the preference of Grillo in Vino Perpetuo – “perpetual wine” a wine kept in large barrels that is stable with high alcohol content and that whenever is consumed is replenished with younger wine) because this native variety is the most likely to yield wine with the presence and body to endure extended aging… – Grillo grape skins and pulp contain unusually high potassium levels. Normally potassium means a wine is less acidic in tasting, but most Grillo’s acidity remains fixed. The resulting potassium salts may account form subliminal perception of salt. Mediterranean Sea spray landing on the grapes – which are not washed before vinification – enhances that salinity.”
“The great collection of Sicilian grapes”. A visit to the pilot vineyard of the Sicilian Agriculture Department in Biesina, near Marsala where we could learn from Giacomo Ansaldi that Grillo has mainly two main biotypes (time and human interventions differentiated the morphological characters of Grillo) that perform very differently in the vineyard. We could see that “type A” has a moderate cluster compactness, while “type B” has very sparse bunches. “A” also flowers about a week earlier than “B” and has much higher productivity than the second (a bunch of “A” is almost 50% heavier than “B”). The oenological properties are very distinctive as well: “B” can produce musts of much higher sugar content (alcohol potential of 18 degrees!), higher pH (lower acidity), and higher assimilable nitrogen than “A”.
Catarratto is still the number one grape variety in Sicily, but Grillo acreage is growing in recent years and there’s about 7,000 hectares planted there today. Grillo is predominantly present in the areas of Trapani and Marsala. Just recently it has been cultivated in other areas of Sicily and it plays an important role in several Sicilian appellations. And, as mentioned before, Grillo is the most important grape variety for the production of Marsala wine.
“The Grillo Tasting”: Mai Tjemsland MW, from Norway, guided a tasting to highlight the many different styles of Grillo wines. Antonio Rallo, president of “Assovini Sicilia:”, the association of Sicilian wine producers, and a member of the family that owns Donnafugata, along with Giacomo Ansaldi, our expert on western Sicily wines, joined us for the tasting at IRVOS – Cantina Sperimentale “Giovanni Dalmasso” in Marsala.
Below the 11 wines we had during the tasting (pictures of the bottles by Nanci Bergamo):
Fondo Antico Grillo Parlante Sicilia IGT 2012
Grillo 100% – Alcohol: 13.5% – Fermentation for ten days in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks – 3 months of aging in bottle before release
Easy drinking wine – Pure Grillo fruit on the nose – Fresh with lots of citrus fruit and grapefruit on the palate.
Marco De Bartoli Grappoli di Grillo Sicilia IGP 2011
Grillo 100% – From: Contrada Samperi, Marsala (TP) – Alcohol: 13.5% – Aged in small oak barrels for 12 months + lees contact and batonnage – 6 months of bottle aging prior to release.
The presence of oak is felt on the nose, but it is really very well integrated on the palate. Very complex and with a long finish.
Renato De Bartoli suggests that you try this wine after 10 years in bottle… I tried their 2002 during our visit to their winery and I can guarantee that 10 years of aging in bottle does wonders to the wine!
Donnafugata “SurSur” Grillo Sicilia DOP 2012
Grillo 100% – Alcohol: 13% – Fermented in stainless steel tanks – Aged in bottle for at least three months before release.
Straw yellow color with lots of fruit on the nose. The wine is fresh (and refreshing) with notes of white peaches and grapefruit. The wine is perfect (I was told – #noseafoodformeplease!) with a wide range of seafood dishes.
Funaro “Pinzeri” Terre Siciliane IGP 2012
Grillo 100% – Vinified in stainless steel tanks at 15°C (about 60°F) – Aged in bottles for two months before release.
Straw yellow color – Aromatic on the nose with floral notes – fresh and fruity on the palate
Gorghi Tondi “Kheirè” Sicilia DOC 2012
Grillo 100% – Alcohol: 12,5% – Fermented in stainless steel tanks with lees contact for 4 months – Aged in bottle for 2 months before release.
Straw yellow color with green tinges – Intense nose with floral and tropical fruit aromas (in a blind tasting, most people would say this is Sauvignon Blanc) – Fresh and well balanced.
Interesting to mention that Kheirè means “welcome” in Greek. The wine certainly delivers that message…
Baglio del Cristo di Campobello “Laluci” Sicilia DOC 2012
Grillo 100% – Alcohol: 13% – Fermented in stainless steel tanks with lees contact for 4 months – Aged for 2 months in bottle before release.
Straw yellow color – Intense aroma of flowers on the nose with a note of minerality (what does it mean? check this out: “Minerality in wine. What is it?“) – Citrus and apple on the palate – Fresh with good balance between the acidity and the fruit.
Fazio Wines “Aegades” Erice DOC 2012
Grillo 100% – Alcohol: 13% – Fermented in stainless steel tanks – Aged for 4 months in bottle before release.
Straw yellow color – Lots of fruit on the nose – #exotic – Ripe fruit on the palate – Well balanced with a persistent finish.
Caruso & Minini “Timpune” Sicilia DOC 2012
Grillo 100% – Alcohol: 13% – Cryomaceration of the destemmed grapes in stainless steel tanks at controlled temperature of 4° C for 4-12 hours – Fermentation at controlled temperature of 16°C (about 61°F) in oak and acacia tonneaux – Lees contact and batonnage – Aged in the bottle for 3 months before release
The nose is intense (but also elegant). Complex with a long finish.
Duca del Castelmonte/Pellegrino Dinari del Duca Sicilia IGT 2012
Grillo 100% – Alcohol: 13% – Fermented in small oak barrels.
Straw yellow color – Aromatic with lots of tropical fruits on the nose – Well balanced
Barraco Grillo Sicilia IGT 2011
Grillo 100% – Skin contact for about 4 days – Spontaneous fermentation – Matured in stainless steel tanks from September to June – Aged in bottles before release from June to November.
Golden yellow color – The “natural wine” is very complex and we had a very interesting discussion (to say the least) about it during our tasting… To make a long story short, it is a “love or hate” type of wine. Some people think it is defective (oxidized) and some people think it is amazing. If you want to know my opinion… I love it!
Fondo Antico Il Coro Bianco Sicilia IGT 2011
Grillo 100% – Alcohol: 14.5% – Fermentation at controlled temperature in stainless steel tanks with lees contact. Aged in large oak and acacia barrels for 6 months.
Light gold color – Lots of fruits and spices on the nose – Very complex with good integration of the oak (some tasters thought it was too oaky and was made for the American market, but I disagree).
And here is yet another facet of Grillo… a wine that was not in the tasting (since it is not made 100% Grillo).
Grillo works well in blends too. One of my favorite white wines from Sicily is La Divina Abbadessa Bianco 2006 (the picture is of the 2007, which I like almost as much) – A masterpiece from Giacomo Ansaldi. A blend of Grillo and Zibibbo (60% – 40%) and it’s very easy to understand why Stacy Sullivan Woods thought it was a premier cru Burgundy in a blind tasting we had last week during lunch. The wine is aged in wood and has great complexity… and a very long finish… And yes, it is #delicious!
And there you have it! 12 out of the 1,000 faces that Grillo can possibly have…
And, to finish, some links to other interesting blog posts about Grillo (or… that mention Grillo) from fellow #winelover-s that were with me during the West Sicily Wine Tour. Make sure you check them out!
“Si scrive grillo, si legge Sicilia” by Elisabetta Tosi
“Recipe: Sicilian eggplant and porcini balls (and three great pairings)” by Nanci Bergamo
Luiz Alberto, #winelover