Polyphemus’ ruin

In the post Good wine needs no bush the gastronomical aspect of the topic was lost. That is: what kind of wine was offered by the ingenious Ulysses to the Cyclops who had devoured his companions? And is Studiolum right when he is afraid of the wine offer of the Caffè del Centro in Piazza Armerina? And in general, what and where to drink if we come to this part of Sicily?

The mosaics focused on by the post depict a Greek story, whose respective episode takes place in today’s Sicily, so I will obviously not talk about Roman, but rather Greek wines, as well as modern Italian wineries.

At the time of Homer, in the 8th c. BC already existed Greek settlements and poleis in the island, but viticulture was much more rudimentary than around the emitting poleis. This is why Polypheus says that although he also has wine, but it cannot compete with the nectar obtained from Ulysses.

“He then took the cup and drank, he was so delighted
with the taste of it that he begged me for another bowl full:
ʻBe so kind’, he said ʻas to give me some more, and tell me your name at once.
I want to make you a present that you will be glad to have.
We have wine even in this country, for our soil
grows grapes and the sun ripens them,
but this drink is like nectar and ambrosia all in one.”
(Homer, Odyssey 9, translated by Samuel Butler)

Ulysses took home wine on his journey, that is, wine of Ithaca, and although ancient Ithaca’s position is at least controversial today, nevertheless we can state that whether the wine came from modern Ithaca, or from the neighboring Cephalonian peninsula of Paliki – which was probably an island at that time –, it was sweet and strong, and the sailors diluted it with seawater to drink. Today, PDO Robola, PDO Muscat and PDO Mavrodaphne stand out among the wine regions of Cephalonia. Each denotes a grape variety. The first one typically gives light, dry white wines, so this region is most in line with today’s wine consumption. The other is a local clone of one of the oldest grape varieties, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, which produces natural sweet wines and so-called fortified sweet wines (where the fermentation of the wine is stopped by the addition of alcohol, so it remains sweet). Finally, Mavrodaphne is a naturally sweet red wine, so it is closest to the former Greek wine culture, where sweet wines were typically produced by drying the grape on straw bed after harvest, thus concentrating its sugar content. Then it was pressed, eventually enriched with previously prepared sweet wine, and then they added spices and seawater to it. The best example of this type of wine (although no spices are added any more) is the wine Methyse of 2004 from Cephalonia’s Foivos Winery, considered one of the highest rated Greek wines of recent years. (And the wine Commandaria of the Greeks of Cyprus, which has been traditionally made in this way to this day.)

However, we know that Ulysses did not offer his own wine to the Cyclops:

“I also took a goatskin of sweet black wine
which had been given to me by Maron, son of Euanthes,
who was priest of Apollon, the patron god of Ismarus,
because we spared his life and also his wife and son,
who lived in the wooded precincts of the temple.”

Unfortunately, the ancient fame of the wine region PGI Ismaros in Thrace is brighter than its present. Maron is only remembered by a seaside wellness hotel, and in terms of wines, there is no trace of one of the most famous, most dense and sweetest red wine of the ancient Greek world, the only one that had to be diluted in 1:20 proportion (!) so it would not make you drunk. (Nevertheless, I do recommend at least one local vinery, where you can find not sweet red, but light, modern dry white wines: the Kikones.)

Well, back to the streets of Piazza Armerina, where Greek wine is definitely no longer on offer today. Barely two hundred years after Homer, in the 6th century BC, the wines of the region not only reached, but exceeded the quality of Greek wines. This is partly because the Greek settlers, perhaps under Etruscan influence, began for the first time in the world to plant grapes in rows, in stalk cultivation, thus first establishing a monoculture of wine. The first steps to it already appear on the shield of Achilles, in Homer’s Iliad:

“He wrought also a vineyard, golden and fair to see,
and the vines were loaded with grapes.
The bunches overhead were black, but the vines
were trained on poles of silver
He ran a ditch of dark metal all round it,
and fenced it with a fence of tin;
there was only one path to it,
and by this the vintagers went when they would gather the vintage.
Youths and maidens all blithe and full of glee,
carried the luscious fruit in plaited baskets;
and with them there went a boy
who made sweet music with his lyre,
and sang the Linus-song with his clear boyish voice.”
(Homer, Iliad, 18, translated by Samuel Butler) 

Grape harvest in the reconstruction of the shield of Achilles. Above in the cover of the 22 September 1832 of Penny Magazine, below in Kathleen Vail’s reconstruction

Sicily, Magna Graecia of the time, was also called Oenotria, the “land of grapes cultivated on stalks”. The quality and reputation of local wines grew rapidly, but the history of today’s Sicilian wines was influenced at least as much by Arabic raisin culture, Normann gastroculture, Etruscan grape varieties, Roman and Carthaginese taste, as today’s marketing trends and Italian cuisine.

