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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 5.0° F  Fair
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The new Sicilians: This unique region offers more than bulk wines

Over the past few years, Sicily has been throwing off its Mafioso and bulk-wine-stained past (although it's still Italy's third largest bulk-wine-producing area after Puglia and Veneto). High-quality varietals and an artisanal approach have brought increasing attention to this island that was once best known for industrial Marsala.

Most of the international attention has been focused on the eastern end of Sicily, the areas of Vittoria and Mount Etna. Vittoria's superstar is Arianna Occhipinti, a young winemaker who farms naturally and without irrigation. Her two chief varietals are the elegant and feminine Frappato and the masculine Nero d'Avola. The latter has been Sicily's breakout grape, and a number of good versions are available inexpensively from a wide variety of producers in the Madison market.

Because of its relative sweetness and mild tannins, Nero d'Avola has been compared to Pinot Noir, Australian Shiraz or even Malbec. This doesn't do justice to the varietal's uniqueness but does point out the grape's changeling character.

Occhipinti makes an entry-level blend of Frappato and Nero d'Avola called SP68, named for the highway that runs in front of her property. It's breathtaking for $29.

The active volcano that is Mount Etna has become something of a winemaker's holy grail. The sulfurous gases descending the mountain mean that, in theory, vines don't need to be treated with sulfur to prevent fungal diseases and rot. More importantly, because of the volcanic soil, high-altitude old vines have survived the phylloxera epidemic, caused by a louse that wiped out Europe's vines in the late 19th century. Because of this soil, it is also possible to plant new, ungrafted vines. In Europe, vines are otherwise grafted onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstock.

A former day trader turned volcano-whisperer, Frank Cornelissen makes some of the world's most fascinating wine. His Munjabel Bianco is audaciously simple and tastes completely au naturel. (Unfortunately, it is not available in Madison but can be found in Chicago or online.)

Luckily, Cornelissen partners with another winemaker on Etna, Alberto Graci, whose wines of exquisite clarity are available here. His Etna Rosso ($28) is a gorgeous study of Etna's top red varietal, Nerello Mascalese -- all cherry and smoke. The Etna Bianco ($28) is a blend of Etna's primary white varietal, Carricante, as well as Catarratto. This is minerally and precise.

Anyone interested in learning more about the wines of Sicily should seek out Robert Camuto's 2010 book Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey (At Table), a record of a fascinating yearlong sojourn with the island's key winemakers.

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