We begin this colorful and flavorsome journey in the south, among the bushy vines of Frappato and Nero d’Avola (here called Calabrese) drawing vigor from the dusty clay soils of the Cerasuolo di Vittoria appellation. The Portelli family once had little farmhouses, or palmenti, scattered throughout these parcels before consolidating winemaking to a central facility in town. Located in an industrial area on the outskirts of Vittoria, the Portelli cantina is by no means noteworthy, but its tanks house brightly flavored elixirs of the utmost purity and freshness. Calabrese in their hands is not an inky, alcoholic bruiser, but rather a thing of ravishing delicacy, defined by mouthwatering black cherry fruit and lively acidity, that would make any red sauce blush. When Calabrese combines with Frappato, Cerasuolo is born, its vibrant perfume of violets and freshly pressed berries suggesting that beauty can be found in the most unlikely places.
Next time you feel inspired to try a simple new recipe, cook down some onions, garlic, and tomatoes (canned is fine) in olive oil. Add capers and pitted olives to the mix, then sprinkle in some dried herbs like oregano and thyme. A pinch of hot chili flakes will not hurt, if desired. Spoon the sauce over grilled swordfish or tuna, or add it to the pasta of your choice. You have just created the perfect pairing for Portelli’s Calabrese. Hailing from Vittoria, in southern Sicily, this red is the ideal foil to savory, flavorful Mediterranean-inspired fare. Calabrese, also known as Nero d’Avola, has a remarkable capacity to retain acidity in a decidedly baking climate, allowing Portelli’s 2017 to coat the palate with sumptuous notes of black cherry and blackberry all while staying light on its feet, revealing a radiant brightness to contrast the succulent dark fruit. At table, these qualities are paramount. Alessandro Portelli no longer filters his wines, preserving a fleshy, pulpy texture that lingers on the taste buds. This is not a massive Nero d’Avola—at thirteen percent alcohol, it is elegant, and does not overpower simple, casual meals. Your rapidly assembled Mediterranean feasts are certain to reach new levels.
The Nerello Mascalese-based wines of Mount Etna have probably been Sicily’s hottest vinous exports in recent years, but by no means are they the only exquisite bottlings the island has to offer. Calabrese, also known as Nero d’Avola, grows throughout Sicily and is the foundational grape for many outstanding rossi. The best examples arguably come from Cerasuolo (CHAIR-uh-SWOLE-oh) di Vittoria, the island’s only DOCG, and are blends of Frappato and the earlier-ripening, less-finicky Calabrese. Salvatore Portelli and his son Alessandro fashion their Cerasuolo from 70% Calabrese and 30% Frappato. If you have tasted Calabrese-based reds from other parts of Sicily, you will notice that this one is more refined and less brawny. That difference is partly due to Frappato’s lighter, juicy, and fruit-forward nature, which serves to counterbalance Calabrese’s power. But it is also true that Calabrese grown in Vittoria’s soils of clay, limestone, and sand tends to possess more elegance than it does when produced in other Sicilian terroirs. This rosso has enough vibrance and freshness to drink well on its own, but just enough tannin and acid to be versatile at table, particularly alongside your favorite Italian classics.
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