A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Catarratto - Sicily, Italy

Pop quiz time again:  what is the second most planted grape in all of Italy?  As you might expect, Sangiovese is number one but I would have guessed that Trebbiano was right behind it and I definitely would have guessed that Trebbiano was the most widely planted white grape in Italy.  It is true that if you count all of the various sub-types of Trebbiano under a single heading (which would be a mistake, since they are, for the most part, separate grape varieties and not really "sub-types" at all), then Trebbiano becomes the most widely planted grape in Italy, but as of 2000, the Istituto Statistica Mercati Agro-Alimentari in Italy regards them separately, so I'll follow suit.  Trebbiano Toscana comes in third right behind today's grape, Catarratto (specifically Catarratto Bianco Comune, but we'll get to that in a minute).

The really amazing thing about Catarratto's high placement on that list is that all of the plantings of the grape are on Sicily, and nearly all of them are concentrated in the western part of the island.  In fact, Catarratto accounts for over 60% of the vineyard area on the island of Sicily, which is no mean feat as Sicily has more acreage devoted to the vine than any other region of Italy with over 330,000 acres planted (how the grape got to Sicily is a bit of a mystery as recent DNA testing [source] has shown that it is an offspring of the Garganega grape, which is primarily cultivated on the northern end of the Italian mainland in the Veneto region).  Catarratto Bianco Comune covered about 109,000 acres in 2000, which was actually down from nearly 150,000 acres in 1990.  None of those figures account for plantings of Catarratto Bianco Lucido which stood at about 20,000 acres in 2000.  So what's the big deal?  Why is so much land devoted to this grape?  The reason is pretty simple.  Catarratto is low-maintenance in the vineyard and yields like crazy, which is the perfect storm for growers whose main concern is selling their juice off for bulk wine production.  Catarratto is also important in the production of Marsala, but, as mentioned in the Grillo post a few days back, Marsala production has also become an industrialized, bulk production kind of affair and Catarratto's high yields, fairly neutral character and tendency to oxidize easily are all perfect for those kinds of operations.

I noted above that the planting figures were different for Catarratto Bianco Comune and Catarratto Bianco Lucido.  The Italian authorities recognize these as two distinct grape varieties, but recent DNA testing (source) has confirmed that they are actually clonal variants of the same grape (there are actually more than just these two, all genetically identical, but these are the most important in terms of acreage and volume).  They are distinguished from one another by the relative presence or absence of a whitish bloom on the skins of the grapes as they mature.  Comune has the most whitish color present while Lucido has less, creating a clearer, glossier looking grape skin.  Another sub-variety known as Extra-Lucido was discovered and isolated in 1971 from some Lucido vines and, as you might expect, it has virtually no bloom on the skins.  Comune is the more prolific producer, which is why its plantings tower over plantings for the other sub-varieties (all are rather voluminous yielders, though).  The Oxford Companion to Wine asserts that Lucido is the finer of the two in terms of quality production, but Bastianich and Lynch in their Vino Italiano hold that the differences between the two sub-varieties is subtle at most.  The tiebreaker goes to Nicolas Belfrage who, in his Brunello to Zibibbo maintains that Lucido is indeed the finer of the sub-varieties.

I don't know which one was in the bottle of Catarratto that I was able to find, but the odds suggest that it's probably Catarratto Bianco Comune.  I picked up a bottle of the 2008 Feudo Montoni Catarratto locally for about $20.  In the glass the wine was a fairly deep lemon-gold color.  The nose was nicely aromatic with green apple and apple pie filling aromas with some pineapple tropical fruit notes.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity.  There were flavors of baked apples and apple cider with a touch of lemony citrus.  The finish was bitter with a powdery, chalky kind of edge to it.  The cidery notes kept getting stronger as the wine stayed open, making it harder and harder to drink.  Overall, I didn't care for this at all.  Even taking into account that it is probably just a little past its prime, the flavors here were too one dimensional and the chalky texture was so unpleasant that it became a struggle to get through this bottle.  I'm always wary of writing a grape off due to one bad bottle, so I'll keep my eyes open for something a little fresher and will post a review if I come across anything.

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