Islands of Italy Mostly Sicily Sardinia, too.
Sicily has made a modest splash in the wine market over the past 10 to 20 years.
When we were young, the calling card for Sicily was the wine of Marsala and
these were, for the most part, relegated to use in the kitchen. It was a
wine used to deglaze the pan for Veal or Chicken dishes. Or it was used to
The name Marsala was bastardized by large California wineries. Today, for
example, Constellation Brands offers cheap, fortified wines called Marsala under
the labels of Cribari, Paul Masson and Taylor (from New York State!).
These have little to do with real Sicilian Marsala, but frugal restaurateurs
provide the largest segment of the market for these wines in the U.S.
For table wines being sold in bottle, the wine called Corvo was perhaps the
"Blue Nun" or "Mouton Cadet" of Sicily. It was a
modest quality wine with an easy-to-pronounce name and a relatively low price.
The owners of that brand are trying to resurrect it today, but it's not on the
radar of most wine consumers.
It's been said that today Sicily makes more wine than all of New Zealand.
This is a remarkable concept. We wonder if many shops carry more wines
from Sicily or more from New Zealand...???
Most of the wine produced in Sicily was sold in bulk to winemakers in cool
climate regions and places where the sun doesn't shine so reliably
brightly. Wine was put into tankers and shipped to less sunny climes where
vino Siciliano could "fortify" other wines.
It's been said, for example, that there was demand in Piemonte for some of the
Nerello Mascalese wines from Etna was purchased in bulk to add to Barolo and
British wine expert Tim Atkins recently posted an article on Sicily and claims that only
20% of the wine produced there is actually sold in bottles. And Sicily is
maybe the fourth largest wine-producing region in Italy behind Puglia, the
Veneto and Emilia-Romagna.
For the 2016 vintage, we see that 58%
of the wine made in Sicily is white, the other 42% is rosato and red wine.
This is a big change as red production, thanks to Nero d'Avola and Etna Rosso
wines is on the rise.
Information from the 2010 census on Italian grapes shows the plantings of
Cataratto to be down 46% from the 2000 census, while Nero d'Avola jumped by
But it seems there's less land devoted to vineyards today than, say, 20+ years
ago. Back then there was plenty of "industrial" winemaking and
catering to bulk buyers. These days, thankfully, there are many more artisan,
quality-driven producers and Sicilian wines are quite in vogue these days.
There was, and is, a large grower's cooperative winery called Settesoli.
It's located about 40 miles east of Marsala and about 40-something miles south
and a bit west of Palermo. The co-op was founded in the 1950s. In
the 1970s the head of the organization was the son of a founding member, Diego
Planeta. He had some brilliant ideas for putting Sicily on the map,
so-to-speak and these included planting "international" grape
varieties to show the world what could be made.
Many growers thought Planeta to be out of his mind, but it turns out he was
crazy like a fox. The members of the co-op were encouraged to plant grapes
such as Cabernet and Chardonnay. In doing so, they were shown how these
varieties were cultivated in wine regions with a history of quality production,
something a bit foreign to farmers who grew grapes for quantity and abundant
yields, not for quality fruit.
This ended up changing the face of Sicilian wine production.
Planeta then planted his own vineyards with both international and locally
indigenous varieties. He launched his winery in 1995 and it's grown from a
small sapling into a small forest. They have 370+ hectares of vineyards
and produce north of two million bottles annually. The Planeta Empire is
now comprised of five wineries in various locations and they make some really
There's a similar story concerning the famed Rallo family whose roots are in
Marsala. In 1983 Giuseppe and Gabriella Rallo launched the winery called
Donnafugata which is now run by their children, daughter José and son
Antonio. They dabble with international varieties and this brought a lot
of attention to their wines. You'll find they make a Chardonnay and have
some wines incorporating Cabernet, Merlot, Tannat, Petit Verdot and Syrah.
Happily, they do make wines from local varieties, too.
José Rallo has credited their production of international varieties with
bringing world-wide attention to their Donnafugata wines. She has said
this also helped them to better understand their historical grapes, thus
improving the quality of their wines.
Today, by the way, that
Settesoli co-op farms something like 6,000 hectares of vineyards and they make
about 24-million bottles of wine annually! It's the largest winery in
Sicily and we've read that in the area of Menfi, something like 70% of the 5,000
families living there are affiliated in some form or another with this mammoth
This map highlights just a few of Sicily's wines regions.
Palermo and Catania are two major cities and they both have airports connecting
to Rome and the rest of the world.
As of 2017, though, we found Sicily to still be a bit isolated.
It's not simple getting there from many places in and around Europe.
Rome is a major connection, however.
There are numerous indigenous grapes in Sicily and you can find all sorts of
other "foreign" varieties in the region today.
is but one DOCG in Sicily and a bunch of DOC designations.
Just to point out how easy it is to be confused about Sicilian
wine in particular and Italian wine in general, we found this document (October
2017) by an agency which allegedly helps educate the world about vini
Italiani. It's called FEDERDOC and it's an organization representing
approximately 90 Italian wine consortiums.
The lone DOCG in Sicily is listed at the top of this chart. It's
"Cerasuolo di Vittoria" and you'll notice they have an icon of a wine
glass in the column for "Rosato" or pink wines.
In fact, the DOCG applies solely to red wines which are a blend of Nero d'Avola
There is no DOCG for a pink wine labeled Cerasuolo di Vittoria.
Perhaps someone creating that document confused "Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo,"
a pink wine made from the Montepulciano grape in the region of Abruzzo.
Sicily has a few grower's consortiums...there's one for Etna and
one for the Cerasuolo di Vittoria. There's one for the wines of Monreale
and other for Sclafani.
The main consorzio of Sicilian wines has a web site that is remarkably
poor. It is merely for wine producers and assists, perhaps, in
administrative issues and dealing with government bureaucracies.
But there is no educational material for consumers.
There's a Wines of Sicilia web site claiming to offer educational material.
On a page called "Meet The Grapes" you won't find a word about Nerello
Mascalese or Nerello Cappuccio. Carricante is missing as well, leading us
to wonder if Etna is actually part of Sicily.