The Caffè del Centro mentioned by Studiolum in fact does not seem like anything more than a mediocre pub, although on TripAdvisor it has 4.0 from 37 reviews and on Google 3.8 from 21, so it must be a good place for a sandwich or other snack. The wine bar with the bakery is on Piazza Garibaldi, but its mother shop works in a narrow street beyond the corner (Via Guglielmo Marconi 2), and offers only coffee and cakes, perhaps some sandwiches. Most points are lost on the speed and quality of service. Wine is mentioned only once: a commenter in this summer wrote that the “local” wine was very poor. The quotation mark raises questions, but unfortunately the shop has no wine page on the net, nor has it any web page. Let’s accept that the wine is poor, but is it not local? In Sicily this is almost unimaginable. What is local wine and where can you get it in this charming little town?

Vineyards next to Piazza Armerina

The closest wine region is Riesi DOC to the southwest of the city. The most important grape variety of its white wines is Inzolia (also known as Ansonica), a variety producing a white wine of neutral taste, or with hazelnut characteristics. Many believe it to be of Greek origin, but it was in fact first described in 1696 (by the first Sicilan botanist, Francesco Cupani, in his Hortus Catholicus), and it also occurs in Sardinia and Tuscany. French Chardonnay is also important here. One of the two must be present in at least 25% in every Riesi Bianco wine, as well as in the sparkling wines and local sweet wines (vendemmia tardiva).

In red Riesi wines, Nero d’Avola (sometimes called Calabrese) or Cabernet Sauvignon are the most important. Nerello Mascalese is mainly used for rosé wines. The top wines of Superiore and Superiore Riserva can only be made from the local Nero d’Avola. For a first taste, I recommend the Riesi Rosso of the Feudo Principi di Butera winery, a relatively simple, but well-drinkable red wine from 2015.

The Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG wine region to the south-east of the town and of the mosaics is also known for its Nero d’Avola (Calabrese) and Frappato grape varieties. They are often marketed together as a cuvée. The Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG red wine of 2015 from Azienda Agricola Cos received a very high rating from international experts, but if you are also price sensitive, try the Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG of 2015 from the Feudo di Santa Tresa (and don’t be afraid of the newer vintages, either).

Centuries-old farm to the south of Piazza Armerina

So far I have only recommended red wines. Let’s see the white wine situation. Sicily is one of the best known wine regions in the world, interestingly rather thanks to Lampedusa’s Panther and Marlon Brando’s godfather than to its wines. The southern island evokes the idea of “red wine region”, while it has more white wine than red!

Bar Vitelli, the site of Godfather in the movie’s Corleone (in reality, Savoca)

The Catarratto Antisa 2018 wine from the Tenuta Regaleali winery (Tasca Group, Conti d’Almerita) allures you with its fresh acidity and cypress flavor, which is no wonder, since the grapes grow 900 meters above sea level. This is the wine of freshly fried or deep-fried seafood, so it’s worth trying more than once.

As far as the site is concerned, that is, where one should have a glass of wine in Piazza Armerina, the folks of the internet clearly recommends the Bla Bla Wine Bar in Via Garibaldi 89. It received a 4.9 from 7 ratings, which emphasize its good wines and good atmosphere. It is only open from 5.30 p.m., but then until 1.00 a.m. TripAdvisor gives it 5.00 from 19 ratings, that is, the best available. They have no website, their FB page is not updated, so I could find no wine list. But if you ask for Catarratto (white) or Nero d’Avola (red), you will not be disappointed. And if you will mention the above wineries and wines, they will think you are an expert.

Just take care your wine tasting should not end up in Kottabos, one of the most famous Sicilian wine game of ancient times, which, if truly authentic, is assisted by a devoted young servant who only wears a string of flowers on his head, and puts the plastinx back in place and refills the wine bowls…

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