Sicily’s passport to the world of wine

A taste of Sicilia in New Zealand… Italian wine importer Marco Nordio is the new official importer of Benanti wines to New Zealand.

He is pictured above (left) with Salvino Benanti at Regional Wines & Spirits in Wellington this week, prior to a tasting of two Benanti wines.

These are the gateway wines to the Benanti range – and are Sicily’s passport to the wine world.

2016 Benanti Etna Bianco DOC 12% ABV

This is 100% Carricante, which was fermented in stainless steel, where it went through a little malolactic fermentation to soften its naturally high acidity, and was then aged on lees to add a little complexity. The wine laws on Mt Etna allow producers to blend Carricante with the lighter tasting Catarrato grape, but Salvino Benanti says he and his family prefer the sharper, crisper, drier flavours of 100% Carricante. They like to age it in bottle for a few months prior to releasing the wine, which is medium bodied with zesty fresh, but balanced acidity. The Carricante grape can be oaked or unoaked; Salvino prefers those with low to no oak.

My mind and palate agree whole heartedly. This is a stunner; so fresh and refreshing.


2015 Benanti Etna Rosso DOC 13% ABV 

The family who own this winery sets a high benchmark for their entry level wines so that people get a good impression of Sicilian wine.

This wine is 80/20 Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes and is fermented mostly stainless steel with about 25% of the wine then spending nine months in second fill neutral French barriques. This is an entry level wine and the 2015 was a rainy vintage on Etna, so there is a little more dilution than usual in alcohol; the wine is 13% whereas it is usually about 13.5% ABV.


The Benanti story

This year is the first time that Salvino Benanti has visited New Zealand and he was here to introduce his family’s wines from Mt Etna; Sicily’s highest mountain and Europe’s most active volcano.

His family moved to Sicilia from Bologna in 1734 when they were given land there and, over the past two centuries, they have  developed a strong interest in wine. His father was one of the first to start a winery on Etna, which he founded in 1988. Back then there was one other winery on the mountain. Today there are 176 brands. Despite the proliferation of labels, the hard core of Etna wine producers remains around 30, of which Benanti is one of the best known and most highly respected, thanks to being in early and forging a name as a producer of high quality wines.

To say that I was impressed the first time I tried an Etna wine is to make a wild understatement. It was about six years ago that I managed to track down a bottle of Tenuta Benanti Rovittello Etna Rosso, which was being imported to New Zealand by Oh So Pretty Wines, which is owned by Andrew Hedley.

That wine blew me away. I can’t recall its vintage (where was my wine database back then?) but it was about eight years old at the time and I loved the way its pale ruby colour completely betrayed its incredibly powerful combination of staunch full body, tangy acidity, truffly-mushroomy flavours and a fresh cherry bite on its long finish. The wine is a blend of Nerello Mascalese (90%) and Nerello Cappuccio (10%) grapes, grown in the Rivittello sub zone of Castiglione di Sicilia.

Talk about silky. Eat your heart out, Burgundy, Barolo or Barbaresco.

Sicilian Saturday in Wellington

This Saturday 10 February at Regional Wines in Wellington, we are hosting a free Sicilian wine tasting from 1pm to 5pm.

Wellington wine importer Richard Klein will open two interesting wines from the biggest island in the Mediterranean. Both are discounted for the day and open for free tasting. The red is a new vintage in store.

2015 Girolamo Russo Etna Rosso a Rina is usually $37.99 and its special price this weekend is $33.99.

If you like Pinot Noir, you’ll love this soft fruity red made with grapes grown high up on the slopes of Europe’s most active volcano – Mt Etna, in eastern Sicily. This wine is made from the quirky Sicilian Nerello Mascalese grape – a spicy, fruity, pale red, with flavours of savoury smoky tones as well as red fruit.

2016 Firriato Le Sabbie dell’Etna –  Usual $23.99    Special price $21.99

And where would you be on a summery Saturday without a bright fresh young white?  Firriato is a blend of two white grapes and also grown on Mt Etna. The Sicilian Carricante and Catarratto grapes make this wine full bodied, dry, nutty and its high altitude vineyards mean that both grapes retain acidity, which keeps this wine tasting as fresh as a daisy.