Sicilian table wines, though, are now much more easily found than a decade
As of this writing (2018), the wines of Etna, made of Nerello Mascalese and
Nerello Cappuccio, have found a following and comparisons with Nebbiolo wines
from Piemonte are made by many. Etna's white wines are certainly worth
exploring, too. The Carricante grape can produce profound and age-worthy
The Nero d'Avola wines from southeast Sicily have gained a share of the wine
market here in the San Francisco Bay area and there is quite a range of styles
and prices for those wines.
We had seen an article where someone touted the great Syrah wines from
Sicily. This was certainly news to us, as we love good Syrah. In
researching information about Sicily and its wines, we were surprised to learn
that Syrah is rather widely planted. A number of wineries make it as a
varietal wine and others use it to fortify other reds.
Still, we cannot claim to have tasted an especially profound Syrah from Sicily.
There are wines made of other international grapes. You can find Cabernet
Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. It seems growers
uprooted indigenous varieties in the 1980s and 1990s, hoping to cash in on the
demand for varietal wines. But competing against wines from New World wine
regions such as California, Australia, Chile and Argentina proved to be a
Maybe international varieties are of interest to their home market in Sicily or
Italy, but they have rough waters to navigate with respect to finding a slice of
the consumer "pie" in international markets.
But there are exceptions to every "rule," and we must admit that some
blends of indigenous and international varieties can be quite good. Try a
bottle of Donnafugata's top reds. Mille e una Notte is Nero d'Avola with
Petit Verdot, Syrah and other reds...quite good. Their Tancredi is
Cabernet with Nero d'Avola, Tannat and other reds...also a table-worthy wine.
are generally more interested in grape varieties which produce benchmark
Sicilian wines from indigenous grape varieties.
The notion of artisan Marsala can be credited to the late Marco de Bartoli whose
winery makes a range of exceptional wines.
The wines of Etna have become a hot commodity over the past decade and now
"outsiders" are investing in that region, too. Early
"outsiders" were Sicilians and the Cusumano family from western Sicily
and the Planeta family now have wineries in Etna.
Famous wine importer/exporter Marco de Grazia put down roots in Etna back in
2002, or so. He had a vision for this region when most people were blind
to its potential.
Now Piemonte's Angelo Gaja of Barbaresco fame has invested in Etna. One
observer opined "this is either the beginning of the end or the end of the
The bottom line on Etna is it's a region that's now producing some wines which
are delicious in their youth and some which will repay cellaring.
There are numerous rather commercial bottlings of the Nero d'Avola grape.
The consumer who's a fan of many a drink-me-now Malbec from Argentina is likely
to find something made of Nero d'Avola to be to their taste. There are
some well-structured bottlings which are a bit more tannic and a bit austere in
The DOCG blend of Nero d'Avola and Frappato called "Cerasuolo di
Vittoria" can be quite good. We had thought of these as wines to
drink in their youth. But Alessio Planeta shared a ten year old bottle
with us and this was shockingly good. Giusto Occhipinti opened a 20 year
old bottle and this, too, was remarkable.
Giusto. (Both the man and the wine.)
The Muscat wines of Pantelleria can be exceptional and there are some delicious
Malvasia wines from Lipari, just off the coast of northeast Sicily.
In Northeast Sicilia you'll find wines of the Faro denominazione and
there are some wines from there worth exploring.
With nearly two dozen denominazione there is much to explore in
are some wines we like:
- Alberto Graci's little azienda is situated in Castiglione di Sicilia on
the northern side of the Etna wine region. He's in the Passopisciaro
neighborhood, a damned good address if you're making wine from Nerello
Mascalese and Carricante grapes.
Alberto's grandpa made wine, but not in the Etna region. And in nonno's
day, winemaking was about quantity, not quality.
Graci left Sicily to pursue his studies and not winemaking. After
his time at a university in Rome, he moved to Milan as an investment
banker. When Grandpa died, he came back to Sicily and sold nonno's
place (in central Sicily) and invested the proceeds in a property in
the Etna area.
The winery was founded in 2004 and today it's a highly-regarded estate
with elegant, showy wines. The cellar dates back to the 1860s,
though, with a bit of a remodeling and upgrade.
The Graci properties tally 25 hectares in size, but presently
there are 20 hectares of vineyards planted in three sites.
They have the Contrada Arcurìa and the Contrada Feudo di Mezzo, both in
Passopisciaro. The third site is the Contrada Barbabecchi in Solicchiata,
about 3 kilometers to the east. These vineyards range from 600 to 1100
meters above sea level.
Barbabecchi is a rather old vineyard...planted more than a hundred years ago on
their own roots as the phylloxera root louse has never taken hold there.
Naturally, there's not a large quantity of wine from this site, but it is rather
special. And, like the rest of the Graci vineyards, it's farmed
Graci, by the way, is viewed by our friend Angelo Gaja as one of the top Etna
wine producers. Gaja, famed for his Piemontese wines (and now a few in
Tuscany), is partnering with Alberto Graci on a new venture in a presently
unheralded southwest Etna vineyard site. They purchased a 21 hectare
property that's planted predominantly to Nerello Mascalese.
Graci told us this part of Etna was, many years ago, viewed as a good quality
location. It's been in the shadows, though, thanks to so many good
wineries in other Etna locales.
We've been fans of the entry-level Etna Rosso, but frankly all the wines are a
Graci is making some of the most charming and easily-drinkable wines in the Etna
area at this point in time.
We've had his wines in various tasting venues and they are consistently good.
The 2014 Etna Rosso is made entirely of Nerello Mascalese and it is fermented in
cement tanks using indigenous yeasts.
Graci says he employs a long period of skin contact, typically about a month and
yet you won't find his wine to be aggressively tannic. It's rather supple
and elegant on the palate.
We like the sweet, somewhat woodsy bouquet here and yet, remarkably, the wine
predominantly aged in cement. It undergoes a spontaneous malolactic
fermentation in those cement tanks and remains there for about a year and a
half. Earlier vintages did not see wood, but Graci told us a small
percentage is kept in tini, wooden wine vats.
Graci's cellar, by the way, has no French oak barriques.
Once bottled, the Etna Rosso stays in the cellar for but a couple of months and
then it's offered to a most receptive market.
Currently in stock: GRACI 2014 ETNA ROSSO
In the old part of the cellar there were some ancient tanks...
We understand the previous owners of this facility used these wooden tanks into
the 1980s...and they are quite old...museum pieces now.
After tasting many exceptional wines, we went out to the
The vineyards are farmed organically.
And this is, as you can see, quite labor intensive.
