The Italian alternative

The Italian alternative

The Nero d’Avola varietal

 By Mike Rosenberg
 Photo: The Poggio Anima 2010 “Asmodeus” Nero d’Avola

Quick quiz…I say “Nero.” What pops into your head?

How about grapes? OK, now we’re talking …

Nero d’Avola is an Italian, predominantly Sicilian, wine grape varietal. As you probably remember, most Italian wines draw their name from the location they’re grown rather than the actual varietal of grape. Nero d’Avola eliminates the confusion by including both.

In Italian, “Nero d’Avola” translates as “The Black [Grape] of Avola” – Avola being a town at the southernmost tip of the island of Sicily near the city of Syracuse. The varietal is less commonly referred to as “Calabrese” – meaning “from Calabria,” the Italian province straight across the Strait of Messina from Sicily.

Nero d’Avola grows best in hot, Mediterranean climates. Sicily certainly falls squarely into that definition. Grapes that thrive in warm weather regions tend to yield wines with stronger fruit flavors and higher alcohol content, and Nero is no exception. Its dark, tannic juice has long been sought as a blending grape to add depth and color to lighter wines on the mainland. Advances in winemaking technology have improved the single-varietal quality of these grapes markedly. Sicily is currently third in overall production among Italian wine regions – with the skyrocketing production of Nero d’Avola bolstering the already ample yield of the ubiquitous Marsala grape.

What’s Nero d’Avola taste like? The best parallel I’ve seen out there is Australian Shiraz, although I find “The Black” to be more tannic in general. As with most high-tannin wines, it usually takes a couple of years for the tannins to calm down and mesh with the other flavors, so if you’re looking on the shelves of your local quality wine retailer, don’t be afraid to pick up a bottle with a couple of years under its cork. Nero d’Avola also has aging potential, so if you find one you enjoy, don’t be afraid to stash a few bottles in the ol’ cellar for a little while. Nero d’Avola is also sometimes made into rosé for summertime consumption.

Sicily, being the volcanic island that it is, has great variation in altitude and soil content with microclimatic regions all over the place. The flavor you’ll find can vary markedly from producer to producer and from town to town. You may need to do a little independent research to see where your palate’s sweet spot is with this grape. (But that’s half the fun, ain’t it?) It also can pair with a broad variety of foods – from earthy vegetables like roasted eggplant to tomato-based pasta sauces to lamb and chili. Here are a few that I enjoyed recently:

Poggio Anima 2010 “Asmodeus” Nero d’Avola – Asmodeus, as any owner of the original Dungeons and Dragons “Monster Manual” can tell you, is the Lord of Hell. I doubt the terroir for this wine is quite that intense, largely because brimstone is not part of this wine’s big, bright flavor. My first impression was of blackberry and cherry on the nose and palate. It’s medium- to full-bodied, but it’s not as “sticky” as a similarly bouqueted Shiraz would be. Instead, the finish leans out, turning first to a nice tannic dryness and then into that mineral character that many Italian wines possess. I thought it was a wonderful food wine. We had this next to a penne pasta with wilted arugula, diced tomatoes and goat cheese, topped with roasted pork. There are worse wines to accompany any number of sins, gluttony being the top of the list. $13

Regaleali 2008 Nero d’Avola – Under other, more blindfolded circumstances, I might have mistaken this for a Bordeaux. (And certainly more like a Bordeaux than a Rhone, which I’d have expected with a Shiraz-like grape.)  My first thought on spinning this was, “Wow. Funky!” There’s a real whiff of earthiness on the nose, coupled with a nice bit of cherry. I’d call it medium-bodied, in line with the aforementioned French doppelganger. A good, dark fruit on the tongue with some gradually building tannins, There’s plenty of length on the tannic, chalky finish. We had this with leftovers from the same meal we made for the Asmodeus. The flavors of the pasta had blended into a nice yumminess, and the extra earthy characteristic in this wine made it an even better complement. Another great – though very different – food wine. $15

Feudo Arancio “Stemmari” 2010 Nero d’Avola – The least expensive ($8) and most straightforward wine of this particular sampling. It’s a simple, uncomplicated table wine – and this is not a fault in the slightest. The major flavors are cranberry and cherry, both on the nose and on the palate. The real winning piece of this wine is the balance. As I said, there’s nothing complex here – but the flavor, minerality and tannin are in real harmony, making this a very pleasant and food-friendly quaff. We had this alongside a rustic bean, barley and wilted green soup, and I thoroughly enjoyed the pairing. (I also discovered that our going-to-seed lettuces made great soup greens!)

If you’re a fan of sturdy, fruity wines and you’re looking for a changeup this weekend, trundle down to the end of the “Other Italian Wines” section and snag a couple of these. After all, once you go Black …


Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Rosenberg at or visit his blog at

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