In this case, grillo is neither an Italian politician nor a grasshopper, but a grape from Sicily. From being one of the ingredients in Marsala producers are moving towards a new style of grillo. Come along to the western part of Sicily, where grillo tries to jump higher on its own. BKWine Magazine’s Åsa Johansson tells the story of the grape.
Grillo´s fate has just like a grasshopper jumped both up and down. After phylloxera´s rampage in Sicily in the early 1900s, grillo was planted around the towns of Marsala and Trapani. Grillo is more resistant than for example catarratto bianco, and quickly became popular despite its low yields. In the 1930s, sixty percent of the vineyards around Marsala and Trapani were planted with grillo. When some time later most producers began to concentrate on quantity, they favored varieties like inzolia that provide higher yields. Grillo was put to the side.
The last twenty years, however, grillo has returned. One reason is that demand for Marsala continue to fall and the area is forced to innovate. Meanwhile, winemakers learned to take better care of grillo, especially the grape aromas that easily oxidizes. Since year 2000, the cultivation of grillo has doubled in Sicily. In 2010, there were approximately 16 000 acres (6 500 hectares) of grillo in Sicily, of which more than 85% around Trapani.
Grillo is a crossing between the aromatic grape zibibbo (moscato di Alessandria), that is the grape in the sweet dessert wine Passito di Pantelleria, and cataratto. There are different opinions about the crossing, if it occurred naturally or of it was ampelographer Antonio Amendola who in 1874 created grillo.
-The purpose was probably to aromatize Marsala by using grillo. Marsala was before then a blend of cataratto and inzolia says Filippo Sciara, historian and researcher at a conference on grillo hosted by wine producer Gorghi Tondi.
Today there are only about fifteen producers of Marsala left.
-Imagine that in 1960, Marsala was one of Italy’s wealthiest cities, just after the northern Treviso, says Giuseppina de Bartoli from the winery De Bartoli.
It was her now deceased father, the renowned and controversial Marco de Bartoli who in 1991 made the first wine from one hundred percent grillo, Grappoli di Grillo.
-Everybody thought he was crazy, continues Giuseppina.
Marco de Bartoli was as always ahead of his time. Today, more and more wineries make hundred percent grillo and many seem to see grillo as Sicily´s new nero d’avola, an accessible wine at good price.
Today, there are two different biotypes of grillo simply enough called A and B. Grillo A is similar to sauvignon blanc and gives aromas going towards cassis, grapefruit and passion fruit while B has more honeyed aroma and gives wines with higher alcohol.
-It is important to avoid direct sun on the bunches by maintaining a rich foliage to keep the quality of the grapes. It is also important to work without contact with oxygen during winemaking to keep grillo’s aromas that easily oxidize, says Lorenza Scianna, winemaker at Fondo Antico.
During my days in Sicily I tried a variety of wines made from grillo. From sparkling to orange wines, from fresh and simple to oak aged grillos. It does not seem to be entirely clear what will be grillos new style, but it is obvious that grillo is a versatile grape that offers many opportunities.
-You will be surprised how well grillo actually ages, says Lorenza Scianna, but the market is not ready yet for that type of wine, she concludes.
Marco de Bartoli
Grappoli di Grillo, 2015 Marco de Bartoli
100% grillo. Natural yeast. The fermentation starts in steel tanks but ends in barrels of different sizes, where the wine stays on the lees for 12 months. Finally, six months in bottle. Flowery aromas as acacia, mixed with citrus and pineapple, the finish reminds me of bitter almonds. Medium body and refreshing acidity. Very good.
Integer Grillo, 2014 Marco de Bartoli
100% grillo. Three months maceration on the skins. Aged two years in amphora. Not filtered and without added sulfur. Golden yellow color, medium-plus body, complex aromas, citrus, honey, almonds, saffron, soft, smooth aromas, with a hint of saltiness, nice finish. A somewhat peculiar wine which I personally liked.
Brut Nature, La Terza Via, 2013 Metodo Classico
100% grillo. Half of the base wine is aged in barrels, the rest in steel tanks. For the second fermentation, they use grape must. Eighteen months on the lees. Hundred percent grillo. Complex aromas of candied fruit, apricot, ripe red apples, currant leaves, grapefruit, hay, lots of bubbles, medium body. Extremely dry but still warm and mouth filling. Medium finish. Only 8000 bottles.
We lost our way at least five times before we arrived at Aldo Viola´s small purple (viola) house in the middle of green wide fields of vineyards. Impossible to find it. Once invited Aldo Viola let me try one of the wildest grillo I have ever tasted. A punk rocker grillo. Maybe you understand that we are talking about natural wines?
-Today I control the temperature, something I did not do in the past, says Aldo as we sit in the purple house. We eat fried stuffed dried tomatoes, cheese and wonderful bread while we taste wines Aldo picks up from the floor (no snobby sommeliers around here!). Aldo’s mother and father are standing and refilling my plate as soon as I swallow the last bite. Aldo has invited a couple of friends who also sit at the table.
I will only describe the wine that I actually tasted. The others were hard to get a grip on among all the sun-dried tomatoes, the laughter and the wines, poured without any real order. Maybe it was just that that was the point. Or maybe not?
Egesta Grillo 2015
100% grillo. Six months of skin contact, natural yeasts, no filtration, no added sulfur. The wine is straw yellow with golden-pink shades with sediments. Honey, oxidized tones, ginger, chamomile, biting acidity and slightly bitter at the end. A wine that leaves no one indifferent; it is a wine that is either-or. In Aldo’s world there is no word called in-between. Personally, I liked it but would love to try it again to be sure.
Tenuta Gorghi Tondi
Organic farm whose vineyards are located inside the WWF nature reserve called Gorghi Tondi and Lake Preola. The name Gorghi Tondi comes from the two ponds located between the vineyards in the nature reserve. The two sisters Clara and Annamaria Sala run the farm with their father. Today they have 280 acres (130 hectares) and produce 1 million bottles. They sell ninety percent in Italy, the rest abroad.
Palmarès brut grillo 2016 metodo charmat
100% grillo. Straw yellow sparkling wine, medium intense aromas, fresh and tingly with green pear and citrus. Fine bubbles, flavors of pear, citrus and hints of ripe red apples. Good acidity. Simple and good.
Vitvitis Bio Grillo, 2016
Organic without added sulfur, 100% grillo. Straw yellow color with hints of green, medium intensity aromas with citrus, flint, green pear, light, taste of pear, peach with a hint of saltiness. Medium finish. Pleasant.
Grillodoro passito muffato 2012
This is (probably) the only wine made from grillo in Sicily affected by noble rot. Golden yellow color and aromas of lemon and orange blossom, jasmine, sweet scents, warm, round taste, tropical fruit, honey, but without being sticky. The acidity is there in the background. Long finish.
A pharmacist, Giuseppe Polizzotti, runs the family winery while the winemaker is a talented young woman called Lorenza Scianna. She makes clean, elegant and good value wines.
Grillo Parlante 2015
100% grillo. Aromas of citrus, pear, cedar and thyme, medium body, flavors of pear, green apple, nice saltiness in the background high acidity, good balance. Well-made and pleasant.
Åsa Johansson is BKWine’s person in Italy. She lives in Florence since the early ’00s. Asa writes regularly on wine and food in Swedish and Italian publications as well as online.
The very best place to experience grillo is of course in Sicily, and also the many other great Sicilan wines. And the food! Come on a wine tour to Sicily with BKWine and you will get plenty.
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