Alberto and his lovely Mom...
CIRO & STEPHANIE BIONDI
- Ciro Biondi is an architect who didn't have designs on the wine business
until he and his wife Stephanie decided to restore some old family
vineyard sites to their garden-like splendor. In 1999 they embarked
on a wine-growing and winemaking project. At some point they took on
some partners and apparently this did not go so well.
In fact, in 2012 we're told, Biondi had to do some clandestine subterfuge
to rescue some wine which was in danger of spoiling due to neglect.
The partnership was apparently on the rocks and Ciro hired a tanker truck
to make a covert run to make off with the 2010 and 2011 vintages of his
single vineyard "Cisterna Fuori" cru. The wine was, in
fact, saved, but some other lots in that cellar were not
salvageable. The company "details" have been restructured
and today Ciro & Stephanie own the company outright without
entanglements from others.
- Biondi's winery is on the south side of Etna and it comes with a long
and interesting history. Ciro Biondi's grandfather and the
grandfather's brother Salvatore had a grape-growing enterprise back in the
late 1800s. Uncle Sal teamed up with another fellow in the town of
Trecastagni and they made wines branded as "Biondi & Lanzafame."
These actually gained a measure of notoriety when, in 1913 and 1914, they
entered wines in competitions in Paris, Lyon and Casal Monferrato and won
some awards. Their wines even made their way to the United States!
An old document they found at the Biondi property tallying up the 1923
- Here's an image from Stephanie Biondi illustrating the changes the
property has taken over the past few years...
They currently have about 7 hectares of vineyards in three different
The Contrada Ronzini is planted to white grapes, so you'll find Carricante
there, along with a bit of Cataratto and the rare Minnella. It's the
source of the prestigious "Chianta" white wine.
Ciro confided that this name irks some Tuscan vintners who object to the
name on the grounds it's too similar to their beloved
'Chianti." They will soon change the label to appease
the Tuscan wine producers, but it should be pointed out that
"Chianta" is a Sicilian word for a "plant," with Chianti
in Sicilian being the plural, "plants."
Apparently starting with the 2016 vintage, the label will change
and the wine will be called "Pianta" which is the Italian word
for "plant" (singular).
Cisterna Fuori is a site planted with the two red grapes,
Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio. It's also the home of the
vinification cellar and a nice little outdoor reception area.
A snapshot of the place in March.
Il professore, Ciro Biondi.
San Nicolò is the smallest vineyard site and it's planted to
Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio which are planted "on their own
Ciro said he was visited some years ago by Aubert de Villaine,
manager of the prestigious Burgundy winery called Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
Biondi was invited to visit de Villaine's cellar and recalls tasting DRC's
sublime Montrachet and thinking perhaps that he was wasting his time making
But Monsieur de Villaine encouraged him to continue his quest for great wines.
Biondi, at first, wondered if he should plant Chardonnay.
"No...we should not! We should make our own unique wines and keep the
inspiration of Burgundy as a model."
And he's taken a page from a Burgundian winemaker's handbook, employing seasoned
oak cooperage for his wines...a bit of skin contact and settling of the
juice...some lees stirring...bottle aging...
In tasting his Carricante called "Chianta" we found the young wine to
be well-made and a bit shy...so Ciro opened a bottle which was a couple of years
older and, eccoci qua! Now you're talkin'!
The wine blossoms nicely, showing depth and elegance. It's not French
white Burgundy...it's Etna Bianco and a good one at that!
Biondi's red wines are quite good, too. They routinely have some grip and
structure, so pairing them with appropriate foods will help show the wines in a
"Outis" is their entry-level wine in both red and white. The
name is Greek and means "no one" (nessuno in Italian).
There's a bit of Greek mythology associated with the Etna neighborhood and if
you become familiar with the Greek playwright Euripides, you'll know about
wine-drinking and debauchery with respect to Cyclops.
Odysseus had been drinking with the Cyclops known as Polyphemus. Asked his
name, Odysseus says it's "Outis." At one point, Odysseus is
trying to kill Cyclops before he, himself, is killed. Being
attacked, it's Polyphemus who shouts out that "nobody" was trying to
kill him, so, of course, none of the neighbors came to his aid.
Outis is also a sort of term for "anonymous" and it's been used as a
pseudonym by a number of writers and now, it seems, a winemaker.
Ironically you will find that Signor Biondi keeps a relatively low
profile. Unlike most vintners who seek the praise of various wine critics,
Ciro's wines are not seen these past few years in the various Italian wine
guides. Talk about anonymous!
We currently have the 2014 Chianta Etna Bianco in the shop...This is
predominantly Carricante with a bit of Minella and Catarratto. It's still
young, but developing nicely. The initial notes on the nose are
reminiscent of apricot with a touch of pineapple spice notes...minerally and
stony, there's a faintly smoky note to this wine, too. Medium+ in
body...it's not an exuberant wine, but one you can watch evolve in the glass as
it both warms and airs.
Currently in stock: BIONDI 2014 "CHIANTA"
ETNA BIANCO $49.99
Russo is another one of the leading lights in the Etna region, having
grown up in the town of Passopisciaro, close to the family vineyards and
The winery is named after Giuseppe's father who died at an early age
having suffered a heart attack. At that point in time (in the early
2000s), he was confronted with the option of selling dad's vineyards and
pursuing his other endeavors (teaching literature and piano) or becoming a
Lucky for us he chose the latter option and today Signor Russo is regarded
as one of the best producers of Etna wines.
He's continued in his father's footsteps by cultivating the vines
There are currently about 15 hectares of vineyards and they make a nice
range of wines. Three single vineyard red wines are produced, along
with an entry-level blend, a Rosato and a white wine.
Russo credits Marc de Grazia the famous wine exporter of Terre
Nere winery fame, Andrea Franchetti (of Passopisciaro and Trinoro fame) and
Frank Cornelissen, an outsider who's making a name for himself with
"natural" wines for giving him encouragement and some
As with a piece of music, the harmonies one hears will be different depending
upon who's playing the piano. Similarly, wines from the same general
region will have different styles depending upon who's growing the grapes and
making the wines.
Russo's are some of the most harmonious of the northern Etna region.
From the area of Randazzo there's a bottling labeled
"Feudo." From Castiglione di Sicilia there's Feudo di Mezzo. And
there's San Lorenzo, a vineyard site that's also in the Randazzo area.
