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.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Grillo - Sicily, Italy

When researching grapes for this blog, I occasionally stumble over interesting stuff completely by accident.  In the case of today's grape, Grillo, I was simply looking online for a picture of some grapes that I could use to decorate the post with.  It's usually sufficient to enter the name of the grape into a Google image search to get what I'm looking for, but occasionally there are some surprises.  When I entered Grillo into the search today, I got back pages and pages of pictures of all kinds of crickets because, apparently, grillo is the Italian word for cricket.  So, for those of you like me who do not speak any Italian, there's your word for the day.  As for why the grape is known as Grillo, I have no idea.  Nobody who writes about the grape seems all that interested in the fact that the grape's name also means cricket, so my guess is that it's probably just a coincidence.  Nothing about the grapes or the vines look like a cricket to me and, as far as I know, crickets don't eat grapes, so I'm out of ideas as to the source of the name.

It turns out that exactly where the grape comes from is a bit of a mystery as well.  The most popular explanation online is that the grape came to Sicily via Puglia.  Nicolas Belfrage, in his Brunello to Zibibbo is doubtful about this since there doesn't appear to be anything like Grillo at all in Puglia.  Further, those who champion this explanation believe that the grape came to Sicily only after phylloxera struck the Italian vineyards, which would mean that it has only been grown on Sicily for about 150 years at the most.  I'm skeptical about this since another factoid given out about Grillo is that it was the basis for the famous Roman wine called Mamertino, which was a favorite of Julius Caesar.  One assumes that the ancient Mamertino wine was made around the area of Mamertino, which is itself on the island of Sicily, so if it is true that Grillo is the base of the Mamertino wine of old, then we have to posit that Grillo has been on the island of Sicily for several thousand years.  It is, of course, unbelievably difficult to match modern grapes to historical wines, so that's not exactly a smoking gun, but Belfrage's observation about the lack of similar grapes in Puglia seems pretty damning to me.  His theory is that the grape came to Sicily with the Phoenicians thousands of years ago, but given that Grillo's parents are listed on the VIVC as Muscat of Alexandria and Catarratto, which is thought to be native to Sicily, it seems more likely to me that Grillo was born on Sicily at some point in the distant past.

Grillo is particularly well suited to the Sicilian climate as it is very tolerant of high temperatures and dry conditions, which Sicily has in abundance.  Further, the grape is capable of reaching fairly high sugar levels when ripe, which was a major boon when it was the primary grape used in the production of Marsala.  Marsala, as some of you may know, is a fortified wine produced on the island of Sicily that is made in a way that is similar to Sherry.  The Sicilian name for what the Spanish call the solera system is in perpetuum.  In the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, Marsala was a big deal on the international wine scene, but demand for it has fallen even more precipitously than for the fortified wines of other areas such as Madeira, Port and Sherry.  For the most part, the Marsala of today is industrially produced and is good for little more than use as a cooking wine.  There are some artisan producers still making quality Marsala, but it is very difficult to find.

Grillo was once fairly widely planted, but as you might expect, once demand for the principal wine produced from it began to fall, acreage devoted to the vine began to decline as well.  It's also not exactly a prolific yielder, so as the process for Marsala production began to shift over to a bulk, industrial process, Grillo was uprooted in favor of the Catarratto grape, which yields more productively and reliably.  The low point for Grillo came in the early 1990's when acreage devoted to the grape fell below 5,000 acres.  Plantings have rebounded lately as the popularity of dry white table wines has increased over the past twenty years or so, and growers and consumers have found that Grillo can make interesting, characterful table wines.

I was able to find two wines made from the Grillo grape.  The first was the 2008 Corvo "Terrae Dei" which I was able to find for about $12.  In the glass, the wine had a medium lemon-gold color. The nose was shy with a little bit of lemon and pear, but not much. It picks up a little funky leesy, cheesy kind of aroma as it approaches room temperature, but it never really gets that strong.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with medium acidity.  The sensation was of light, delicate fruits like lemon, lime, green apple and creamy pear.  The leesy kind of flavor persisted a bit onto the palate as well, providing an interesting, slightly cheesy and funky kind of flavor that picks up as the wine approaches room temperature, but never gets out of control.  I was a little concerned when I bought this bottle that it might be in the midst of its decline, and I think I was probably right.  It's drinking OK right now, but the fruit flavors are definitely in full retreat here.

Luckily I was able to find a bottle of the 2009 Ca' di Ponti Grillo from my friends at the Gypsy Kitchen for about $10.  In the glass, the wine was a fairly pale silvery lemon color.  The nose was very aromatic with melon, green apple, pineapple and grapefruit aromas.  It was like a fruit cocktail leaping out of the glass.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with medium acidity.  There were flavors of creamy pear and melon with some banana and lemony citrus.  The fruits were much more muted on the palate than on the nose, which surprised me a little bit.  I have in my notes that the overall flavor profile was "broad," which, to me, means that the acid is fairly muted and the wine has almost a kind of creamy mouthfeel.  A broad wine has more acidity than a "flabby" wine, but it's still on the lower side of balanced.  I'm a sucker for a high-acid white wine, so this didn't really do it for me, though it is a very nicely made wine and at only $10 a bottle represents a very good value.  Those looking for a substitute for Chardonnay will find a lot to like here, but I just need more zip in my whites than this wine can provide.

Bonus factoid for those of you who read all the way to the end: Grillo is unusual in that it only has one known synonym.  The grape is also known as Riddu in some places, though the Palomino Fino grape has Grillo as one of its accepted synonyms.  Most grapes pick up dozens of synonyms as they move through different regions (see Chasselas and its 200+ different names), but Grillo only has the one.

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