Avola at the tavola

For years now, I’ve been trying to figure out what might be the next malbec, the varietal that will gain great favor with the consumers who want an approachable, easy-drinking but not wimpy red wine. The same folks who turned merlot and shiraz into huge deals and then left them behind for malbec.

I had about decided that the next malbec was … malbec, unless something emerges at some point from China or another large growing region. But now I’m wondering if an increasingly familiargrape could emerge from the middle of the Mediterranean Sea:

Nero d’Avola.

Sicily’s premier red grape actually has a good bit in common with malbec: Both were viewed until very recently primarily as a blending grape, providing color or oomph to Italian or French wines. Both thrive in hot, arid climates. And both rock with slabs of beef, lamb or game.

Nero d’Avola tends to be muscular and rich, a la syrah, and actually blends well with that grape (look for Benuara or d’Alessandro at the inexpensive end and Valle dell’Acate Tané on the spendy side). Valle dell’Acate also makes my favorite introduction to the varietal, the dusty but bold Casa Ibidini ($14).

But to see how truly profound these wines can be, seek out the Occhipinti Siccagno ($35-$40; link goes to Wine Searcher), which starts out bright and balanced and then just goes boom! in the midpalate. It’s profound now “” better than any nero d’Avola (or malbec) I’ve come across “” and has more than enough stuffing to improve with age.

Other superb renditions I’ve sampled in recent years include Gulfi Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Gulfi Chiaramonte Rossojbleo (aged in stainless steel and incredibly clean) and Neromaccarj.

And if nero d’Avola ascension continues, there is plenty of room for growth in the homeland: Sicily has more acres planted to grapes than Chile or South Africa. Growers and vintners there could do worse than to look to this erstwhile “blending grape.”

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