Russo's main wine is called A'Rina, in honor of his mother we initially
thought. It turns out it's a reference to the sandy soils on Mount Etna.
This is a
blend of fruit from San Lorenzo, Feudo and Calderara Sottana (a vineyard site in
the Randazzo area, noteworthy for its large stones).
This can be an outstanding wine.
The 2016 is especially charming.
We're big fans of the San Lorenzo bottling.
Our first vintage of this was the 2007...now we have the 2015 in stock...there's
something particular about this wine which we like. The red fruit aromas
are enticing and there's usually a suggestion of it having been matured in an
oak barrel. An element of a brown spice note typically emerges as the wine
gets some air.
And it's a wine of finesse.
There's a bit of tannin to the 2015, but it's smoother than a young
Barolo. Still, while this can be enjoyed now, we expect it to be even more
complex with a few years in the bottle.
It's a wine which, if you're in tune with it, is extremely satisfying. We
think it's one of the best of Etna. We have dubbed it "Etna
Currently in stock: 2016 GIROLAMO RUSSO
"A'RINA" Etna Rosso $31.99
2015 GIROLAMO RUSSO "SAN LORENZO" Etna Rosso $59.99
This fellow was preparing to help keep the just-cleaned cooperage in
good condition by lighting a sulphur disc. This prevents any little
bit of wine residue in the wood from turning to vinegar.
- The Valenti story is another one of fairly recent history.
Giovanni Valenti grew up in Catania, the major city near the Etna
region. As a young man he took a job with the Lavazza coffee company
before a 20+ year stint with Stock, a vodka and brandy
By chance, he was helping a film crew at the Festa dell'Etna (ages ago)
and after the finished their job one day, they were invited to taste some
local wines. Despite having grown up in the environs of
Catania, apparently Valenti hadn't tasted much of the local vinous
A few decades later, in the early 2000s, Valenti was in a financial
position of being able to buy some potential vineyard land and embark on
his winemaking adventure. His son had experience in working for
iconic designer companies (Versace, Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton and
Giorgio Armani), so the Valentis decided to roll the dice and get into the
So they began buying vineyard property about the same time as Giuseppe
Russo and Alberto Graci were launching their brands. It took until
2009 to have their name on the place and begin making wines.
The Valenti holdings comprise about 26 hectares, a few in olives for olive
oil and the rest in grapes.
They own some seriously old vineyards and have planted new sites.
Their first vineyard acquisition was at Guardiola. Additional
holdings are in Contrada Bonanno, Contrada Cottanera, Contrada Arcuria,
Contrada Santo Spirito and the Contrada Corvo.
Their winemaking consultant is Emiliano Falsini, the same fellow who
assists at the winery of Girolamo Russo and Graci. This enologist
has a good hand in making charming and attractive wines.
In a tasting group in San Francisco we assembled a set of white wines from
Etna, as we wanted to taste something different from mundane Pinot
Grigio. We threw a bunch of darts at the dartboard and put together
a bunch of wines, mostly made from the Carricante grape.
There were many good bottles in the tasting, as it turned out and one of
the most compelling for us was Valenti's 2015. The wine offered
notes of ripe peach and melon with a spice note reminiscent to a small
degree to some favorite whites from France's Alsace.
We bought a bottle of the 2016 and tasted it with the crew at the shop and
everyone gave it the "thumbs up." Poured a taste for an
importer of Italian wines and he thought it was "excellent" (and
sorry his company doesn't have such a wine).
Currently in stock: VALENTI ETNA BIANCO "Enrico
- The Faro brothers started this beautiful Etna winery around the same
time as Russo and Graci (see above). They grew up not far from Etna
as their family has a major plant nursery, Piante Faro, with about 1500
acres of land in Giarre, a short drive north of Catania.
Michele and Mario's dad Venerando Faro founded the nursery and today they
export 5,000 different plants to 60 countries around the world.
In 2005 he ventured about 24 kilometers north and west to the Etna town of
Solicchiata where he found some remarkable terraces with old vines.
Michele describes these old sites not as vineyards but as
- Old terraces with head-pruned vines...called "Alberello" as
the vines resemble little trees.
- They recently built a beautiful winemaking facility to replace the
ramshackle place they had near the coast as their original winery.
This place is built into the hill and it's a gravity-flow winery.
- They were putting the finishing touches on the new winery in early
This is a view on top of the winery...they showcase a lot of the
vegetation one might find in the environs of Etna with shrubs, small trees
In front of the winery they've got a few vines and will add more.
We have been delighted with their normal, classico if you
will, Etna Rosso. At this writing, the 2015 is the current release and we
don't find it to have the charm and complexity of the previous several
Nerello Mascalese, like Pinot Noir, tends to be a light-colored
wine but the 2015 seems a bit pale compared to 2014. It's got the color of
a Rosé. The nose is rather shy and the wine is hollow and a bit shrill on
We'll wait for the next vintage and evaluate it when it hits the market.
Currently in stock: We can special order the
current releases, if you like.
- This family wine business is rather large and it's run today by Cusumano
brother Diego and Alberto. The main cellar is located less than an
hour by car from Palermo. Their father Francesco was a grape and
wine-broker, so he knew the best places to buy vineyard land.
Now the family has holdings in many parts of Sicily and they make some
solid wines from numerous areas, scattered around Sicilia.
They own more than 550 hectares in 7 or 8 sites and produce more than 2.5
million bottles annually. That's an impressive figure when you
consider the brother's little adventure began just a few years ago, in
You'll find typical varietals such as Insolia, Catarratto and Nero
d'Avola, but also Syrah, Chardonnay, Pinot Nero, Cabernet and
Merlot. The wines are usually well-made and of good quality.
Some might criticize some of the wines for being "too
internationally-styled," but one is not obliged to buy Sicilian
Chardonnay, per esempio.
they were able to buy an Etna-area vineyard site from the prominent
Benanti family. They started with about 15 hectares on the south
side of Etna and we understand they have purchased another ten hectares on
which they will plant more of the white Carricante grape. At this
moment they own vines on five different Etna sites, including Guardiola,
Feudo di Mezzo, Pietramarina, Solicchiata and Verzella.
- We've been fans of their Alta Mora Etna Bianco.
