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Sicilian Novello Wine
by Roberta Gangi

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Sicilian Nero d'Avola Novello.The Italian wine industry has experienced two decades of rapid growth in both the quantity and quality of its offerings, and the "nouveau" red wines of autumn have become a surprisingly successful fixture in this welcome trend, which perhaps is long overdue. Here in Sicily, autumn means Saint Martin's Day, 11 November, with its traditional hard biscuits and fortified wines (Moscato and Malvasia), as well as its association with what Italians call "Saint Martin's Summer." It's a little like the "Indian Summer" of North America, swept by the last warm breezes before the winter chill sets in --though in most parts of Sicily that chillly season is rather short-lived, with wild artichokes harvested almost until Christmas and the almond trees already blossoming by mid-February. It is usually during the week following Saint Martin's Day that the first "Novello" (nouveau) wines make their appearance in Italy. With the minimal necessary fermentation time and little or no traditional aging, they retain a robust yet fruity flavor, even when the heartiest grapes are used.

Novello refers to any "new" red of the current vintage, with a current bottling date. Typically, this is during early November --two weeks before the French government permits the sale of Beaujolais Nouveau (the best known wine of this kind). In Italy, this implies harvesting a few weeks before the French grapes are ripe, and the earlier sale date is a potential marketing advantage for Sicilian vintners. Like its French counterparts, Sicily's Novello is a low-tannin wine made using the process of carbonic maceration or "whole-berry fermentation." Essentially, this is a modern process using carbon dioxide (depriving the grapes of oxygen) to increase rapid alcohol production by the sugars present in the grapes, and then adding yeast to the must (pulp, juice and skin), bringing about fast fermentation. The result is a lighter red wine which lacks the tannins necessary for long storage in the bottle but tastes great. The Italian term "novello" has come into widespread international use to describe the wines made with this process, even for non-Italian products. Though the method dates from the 1920s, these wines have become more popular internationally only in the last twenty years. France's Beaujolais Nouveau is intrinsically a varietal, made exclusively from the gamay grape. Novello, however, is a more general term implying no particular region or variety, though in Sicily certain grapes are preferred.

The Italian government's definition and control of Novello is somewhat lax, and in this case perhaps that's a good thing. But consumers often set their own rules, and more fanatical Italian purists do not consider Novello to be "wine" at all, reserving that distinction for wines aged longer using traditional methods. (Yes, it's a bit like the way Italians regard mozzarella, ricotta and feta as milk products but not actual "cheeses," because they're not aged.) Another factor that makes Novello particularly "heretical" is the practice of serving it cool or even slightly chilled, something which hasn't yet become commonplace in Italy.

While these wines are not intended to be overpowering, some are rather strong. Making wine less potent is an age-old challenge for anything created under the Sicilian sun, and Sicilian must is still exported for use as a fortifying agent for French and northern-Italian wines. A popular choice the last few years has been Nero d'Avola, an exceptional Sicilian varietal which yields a particularly hearty wine. (In recent years almost all Sicilian novellos sold have been based on Nero d'Avola. Because this unique varietal can be overwhelming to the uninitiated, a few wineries have chosen to use temperature controls to check the fermentation process early, even during harvesting, by placing the freshly-harvested grapes in chilled vats. The technique is effective, but few vintners use it. Some wine lovers would like to see more quality control. Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir), Syrah and other grapes (such as Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon) are sometimes blended with Nero d'Avola in creating Sicilian Novello, as well as other Sicilian reds. This brings us to an interesting point, namely the fact that Sicily's novellos stand among the heartiest nouveaus of Europe --not surprising considering that the island's vintage Nero d'Avolas are some of the world's most dominant reds.

As a complement to the stronger Sicilian novellos, best consumed within seven months of their bottling dates, distinctive meat courses such as lamb and even "red" fish like salmon or fresh tuna (the kind used in sushi) are often recommended, but the choice really depends on your mood. Alternatively, you may wish to consider coupling a Sicilian novello with something lighter, for a contrast in tastes. Of course, you could try it on its own, with nothing more than a good, aged Italian cheese or roasted chestnuts, to warm up an otherwise chilly winter evening --preferably in pleasant company.

For more information on Sicilian wines:
Sicilian Food and Wine
Sicily's Wine Renaissance
Sicilian Wine Country

About the Author: Roberta Gangi has written numerous articles and one book dealing with Italian cultural and culinary history, and several food and wine articles for Best of Sicily Magazine.

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© 2005 Roberta Gangi