Sicilian Dinner

Across the Strait of Messina, within eye shot of Calabria, lies the Italian island of Sicily. While it is part of Italy, it is a world apart. Having historical influences from the Greeks, Arabs and Normans, the food, culture and wines are unique to Italy. There is so much diversity in Sicilian food and wine, that is is sometimes referred to as "God's kitchen".

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that we have a small group that meets every few months to put together an authentic 5-course meal, paired with local wines (if possible). All the recipes are researched and made with authentic ingredients (even if wee have to import them) and made in the traditional style. In the past we have done Spain, Tuscany, Nicaragua, Chile, Norway, Burgundy, to name a few. This night we gathered for a full Sicilian Dinner.

The recipes and menu were organized by the hosts, and everything came together for the evening. Along with an appetizer (antipasto), I was also in charge of finding the wines to pair with each course. What follows is a recap of each course, and the wine that was paired.

We opened the evening with two antipasto course: 1) Caponata; and 2) Arancini di Riso. Caponata is a dish consisting of eggplant, vegetables, currants, and pine nuts, served on sliced baguette toast. We paired this with a dry Prosecco. I know....Prosecco isn't from Sicily. But, have you ever tried to find a sparkling wine from Sicily? They make them, but finding the is another story. We made up for this with all the remaining wines. By the way, the pairing worked nicely despite not being Sicilian. The second antipasto, Arancini di Riso, is basically a fried rice ball, made from day old risotto, stuffed with cheese. For this course, we paired a COS 2010 Pithos Grecanico Sicilia. This is the same grape (different name) that we see in Northern Italy, that make Soave (Garganega). There was some nice acidity that worked with the frying process.

For the first course (or Primo) of our sit down portion of the dinner, we opened with typical Italian dish (even in Sicily). Pasta Burro e Formaggio e Crema (or pasta with butter, cheese and cream). We paired this with a 2006 Vasari Mamertino Bianco. This course was very similar to a Fettucini Alfredo, so we paired with with a wine of more body, but some acidity to cut through the cream base.. The wine is a blend of Cataratto, Inzolia, and Grillo. The creaminess from MLF, and the fruit from stainless steel fermentation worked nicely with this dish. This was a 2006 vintage, which led to a bit of oxidation.

Our main course (Secondo) consisted of Chicken Marsala, along with a side (contorno) of Asparagi con Arance (Asparagus with Oranges) and a salad (insalata) of Finocchio Insalata (Fennel Orange Salad). This was a challenging pairing. There was the sweetness of the Chicken Marsala, and the taste changing affects of the asparagus, not to mention the licorice flavors of fennel. We had to pair this with a red, so I went with a lighter red, that had some spice, and a bit "funkiness" to work with the mushrooms. I chose the 2010 Terre Nere Etna Rosso "Calderara Sottana". Grown on the side of Mt Etna, this wine is made from Nerello Mascalese.  (a grape unfamiliar to most). I would suggest that this is the "pinot noir of Sicily". It is light, medium tannin, but smooth. We opened this bottle an hour earlier that the food course, and it probably could have handled another hour or so.

Our cheese course (Formaggi e Frutta) consisted of three cheeses: Pecorino, Caciocavallo, and Piacentinu along with red and green figs. I chose to pair with the most pronounced cheese, which was the Pecorino. But, the Piacentinu, with it's pepper corns and saffron, also had a pronounced flavor. I went heavy with the wine, and paired this course with a Gulfi 2008 Nerobaronj Nero D'Avola. This is a striking wine, made from the local Nero D'Avola grape. This is all dark fruit, heavy, and wonderful.

We ended the evening with  a dessert course (Dolce) of Savaoiardi Spagnolette (cream filled cookie). This was paired with a sweet Marsala, served in short glasses, allowing us to dip the cookie in the wine. It was a sweet end to an evening of Sicilian food, shared with friends. Next time, we'll have to do it actually in Sicily. but for now, it will have to do.

Bon Apetit!