The 2014 was exceptionally good...the 2015 is perhaps slightly less
complex, but we ought to open a bottle to see how it's progressing...The
2017 is in stock presently and it's as "electric" as the 2014
2016. Beautifully acidic and full of personality!
These are made entirely of Carricante, vinified in stainless steel tanks
and left on the spent yeast for approximately 4 months. We find some
faintly citrusy tones with a hint of pear. Maybe there's a touch of
thyme lurking in the background of this dry, medium-bodied white.
Currently in stock: 2017 ALTA MORA Etna Bianco $29.99
- We visited their western Sicilia winemaking facility in the town of
Partinico, a short drive from Palermo.
Small oak barriques and large wooden vats.
The bottling line is impressive.
Many bottles are sealed with a glass closure.
A private area for tasting...notice the papers hanging in the lights...
"Love notes" from admirers and business partners...
- Massimo Padova's family has been growing grapes in southeast Sicilia's
"Val di Noto" region for more
than a hundred years, but it's
only in the 1980s that they began vinifying their fruit and then it took
them until the 1990s to start bottling wine. Some things simply take
This vineyard and cellar (they also have three rooms if you want to book a
stay at this place) are in south-east Sicily, an area highly regarded for
the Nero d'Avola grape. In fact, they are less than 15 miles from
the town of Avola.
Massimo's great grandfather started the place and cultivated all sorts of
crops, not solely grapes. Even today they grow wheat and olives in
addition to their winemaking work.
The vines are trained in two different systems. They employ the cordone
speronato method (cordon) and alberello (an old-fashioned
bush-vine or "head-pruned" method). Massimo says he likes
having both types of vines. They are planting more vineyard sites
and expect to cultivate about 26 hectares in a few years. Currently,
as of 2017, they have 16 hectares in production.
A soon-to-be-planted vineyard site.
Massimo is very proud of their vineyard work.
- The vines are all cultivated organically. Padova was one of the
first to embrace organic farming in the region and, we understand, they
rejected one of the government agencies that certifies farms and vineyards
as "organic" as their criteria were too lax! The vineyards
do have some sort of certification but from an organization that actually
has higher standard.
makes a simple white wine blend of Inzolia, Grecanico and one other white
grape. My notebook indicates Moscato accounts for about 10% of the
blend, though I don't find a fruity note here of Muscat. The winery
web site indicates there's Chardonnay in the blend.
They make a dry Moscato which had 5% of other white grapes, but this
doesn't show the aromatics of classic Muscat.
Of greater interest is their "Eloro" red wine (that's the DOC)
called Spaccaforno. They have three vineyard sites in both Eloro and
Noto. Massimo explained they hand-harvest all their vineyards and
the fruit is destemmed before the fermentation.
Indigenous yeast. Cement vats for the fermentation.
The wine goes into wood for a brief time, maybe 6 months. The
cooperage is typically of second and third usage with but a tiny
percentage of new wood. Padova is proud of their vineyard work and
wants to highlight that rather than showcase an oak barrel. The wine
is unfiltered, by the way.
You can sense the ripe fruit in the wine and it's different from those
made by big, commercial cellars.
We don't view this as a wine needing more cellaring...the 2012 is showing
well now and while it will continue to be in good form for a few years,
it's not likely to develop additional complexity with time. But we
may be wrong on this count.
Currently in stock: RIOFAVARA Eloro
"Spaccaforno" NERO D'AVOLA $21.99
Good winemaker. Good wine.
- COS is viewed by many as both a leading naturalista
winery and one of the classic producers of Nero d'Avola and the Nero
d'Avola/Frappato blend called Cerasuolo di Vittoria.
The winery name comes from the initials of the founding partners,
Giambattista Cilia, Giusto Occhipinti and Cirino Strano. Cilia-Occhipinti-Strano=COS
Strange that Strano departed and these days it's Cilia and Occhipinti
running the CO.
Giusto Occhipinti is the face of the winery.
The winery was founded in 1980 using the old Cilia family cellar with
three hectares of vineyards. Today the COS winery farms 36
hectares and makes approximately 200,000 bottles of wine annually.
As you can see, the soils are not treated with chemical weed
They work the vineyards using biodynamic practices.
- We visited in early Spring and saw this crew manually working the
The tractor then was used to work the soil or tame the weeds in the
middle of the row.
- The original cellar had wooden vats and barrels but
around the turn of the century they acquired terracotta amphorae and these
are now in place. It seems they were enchanted by seeing these being
used by winemakers in Georgia where kvevri or qvevri (as
- You can see the insides of these are stained...
We have wondered about the effects of this on the juice of the fermenting
There are other tanks for fermenting and aging their wines.
Giusto lamented those who think Sicily is the
home of "big wines."
"This," he says, "is simply not true."
And he added "We have a great range of wines in a relatively small place.
We have lots of different grapes."
Continuing on the theme of variety, Occhipinti explained "Arabs, French,
Normans, Phoenicians and the Spanish, etc., have all left their mark on
Sicily. We need to celebrate this diversity."
COS, as noted, began in the early 1980s.
Giusto told us "In the 1960s and 1970s, winemakers were taught to watch the
cellars. Curiously they were not schooled to pay attention to the
vineyards. We pay attention to both."
With respect to the various wines they've made, Occhipinti continued his
philosophical speech saying "A wine from a single harvest is really a diary
of the year. It tells a story of what happened during that growing season,
from start to finish. The winemaker simply showcases it in the
COS uses a proprietary wine bottle for its wines, another distinction.
The two partners, Giusto Occhipinti and Giambattista (Si)Cilia.
We tasted a recent vintage of Cerasuolo and the wine showed itself as somewhat
along the lines of a French Burgundy with earthy, cherry fruit and some
They were kind enough to open a 20 year old bottle of their Cerasuolo di
The 1997 was entirely different, though it had a lightly brickish color but with
fragrances that were more Bordeaux-like. Tobacco was a dominant fragrance
and it was a bit like a mix of Barolo and Bordeaux.
Old and mature on the nose and with a light streak of tannin down the middle.
Back home we bought a few bottles of the COS distributor and
found the wines to be quite distinctive. The Frappato was light and quite
earthy/funky on the nose and palate.
The 2015 Nero is labeled as Nero di Lupo. The vines are mature but not
old. The wine is vinified, we believe, in cement or glass tanks and never
sees any wood. It may be described as being a bit rustic as there's a hint
of a funky note on the nose. The other people with whom we shared the wine
were quite enthusiastic about it, but it's not likely to be a wine of universal
Currently in stock: 2015 COS NERO DI LUPO (Nero
- Watch this space...
