It’s one of the things I love most about wine, the fact that no matter how many wines you’ve tried from how many different regions, there are always new regions, new wines, and new grapes to discover.
By DAVE ECKERT
Such was the case for me at a recent luncheon I attended at the always terrific Jasper’s restaurant in south Kansas City.
The wines were from the Benanti Winery on the Italian island of Sicily. I can’t say that I’ve had a lot of Sicilian wines in the past, but I can say that of the wines I have tried from that hot, parched island, I have enjoyed only a handful.
Most of the Sicilian wines are too big, too alcoholic and too monolithic for my palette. I was not expecting to like the Benanti wines, let alone love them, but love them I do.
I didn’t do a lot of research on Benanti prior to the luncheon. And, by not a lot, I mean none. Had I looked into the winery, its location, its soils and its grapes, I would have been clued into Benanti’s style of wine production, which is directly in line with my style of wine consumption.
Catina Benanti is located in Mount Etna, in the southeast corner of Sicily. The climate is naturally cooler than other areas of Sicily and the vineyards are all at significant elevation, which makes things even cooler.
Since Mount Etna is an active volcano, the soils are poor. That naturally reduces the yields in the vineyards, which naturally improves the quality of the grapes and finished wines.
Then there’s the fact that Benanti is discontinuing its production of wines featuring “international” grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and more well-known Sicilian varieties such as Nero d’Avola, to shine its spotlight solely on indigenous grapes like Carricante on the white side and Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappucio on the red. The result are wines as unique as they are delicious.
Our guide to the wines was Salvino Benanti, whose English was good, and whose wines were fantastic. The walk-in wine was the Etna Bianco de Caselle.
Most walk-in wines are ultimately forgettable, but this one was lovely with great acidity and a nice touch of minerality. The next white, the Etna Bianco Superiore Pietra Marina, more than doubles the Bianco in price and complexity.
The first white wine from Sicily to be given Tre Biccieri (three glasses) from the Italian wine organization Gambero Rosso, the Pietra Marina is a stunner-crisp, bright, and loaded with layers of aromas and flavors.
The wine was served with Jasper’s Melanzane Palermitano, sort of an eggplant lasagna made with Pecorino Romano and Scarmoza cheese. I don’t care for eggplant, but this dish was so delicate, and the eggplant cut so thin, it was just perfect. The Malanzane Palemitano and Pietra Marina were the perfect match.
On the red side, we were treated to five Benanti wines. All were good, but three stood out. The first of those was the Etna Rosso di Verzella, a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappucio.
The Verzella was light and bright. It reminded me of a Chinon with candy apple flavors and bracing acidity. The Verzella was matched with the Spaghetti Cavoifiore e Mentuccia — pasta tossed with cauliflower, Sicilian olive oil, fresh mint, and toasted breadcrumbs. A rustic dish accompanied by a thoroughly modern wine made with ancient grapes.
The final two wines absolutely blew me away. They were the Etna Rosso Rovitello and the Etna Rosso Contessa. The Rovitello came from a vineyard with 80-year-old vines, and the Contessa from a vineyard with 100-year-old vines.
A chicken involtini was the foil for the wines, and it was absolutely perfect, providing simple flavors for two extremely complex wines.
All of these Benanti wines either are, or soon will be, in the Kansas City market.
If you’re a fan of well-made, unique wines that drink well on their own, and pair even better with cuisine, they are wines worth seeking out.
If you’re not, you don’t know what you’re missing. I, for one, can’t wait to visit the property and see where these gems come from firsthand.
In Missouri, Benanti’s white wines’ retail prices are $27 for Etna Bianco di Caselle and $62 for Etna Bianco Superiore Pietra Marina.
Benanti’s red wines’ retail prices are $27 for Etna Rosso di Verzella, $50 for Etna Rosso Rovitello, $62 for Etna Rosso Contessa, $50 for Nerello Capuccio $50 and $62 for Nerello Mascalese.
Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.