Top 5 drops… wines to get you through the season

5 top drops that push the boat of flavour into deep waters of deliciousness…

As Justin Dry – our Friday interview this week – says: our favourite wines might be a very personal thing but no matter what they are, they always taste better when shared. And with the year drawing swiftly to a close (some of us are happy to see the back of it), it’s only fitting to share 5 top drops for the silly season.

These are my final 5 top drops of the week for 2017 but I will post the year’s top 10 wines (personal choices, that is) in the next week or two.

The following wines were selected from a combination of my work as wine writer (I get sent wine to review), wine lover (I put my money where my mouth is) and Wine Programme Director (writing and tastings) at Regional Wines & Spirits in Wellington, New Zealand.

So, without further chit chat, here they are – 5 top drops that really push the boat of deliciousness out into deep calm waters of great flavour.

Merry everything…

Spy’s top white… dry Riesling

2016 Spy Valley Envoy Dry Riesling Johnson Vineyard $32


It’s rare to find bone dry Riesling in New Zealand, especially when it’s fermented in old German oak ‘fuder’ (barrels) and has only ever been made four times.

Meet Envoy. Spy Valley’s top dry white is made from grapes grown on the sunny slopes of the Johnson Vineyard in the Waihopai Valley, Marlborough – a free draining site where stony soils mix with clay at a slight elevation, which means the vines get more  intense sunshine and, in good years, gain greater  aromatic flavour, thanks to careful harvest decisions from winemakers Paul Bourgeois and Richelle Collier.

All the grapes used in this wine were hand picked after being trained on two canes which were shoot and bunch thinned to restrict yields. They were fermented in old oak which does not imprint its own flavour on the wine, instead allowing it to shine with softness as well as the characteristic high but, in this case, beautifully balanced acidity, which stretches out this wine’s flavours to a long finish. Delicious.

Available from… specialist wine retailers.


Great Italian white

2015 Umani Ronchi Verdicchio di Castelli di Jesi $23


Verdicchio is an indigenous Italian white grape that comes from the Marche region in central Italy – go to Tuscany, then head straight over to the east coast on the Adriatic Sea. It has the body of a fleshy big Chardonnay and the acidity of Chenin Blanc; speaking of which, great Verdicchios can also age superlatively, for those with the necessary will power. This accessibly priced white is just one of the growing number of Verdicchios available in New Zealand these days… It’s a fantastic dry white with full body and a long, succulent, intensely lemon zesty finish.

Available from… specialist wine retailers.


Dog Point Pinot

2015 Dog Point Marlborough Pinot Noir $47


The 2015 vintage was a great one in New Zealand with drier weather, lower rainfall and a warmer summer than most years, which eased the pressure on winemakers to pick grapes before their optimal window, and this is what makes the reds from that year so tasty. Like the year, this wine is dry, super concentrated in flavour (black cherries, savoury spice, hints of mushroom) and a full body. It drinks well now, but be sure to decant it and let the wine sit for two hours or more, before drinking. It also has outstanding potential to cellar well and evolve into an even more complex wine.

Available from…


Sauvignon with bells on

2014 Pegasus Bay Sauvignon Semillon $32


Old vines, oak fermentation, maturation on decomposing yeast cells… it may sound like an interesting combination of factors, but this wine is an outstanding dry white that rocks my boat with its full body, complex flavours of green fresh herbs, ripe tropical fruit and nutty flavours. Year in, year out, this wine ticks all the boxes with its full body, vibrant freshness and super concentration of flavour; not least thanks to being made from grapes grown on a north facing, 30 year old vineyard in North Canterbury. Both the Sauvignon Blanc and the Semillon spent a portion of time fermenting and aging in old oak barrels, which adds body, softness and builds the textural deliciousness into this wine.

Available from…


Top champagne

Bernandier Champagne NV $94.99


Ticks all the boxes – a champagne made by the grape grower, who hand picked all the grapes, used wild yeast fermentation and a combo of oak and stainless steel for fermentation, then aged it for two years in bottle, prior to disgorgement (six months longer than the legal minimum aging time in the Champagne region).

This is a 100% Chardonnay, hence it’s a blanc de blanc, and it is the best champagne that I have tasted so far this summer. Despite my personal preference for Pinot Noir dominant bubbles, this one  blew my mind – a champagne that is, like Bollinger and many other great wines, first and foremost, a wine – the bubbles add a je ne sais quoi.

Available from… specialist wine stores or Dhall & Nash.