- The Rallo name is well-known in the region of Marsala. But this
branch of the Rallo family became disenchanted with Marsala and they do
not produce Marsala.
In the early 1980s the Rallos founded a brand called Donnafugata, named
after a woman who had sought refuge in Sicily in the novel Gattopardo by
Tomasi di Lampedusa. The donna in fuga (a woman seeking
refuge or on the run) is the inspiration for the brand name.
These days the place is run by Josè Rallo and her brother Antonio.
They have four winemaking facilities, including an important product
facility off of Sicily on the island of Pantelleria where they make an
amazingly good sweet wine called Ben Ryé. Aside from
vineyards on Pantelleria, their table wines are sourced from an area
called Contessa Entellina, some 41 miles east of their Marsala-area
facility. The family recently purchased soe property in the Etna
- Some international grape varieties were planted in order to validate the
local grapes and to attract some attention to the winery.
And they make reliably good wines, though some of the entry-level bottles
are, well, entry-level quality.
We have access to many of their wines.
Of course, the Ben Ryé
wine from Pantelleria is in stock.
Sedàra is a blended red based on Nero d'Avola but including Cabernet Sauvignon,
Merlot, Syrah and other varieties.
Their Nero d'Avola called Sherazade is a pleasant take, if a bit simple.
Tancredi is a serious red with Cabernet Sauvignon, Nero d'Avola, Tannat and
another few reds. It's matured in French oak for a bit more
than a year. Now you're talking!
The Nero d'Avola called Mille e Una Notte is blended with a bit of Petit Verdot,
Syrah and maybe other reds. It's matured in French oak and is one of the
best internationally-styled Sicilian reds.
Let us know what you'd like and we will get them for you!
Currently in stock: BEN RYÉ 2016 $43.99
ANTICA TENUTA DEL NANFRO
town of Caltagirone is actually rather well-known, but not so much for wine
as for ceramics.
But there's some good wine made just outside the town and it's at the winery
of the Lo Certo brothers, the Antica Tenuta del Nanfro. This winery is
located a little more than an hours' drive west of Catania and 2 hours from
- They have about 30 hectares on which they culivate grapes and olives.
The vineyards are cultivated with care and are said to be farmed according
to biodynamic principles.
By the way, they now have a few rooms for visitors.
HERE for a link to their web site for rooms.
Nanfro's cellar is simple and well-maintained.
Concetto Lo Certo...
"Want to taste Nanfro wine?"
The Frappato grape isn't one with which most wine drinkers are
It's made on its own, of course, but also turns up in blends as it's nicely
aromatic and adds a point of balance and finesse to bigger reds. The
famous Cerasuolo di Vittoria is Sicily's lone DOCG-designated wine and it's
a blend of Nero d'Avola and Frappato.
The Nanfro label has a really good example of Frappato...nice raspberry and
cherry notes in a medium-light bodied red wine. The 2015 seemed to
show a piney or resiny tone, as well.
This is ideally served
at cool cellar temperature, so we pop a bottle in the 'frigo for 40 minutes
to an hour.
- It's not oak aged and some people describe this sort of wine as Sicily's
Beaujolais. Nanfro's is not wood aged and, typical of this variety,
it's nicely acidic. This makes Frappato a nice choice to pair with
seafood pastas (tomato sauced prawns/calamari are a delight) or mildly
seasoned chicken or pork dishes.
- Currently in stock: NANFRO 2015 FRAPPATO $19.99
POST SCRIPT: I was visiting some winemaker
friends in Northern Italy and one of them was 'testing' me. He asked
if I knew Ravignan in Armagnac.
How about Nanfro's Frappato?
"Damn, you know all the best secrets!"
A few California winemakers call to have me select
some off-beat wines for them to explore. One called the other day
raving about Nanfro Frappato.
"Man, you have to send me some more of that!" he exclaimed.
And we did.
- Paolo Cali is actually "Doctor Paolo Cali," a pharmacist in
"real life." His passion, however, is viticulture
Paolo's father was also a pharmacist and the family has had some vines in
Vittoria in southeast Sicily. The family has owned this dating back
to the 1700s.
They have three vineyard sites of note: Pruvuletta, Niscia and
Forfice. They are just a few miles from the sea and the soils are
rather sandy for the most part.
Cali says many visitors like to walk barefoot through the vineyards.
His father gave him the family property in 2001, the Contrada
Salmé. Paolo has been planting vineyards ever since, apparently, and
today they have about 15 hectares. The first wine cellar in this
modern saga was used in 2004 and they could vinify and store the wines. A
year later they decided to incorporate a bottling machine which is housed
next to the main cellar.
The grapes are picked and chilled for 24 hours before processing in
stainless steel, temperature-controlled tanks. They employ
indigenous yeasts, by the way and the vineyards are farmed organically.
Cali is a big music fan and has names for his wines such as
"Blues," "Jazz" and "Violino."
He mentioned admiring a young, local jazz musician named Francesco Cafiso
who plays alto saxophone. Cafiso was born only a couple of years
before Cali took over the family vineyard properties...
We currently have a 2015 Nero d'Avola from Cali under the name
It's made entirely of Nero and Cali suggests pairing this with a music by
Johann Sebastian Bach.
It's Partita No. 3, BWV 1006. Better drink quickly, though as this
piece takes but 20 minutes to play.
We noticed the new bottling no longer has this musical suggestion on the
While this is certainly a nice pairing, might we suggest matching a bottle
of Cali's Nero with roasted chicken, grilled pork chops or a rack of
lamb? You can play whatever music you like, frankly. We found
the piano stylings of Joyce Cooling worked nicely as did some Pat Metheny
tunes. Some samba tunes by Michael Franks seemed to pair nicely as
classical music by Smetana.
The wine is about the weight of a Pinot Noir and fairly gentle and it's
drinkable now...no aging required.
It's one of our favorite Sicilian reds as the wine is top quality and
Currently in stock: 2015 PAOLO CALI
"VIOLINO" NERO D'AVOLA $20.99
Planeta family claims 5 centuries of history, tallying to something like
As noted elsewhere on this web page, Diego Planeta assumed the helm of a
large Sicilian co-op winery in the 1970s and changed the course of wine
growing and winemaking on the island.
