The story of the Planeta vineyards began in 1985 in the countryside near Sambuca in the province of Agrigento. It stemmed from Alessio’s passion for wine making and the entrepreneurial spirit of his uncle, Diego, who already owned his own co-operative. In 1972, when Diego became chairman, he brought together a number of small local wine growers and the co-operative has now reached international proportions (Cantine SetteSoli, Menfi). Alessio turned his attention to land that had belonged to his grandfather, Don Vito, baron Planeta of Santa Cecilia, and Contrada Ulmo with Lake Arancio (named after the orange groves that are so common in Sicily) that suddenly comes into view as you drive down those torrid Sicilian roads. The lake provides a backdrop for an area of land that is ideal for planting the first vines and that characterizes the slow ripening made perfect by a microclimate. Alessio sought assistance in the venture from Carlo Corino, an eminent figure in the international wine world. Corino gave him the support he needed for his innovative and highly ambitious idea of creating a wine of international quality produced in Sicily. They decided to start with Chardonnay and other local wines such as Nero d’Avola, Grecanico and Sauvignon Blanc.
In a 16th century stone baglio or fortified farmhouse, that is today used for commercial purposes and as a wine tasting room, I interrupt Penny Murray, who with her musical London accent, is patiently telling me the story of the family and its wines, to ask her what is behind the success of the world-renowned Planeta Chardonnay that we are tasting. In Sicily, answers are never straightforward. Penny tells me about the climate, the sun, the land and the hard work that goes into making it fertile. She talks about citrons and green lemons, hints of mint, sage and hazelnuts with a return of orange blossom honey. As I taste my first glass, I begin to breathe in those tropical fruits and this splendid sun seems to be part of the wine. I forget the normal tasting procedure and instead of spitting the wine out, I drink it.
The trial period for the first Planeta winery lasted 10 years. In 1994, it produced its first Chardonnay that was, as I have already stated, acclaimed by the critics and marked the success of the Planeta family in international markets. As the winery expanded and experimented with grape varieties, several important components were added.
Francesca, Diego’s daughter, returned from Milan where she had been working in the sales department of a foreign multinational and Santi, Alessio’s brother, concentrated on domestic marketing. The group was brought closer together by the certainty that it had all the elements it needed to expand and develop whilst maintaining the family environment that makes it so unique. The winery also began to assume a certain international charm when Diego’s wife came to Sicily from England, a land with its incomprehensible dialect full of social contradictions.
This charm has been proudly and nobly passed on to their daughter, Francesca. “Noble” is almost certainly one of the words that come to mind when I taste my second wine, Santa Cecilia, the commercial name given to the Nero d’Avola. Needless to say, my total lack of etiquette causes Penny to raise an eyebrow or two. This is a local Sicilian grape variety, indigenous to the Noto area. It is, in my opinion, a sincerely intense wine, but for the experts that accompany me on this wonderful journey towards the discovery of Planeta wine, it has hints of the typical aromas of the Noto tufa or dust that is raised in the roads around the vineyards in the summer. It also has hints of fruit, carobs and figs. I drink this glass too.
In the second half of the 1990s, the family decided to invest in other land and discovered an area near Menfi that they then used mainly for international grape varieties and red grapes. The Dispensa vineyard was established where Merlot, Syrah (that brings back fond memories of Australia to Carlo) and Cabernet Sauvignon are produced. The vineyards in Menfi soon covered a total of 200 planted hectares, some of which were also used for research into new grape varieties. Alessio has always been firmly convinced of the importance of this research. He also has great respect for the French wine scene and the French winegrowers’ ability to use innovation in the age-old tradition of an aristocratic quality product that never fails to excite attention. He has a clear passion for the Piedmont wineries in the north of Italy where production is significantly lower and where quality must compensate for commercial aspects which, for a number of reasons, often take second place.
This research has also helped to create young, light and crisp wines with a touch of arrogance, wines like Segreta Bianco and Segreta Rosso. With great pleasure I taste Segreta Bianco, an elegant young white wine. It is an uninhibited but full, light, crisp wine. It has the typical aroma of a Chardonnay that gives strength to the Grecanico, a splendid Sicilian grape variety. This simple formula unveils the secret of the “Segreta” where the indigenous grape varieties reach new levels of excellence if accompanied by international vines that enhance and accentuate their qualities. Penny tries to draw my attention to the Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Fiano grape varieties in the white wine but my thoughts are lost in memories of my childhood in Sicily at my grandparents’ house.
I remember the octopus that my father caught with his bare hands and was served boiled with parsley, lemon, salt and pepper and olive oil, the limpets that we used to pry off the rocks and that only in Sicily are considered shellfish and the light and easy pasta dishes that even today I cook for my wife and son and are a perfect accompaniment to this splendid wine. I drink the Segreta Bianco too.
Between 1997 and 1998, probably the most ambitious project known as “Progetto DOC” was launched in order to enhance the status of indigenous Sicilian grape varieties such as Nero d’Avola, Frappato and Moscato di Noto, the only sweet wine that Planeta produces. The winery at Noto in the province of Siracusa takes it name from the historical Contrada Buonivini where a hot, dry climate and predominantly calcareous soil are perfect for the local varieties. Planeta now began to select grape varieties that historically belonged to the area and moved away from selection that was based solely on different varieties towards the search for an optimum balance between the soil and grape variety. It gave considerable importance to the concept of terroir, the unique nature of the vine and its product that is not only based on the characteristics of the vine but also climate and environmental factors.
The Planeta family was now driven by a strong desire to produce a wine that was exclusively Sicilian and after the 2003 harvest bottled a Nero d’Avola that was produced entirely in the region of origin. In the province of Ragusa, there were more family memories at the house of Gigi, Diego’s brother, where they used to produce a local wine in Vittoria called Cerasuolo. Alessio relived those memories through this light and fruity wine that is a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato. The soil, consisting predominantly of red sand, gives these grape varieties their distinctive flavor. This is determined by sudden temperature changes that are caused by the inability of the sand to maintain heat. There were some vivid memories of the past when three brothers and four sisters would press the grapes together and when wine was the reward at the end of a hard day’s work under a hot sun.
Cerasuolo di Vittoria is one of my favorite wines. Penny is not surprised by what I say but attributes my comments to enthusiasm rather than style. She adds that the fresh and uninhibited tone of this delicate red wine can also accompany fish. Lost in my smiling thoughts, I imagine that the table is full of savory pies, black olives, charred grilled vegetables, the famous Sicilian arancine or rice balls with this splendid fruity red wine in the center. I finish off the Cerasuolo di Vittoria and express the wish that the Sicilian baroque architecture in the area will enrich and stimulate my cultural identity that has, after all these years, almost become North- American.
The story of the Planeta family has reached the present day and has been highly acclaimed by the French press that has placed it among the hundred best wineries in the world. This is just recognition for a family that over the years has grown from strength to strength. The same family harvests the grapes, sees the wine take form, gathers the olives each year and when there is less work to do remains at the winery because it is part of a winning group and a deep-rooted philosophy.
Time is essential when growing vines and here the pace of life is perfectly in step with nature. The wine tasting is over probably because I am unable to taste anymore and to hide that splendid smile of childish delight that has been imprinted on my face since the first glass of Chardonnay. Outside, an olive grove completes this Sicilian backdrop of sun, fragrances, art and courage. It is a backdrop created by Sicilians who have fulfilled their dreams by resorting to the simplicity and strength of an area that has offered so much over the years and still has so much more to offer.
Yet I’m still asking myself where those half-full bottles we left on the table have gone…
written by Ignazio Blanco