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From Alba to the Shores of Sicily : Franco Giacosa Travels South to Produce Some Excellent Vintages

August 13, 1987|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

In some parts of the wine world, when a talented wine maker forsakes the vineyard region of his birth for another, it is likely to be regarded as a veritable act of treason.

That is the risk Franco Giacosa took when he left his native Alba, in the heart of Barolo Piedmont country, to become the chief wine maker at Duca di Salaparuta Winery in Sicily, a region better known for Marsala.

Since Marsala is neither his forte nor his interest, he is currently concentrating on the production of some of Sicily's better table wines at prices as pleasing as his bottles.

Although the winery was founded more than 160 years ago, it has become--thanks to Giacosa and the assistance of Ezio Rivella, the dean of Italian enologists--one of the most technologically updated wineries in Europe. Formerly, some of the wines were unclean and poorly made, prompting Giacosa to create a research and experiment center where quality is monitored daily and where different processes for making wine are studied. It has been a boon to all of Sicily.

Wines to Drink Upon Purchase

Duca di Salaparuta wines are made under the name of Corvo. Three reds--Corvo Rosso 1984, 1984 Special Reserve and 1983--illustrate Giacosa's aim to produce wines in an appealing, lighter, non-robust style, so that consumers can essentially drink them upon purchase. Characterized as a fresh style, it is a by-product of close examination of vines nearing harvest and earlier picking for freshness and lower alcohol. The reds are seldom more than 12.5% alcohol and are generally lower.

These wines are not the big blockbusters that will survive decades of aging, nor are they in the big, fruited style that results in chewy wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. The '83 is characteristically light in structure and provides an appealing eucalyptus-like flavor, which still needs greater taste definition, perhaps from an extra year of bottle-aging.

The '84, produced from 75% Nero Diablo grapes, is bigger in structure, more intense but with less appealing flavor. It will take more age, perhaps two years, but it is quite palatable now.

The Special Reserve provided the greatest intensity and is the best candidate for aging, but for no more than two to three years. The term riserva refers to the special selection of vineyards in the high altitudes of central and western Sicily. While the producers suggest that these wines can last 10 to 15 years, it is smarter for the consumer to drink early for fresher, rather than overaged, taste. Prices begin around $8.

The white version, Corvo Bianco, 1986, is a pleasant, fresh, soft-textured wine, delicate in style and lightly fruited to the taste. Made from a blend of Inzolia, Catarratto and Trebbiano grapes from coastal and hillside vineyards, the '86 may well be one of the winery's best ever. No aging was required.

It is best to drink the wine young, to enjoy the delicacy from soft pressing, long cool fermentation and the added dimension of the fruit. This is an easy-to-drink white that can be found at the attractive price of $6.99, lower in some locales.

Even better is Corvo Colombia Platino, 1986, a smooth, firm, zesty white wine, but with a tarter after-taste that suggests (for some tasters) a hard finish. The flavor here is principally in the middle palate, making the wine taste exceptional in the mouth, while the aftertaste makes it a must for sauced or spicy dishes. The most unusual of all Corvo wines, it is one of Sicily's best-known whites, favored in posh restaurants, where it is often used as an aperitif. Only 5,000 cases were brought to the United States, where it also qualifies nicely as an aperitif or for all-around summer drinking, at around $9.

The name Colomba Platino , the "platinum dove," is the choice of one of the winery's heirs, Topazia Alliata, an actress and artist who was moved by Pablo Picasso's painting "The Dove of Peace" to create her own commemorative peace symbol.

The Inzolia grape dominates the production of Platino and is a major factor in the winery's Sparkling Brut, 1983, made from the charmat process that is generally employed for high-volume sparklers; it indeed offers a taste different from the better-made bottles of methode champenoise . While the Inzolia fares well with Platino, it is not as effective with the Brut and, therefore, is not recommended.

American wine lovers have never regarded Sicilian wines as household necessities, but more and more will be brought here as they represent Italy's third-largest wine-producing region, which in certain years has enjoyed bountiful harvests of up to 10 million hectoliters.

Perhaps the American lack of interest is a consequence of the knowledge that a good portion, sometimes as much as 50% of the harvest, is converted into vermouth and shipped to either France or the Soviet Union. "That is why," Giacosa commented, "we sometimes have a difficult time getting consumers to taste our table wines."

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