He was quite a visionary and today the next generation is running a
family-operated company comprised of 5 wine estates around Sicilia.
Today you'll meet Francesca, Alessio or Santi Planeta who run this
People have likened the Planeta family to Napa's Mondavi clan. There
are some similarities, to be sure, as both are pioneers.
Robert Mondavi had the idea of improving wine quality and this had a major
impact not solely for his family, but for his neighbors. The
Planetas, similarly, have led the way in Sicilian viticulture, winemaking
and marketing. We have heard some Sicilian producers credit the
Planeta family with leading the way for them to be in the wine business,
period. And the Planeta wines set a good standard, constantly
raising the bar.
Mondavi, of course, began in Napa making premium wines. As the
business grew, they expanded their holdings with vineyards in other wine
regions. The Planeta family began on an unplanted site called Ulmo
near the lago Arancio, about a 30 minute drive eat of Menfi and one hour
south of Palermo.
Diego Planeta proposed this to his nephew Alessio in the mid-1980s and
they soon planted 50 hectares of vineyards. And the work and
exploration has continued ever since.
They researched Sicilian history and grape-growing, planting old,
indigenous varieties and brought in some international vines, as
well. Planeta brought in a globe-trotting Piemontese winemaker,
Carlo Corino, to help advise them on winemaking.
From their relatively modest beginning, they ventured to other parts of
Sicily, setting up shop in Vittoria, Noto, Etna and, most recently, Capo
Milazzo. This last or most recent site is a great example of
pioneering grape growing by going "back to the future."
It's a vineyard (and olive grove) place that's about 17 miles northwest of
Messina with a view towards the Lipari Islands.
There they've planted Nero d'Avola and Nocera, but are also playing with
some ancient and obscure varieties such as Catanese Nera, Lucignola and
With contemporary packing and modern wines, Planeta's wines have been a
terrific ambassador for Sicily. More than one Sicilian vintner has
told us they would not be in the wine business with their own brands were
it not for Planeta.
"They put Sicilia on the map." we've been told.
With numerous wineries in well-chosen sites across Sicily, Planeta range
of wines is impressive.
They farm "sustainably," by the way.
We've typically found the wines to be quite good and the range of
bottlings is impressive.
There's Nero d'Avola, of course and Nerello Mascalese from Etna.
Their Cerasuolo di Vittoria is routinely very fine (and it turns out these
can age handsomely. An old vintage opened for us by Alessio Planeta
was a surprise!).
The planted the Fiano grape, a variety typically found in Campania.
There's Syrah. They make a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and
Cabernet Franc (called Burdese). They even dabble in
Sparkling wine? Yes! Made of Carricante from the Etna
area...quite good, too.
And there's Moscato in dry and sweet formats.
Currently in stock: 2015 PLANETA "COMETA"
2014 PLANETA "SANTA CECILIA" NERO D'AVOLA $39.99
TENUTA DELLE TERRE NERE
One of the real pioneers in the world of Italian wine is a fellow we met
in the 1980s.
His name was Marco de Grazia back when we first met him.
Today he's "Marc de Grazia" and he fancies himself to be some
sort of Italian vigneron having established a production of wine on
the slopes of Mount Etna.
Back in 1980 he was representing maybe a half a dozen wineries from
Italy. He had importers and distributors around the US and he would
make a tour to promote the little producers whose wineries he represented.
Over the years this business expanded considerably and these days Marc and
his brother Iano (as in Sebastiano) deal with more than 5 dozen
De Grazia had some of the top artisan winemakers in his portfolio,
representing great winemakers from Piemonte such as Luciano Sandrone, Elio
Altare and (the now late) Domenico Clerico. He encourage these
modernistas to break from the traditional winemaking practices and
embrace, amongst other things, French oak barrels.
It was remarkable to see the changes in the style of wine many of De
Grazia's wineries employed. Back in the "old days,"
Piemontese wines were really hard as nails. By changing the
maceration of the skins during the fermentation and using small oak
instead of large botte grande his stable of Piemontese wineries was
turning out showy wines which were approachable earlier than their old
We found, though, while his wines from Piemonte were perhaps better
balanced, many of his Tuscan producers were then making fierce
In the early 2000s, de Grazia found another challenge...not merely
advising winemakers what to do to make their wines more appealing to the
consumer, but to taking the plunge and actually making his own wines.
But he did not set up shop in the backyard of any of his
Instead he took on the challenge of making wine from vineyards on the
slopes of the active volcano, Mount Etna.
The vineyard land was relatively sensibly-priced and he could make wine in
an area where there was, at that moment, untapped potential.
In fact, in the late 1990s, wine from Etna was a curiosity and not
something worthy of the connoisseur market.
So De Grazia first vinified Nerello Mascalese from recently-purchased
vineyard under the brand name of Tenuta delle Terre Nere, the estate of
We recall tasting early vintages and found many of these to be styled
along the lines of the old school Piemontese wines made of Nebbiolo.
The entry level bottling of Etna Rosso struck us as the most
consumer-friendly wine. And tasting through the various wines being
made at Terre Nere today, we find the single vineyard wines to be quite
promising, but they are usually released much younger than they should
The Terre Nere estate comprises some 30 hectares of vineyards in 2018
and it includes some very old, pre-phylloxera parcels.
We currently have the 2016 TERRE NERE Etna Rosso in stock...as
noted previously, this is intended for immediate consumption and it's showing
beautifully in its youth.
Grapes from numerous vineyard sites are incorporated into this. It's said
to be 95% Nerello Mascalese and 5% Nerello Cappuccio. The grapes come from
parcels planted in 1967 and 2012.
It's a medium-bodied red and a good introduction to Etna reds.
We suggest serving this at cool cellar temperature.
The 2015 single vineyard bottling of Calderara Sottana is a wine
The Nerello Mascalese comes from vineyards planted in 1917, 1963 and 1967.
There's maybe 2% of Nerello Cappuccio and those vines are from 1917 and 1967.
wine is matured in a variety of wood: barriques, tonneaux and large casks.
Only 20% of the wood is new and there's a firm backbone of tannin and acid here.
If you're going to drink this presently, we suggest splashing it around in a
decanter for an hour, or so.
Currently in stock: 2016 TERRE NERE ETNA
2015 TERRE NERE "CALDERARA SOTTANA" ETNA ROSSO SALE $53.99
modest-sized enterprise is the work of two families, the Jaconos (who
started making wine in the late 1800s) and the Ferreris (who came on board
in the early 1980s).