Harvest Time in the Central Coast

This week has been crazy. I received a last minute call to join in the making of some educational wine videos, for a new wine education program (that is a "teaser" which will be elaborated on in the coming weeks). The video shoots were to begin at 5:00am in the Central Coast, as one of my favorite wineries was beginning to pick Sauvignon Blanc.

Volgelzang Sauv Blanc
I left my house in the dark, in hopes of missing the Los Angeles traffic (no luck). I arrived at the Vogelzang Vineyard (Happy Canyon AVA) about fifteen minutes after Dragonette Cellars had finished picking their second round of Sauvignon Blanc. After grabbing a quick bite, I met up with my two wine buddies, and we headed over to the new winery location for Dragonette Cellars, just in time to see the truck and trailer full of freshly picked Sauvignon Blanc arrive.

Dragonette Cellars Sauvignon Blanc
The bins of grape bunches were quickly moved into the cool facility, to avoid any unnecessary heat. The morning temperatures had already faded from the cool 50's to the mid 80's by around 11:00am. The small bunches of Sauvignon Blanc were sweet, and the pips (seeds) had turned from green to brown. A good sign of nice phenolic ripeness.

The plastic bins of grapes were hoisted by fork lift, and dumped into the new Europress (a bladder press) and gently pressed to release the juice. The grapes were not destemmed. This was a whole cluster pressing.

A whole cluster press is just what it sounds like...the grapes are left in their bunches, when put into the press. This actually produces a smoother tasting juice. The grapes are not bruised or damaged, as they would be when destemmed. Since we are only extracting juice, there is no added flavor from the stems and seeds, unless over pressed. In this case, the bladder press went through seven cycles of light pressing. Every so often the juice that dripped from the bottom of the press, was tasted to make sure no bitter component from the stems or seeds was present.

Fermenting Sauv Blanc
After the juice had been extracted, it was destine for oak barrels. A pressing from a few days earlier was already in barrel, and the fermentation process was well underway. The bubbling up through the bung holes in the barrel were a sure sign that things were moving in the right direction.

Meanwhile, a number of large tanks of Pinot Noir (picked the previous day) were in the cooler. The berries had been covered with sulfur, to prevent bacteria growth, and left in the cooler to extract as much color from the thin skinned grapes as possible. As of this day, only two pickings of Sauvignon Blanc, and one picking of Pinot Noir had occurred. This year's harvest is about two weeks ahead of the 2012 harvest, but hang time remained about the same, due to an early fruit set.

Pinot Noir at Melville
We next traveled over to the Santa Rita Hills AVA, for some photos of Pinot Noir. The Melville Winery has about 16 different Pinot Noir Clones. It didn't appear that they had started harvest there yet, but some of the grapes were already suffering from the high heat and humidity,

The next day was spent in Paso Robles. The red grapes are not ready for harvest yet. In particular, we spent time checking on Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Sirah. In every case, the grape pips were still green, and the full sweetness was not there. At Barr Estate Winery, the Albarino grapes had already been picked, and were in stainless steel tanks. The sediment was settling out, leaving behind a clarified juice.

Red Blotch Virus on Zinfandel
One thing I did notice on this trip to Paso Robles is something that is a bit disturbing. There is a new virus that was identified in 2012, called Red Blotch. It is very noticeable in certain Zinfandel vineyards. At this point, they believe it is transferred by some type of insect, but no one is sure what the vector is, and there is no cure. Basically the leaves on the vine turn from green to red, and the photosynthesis process stops, leaving poor quality grapes. On top of this, it has been a very hot and dry growing season in Paso Robles. This day, it was very humid, and the temperatures were already over 100 degrees by noon.

Cabernet Sauv at Barr Estate Winery
My quick trip to the Central Coast was a whirlwind. We got some great video, and met with some of the outstanding winemakers and vineyard growers in the area. As a wine educator, I always learn something new on every visit, and this trip was an extraordinary learning you will find out, once I can talk more about the videos. Stay tuned!