The place is located in the Valle del Dirillo near the town of Acate...34
kilometers, roughly, from Ragusa.
Gaetana Jacono is the face of the winery these days and Francesco Ferreri
also plays a major role in running the place.
The winery is locked behind a walled compound and it appears to be some
sort of warehouse design.
- Those nice stone buildings may have been a winery or agricultural
facility at one time. These days one of the buildings houses old
farm and winery equipment and it's a bit of a museum.
They also host weddings and other events, serving, of course, the Valle
- The day we visited there was a wedding and the band they had serenading
the party-goers played 1950s American rock tunes!
There is some river in the region called Acate or Achates and
it's said that Pliny the Elder agreed with the Greek expert Theophrastus that
the stones called Agate came from this river. We are not sure if this adds
to the supposed terroir of the wines from this region.
In the modern era, the first wine was bottled in the early 1990s and the US was
their first customer. Today Valle dell'Acate wines are sold in Canada,
Brazil, Japan, China, Australia and in various European markets.
The estate comprises something like 110 hectares and they make maybe a half a
million bottles we're told. In 2001 they built their barricaia
for the oak cooperage of which you'll find barriques, tonneaux and large
vats. Francesco told us "We don't want too much wood on the wines and
typically emply the oak for Chardonnay and a part of the Nero d'Avola
We should note that, in our view, their "Bidis" Chardonnay usually has
more wood than you can shake a stick at...Lots of coconut tones and they have a
good following for that wine.
The Frappato here is often quite good. Cerasuolo di
Vittoria is also pretty good. They make a wine called "Il Moro"
that's Nero d'Avola in stainless steel...Syrah is a work in progress, but
heading in the right direction. Tané is a powerful, ripe version of Nero
d'Avola and it sees about a year in French oak. The wood is certainly
prominent but the fruit seems up to the task of balancing.
They sometimes offer a Limited Edition bottling of Il Moro, a rather woody
version of Nero d'Avola.
usually have had their Case Ibidini Nero d'Avola in the shop. This wine
sees no oak and it's vinified to be drinkable in its youth.
We suggest serving it lightly chilled, as the wine doesn't have much in the way
The wine is an easily drinkable, simple style of Nero...medium bodied.
Currently in stock: CASE IBIDINI NERO D'AVOLA SALE $11.99
The old winery facility is now a sort of museum and a party venue.
Gulfi winery was powered by the late Vito Catania, who passed away in May
Vito's Pop, Raffaele, uprooted the family after World War II and took them
to Paris...And the family moved back to Sicily when Vito was 20 years of
age, so he had a chance to appreciate the wines of France.
Catania worked in Milano and had some sort of business selling lubricants
for machinery...his background was chemistry but he always loved wine.
He teamed up with a prominent enologist; a fellow named Salvo
Foti is generally well-respected though he's apparently a bit demanding
and some say "difficult."
But there's no denying Foti has helped put the Gulfi winery in the map.
They started in the mid-1990s with vines around the winery. That's
in the provincia of Ragusa in Chiaramonte Gulfi. It's within
the delimited area for the wine called Cerasuolo di Vittoria. There
they grow Nero d'Avola and Frappato.
Vittoria, by the way, was the Duchess Victoria Hernandez. She helped
develop the region and the town that bears her name. The first
settlers there were given a hectare of land provided they planted
Gulfi is on the Iblei hillside...so their microclimate is different from
those nearer to Vittoria where the land is more flat.
We were told the first vintage was 2000 and in 2009 they added a hotel and
Foti pushed for them to invest in vineyard land in the Pachino area,
southeast of the winery where they have four contrade or vineyard
And being a fanatic for the vines and wines of Etna (to the north). Foti
got the Catania family to invest in vineyards. Nerello Mascalese for
their Etna wine but they also planted some Pinot Noir there.
- Today Gulfi comprises close to 70 hectares of vineyards in its several
An expert in the lands of Pachino guided them to some interesting
Mateo Catania explains that the grape varieties are not shown on bottles
of Chianti Classico or Barolo and so they choose to call these special
Nero d'Avola wines with names such as Maccarj, Bufaleffj, Baronj and
Sanloré. The idea is, as you might imagine, to showcase the
vineyard site as they feel each produces a decidedly different Nero
We tasted through the range of wines and they are all good. Each
"level" is spot on.
The Cerasuolo is typically a 50/50 blend of Nero d'Avola and
Frappato. The law requires at least 50% of Nero and no more than
70%, so each winemaker has a bit of leeway in creating their own 'recipe.'
The various "cru" wines of Nero d'Avola are also
The Baronj comes from chalky soils and is quite elegant...lovely aromatics
and moderately tannic.
TENUTA TERRE CHIARE
Catarratto grape has typical been employed as a blending variety, though
if you look hard enough, you may find a wine that's entirely or mostly
Catarratto. If you find the Contea di Sclafani wine in white, that's
made of Catarratto. Some Alcamo wines, too. Ever
heard of Santa Margherita di Belice? Monreale? There are
sometimes varietal bottlings of Catarratto there, too.
It's a variety that's widely planted around Sicily. As of the 2010
census, Catarratto is the fourth most widely planted grape in Italy!
It's behind Sangiovese, Trebbiano and Montepulciano, ye you'll more easily
find wines made of those than you will Catarratto.
We understand the grape may have some relationship to the Venetian variety
used to make Soave wines, Garganega.
At a trade tasting in Verona in 2017 we were trying to wrap up our
sampling of wines and there was the stand for this producer by the exit,
so we stuck out our glass and asked for a pour. Wow!
The wine was electric in its crisp acidity. Great perfume,
too. Melon/peach notes.
In 2018 we saw the fellows from this winery and again had a taste...still
pouring the 2016 and it was delicious.
A few cases of this obscure bottling made it to the West Coast and we
snagged some bottles.
The wine comes from a 5 hectare site in the provincia of Trapani.
Five hundred meters above sea level. It's dry and reasonably
crisp...perfect for seafood, so pair it with Rex Sole, Sand Dabs,
Currently in stock: 2016 LE TERRE CHIARE CATARRATTO $19.99
Traffic Jam near Etna
That's Etna blowing off some gas in the background.
A gelateria in Catania.
In Palermo one Sunday afternoon.
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