The Rallo family has been one of the biggest names in Sicilian wine for over 150 years. They were quintessential in bringing refinement and status back to Marsala and have always had an eye for the future of quality wine on the west coast and surrounding islands of Sicily. The still wines they are producing now are exceptionally pleasant and tend to have a price tag that’ll blow you away like the ever present winds on the island from which they come.
I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the winery and some of the vineyards, where I was treated to incredible sun, great wine, marvellous food and a hefty helping of fun with the lovely and eclectic group of wine professionals who had been afforded the opportunity to come. We were invited by Alliance Wines, who couldn’t have been better hosts. To me now, Cantine Rallo represents sublime hospitality, beautiful people inside and out and various styles of wine that clearly represent the heart and love that goes into every drop.
After a 4:30 start from Gatwick we hit the tarmac in Palermo where the skies were blotted with two-toned clouds and the sun would’ve cooked us right there and then had it not been for the profound wind that tirelessly sweeps across the island. After an espresso (or three) at the airport, we headed out in our vans to Alcamo to meet our hosts at the Rallo Estate.
The Vesco family met us at the gates of the vineyards with smiles and the freshest cherries I’ve ever tried. We headed up sandy/muddy hills to the vineyards before lunch. The vineyards in Alcamo primarily produce Catarrato and Nero d’Avola but as we caked our shoes with terroir, we discovered plots of Grillo, Viognier and even some Chardonnay at the very top of the hill just on the other side of a hundred year old olive grove. The berries were ripening nicely, but the winemaker discovered some damage due to hail on a few grapes. From the top of the hill we saw vineyards lounging as far as the nape of the volcanic mountains that rose from valleys on all sides.
Lunch was paired with a great many wines that were all showing perfectly on their home turf. Fresh made ricotta and olives were on the table when we sat down. We tried their al Qasar, which was a dry Zibibbo that was garden-fresh and went beautifully with a mouthful of the deep-fried, but still lighter than air, courgette flowers. A great substitute for Viognier that doesn’t pack the often over-alcoholic richness. Next were a pair of Grillos. One was a barrel fermented version with delicate richness and nuttiness that was witty as opposed to slapstick. The other was an orange version that had a wonderful malted character that surrounded a dollop of apricot jam. These reflected two very different sides to the beautifully simple tomato based pasta and sautéed aubergine like a double helix of the very DNA that was present in every quintessentially Sicilian bite and sip.
Next was the steak, pork and sausage course that one had to eat quickly so the wind didn’t cool it down too much. I was introduced to Perricone, which is a lovely red that was lifted and had a minerality like soaked graphite in the sun. This went handsomely with the char and salinity in the pork. A classic Nero d’Avola went well with both the fennel-fresh sausage and the perfectly supple steak. Two Marsalas went with a creamy stuffed pastry that was seasoned with cinnamon and vanilla. Both the Semi-Secco and the Soleras 20 year old were perfectly made and the dessert was perfectly made for intermingling with both in my mouth.
After another coffee and a few see you laters, we got back in the car and headed to our digs in Marsala at the Villa Favorita. I realised that I had left my hat behind, which I don’t often do these days, but they promised to get it back to me. They made good on this promise within a week of when I got home.
I get the feeling that there’s a bit of a scarcity of bad views on this side of Sicily and a wealth of mangy dogs, all with their own character. We did have a bit of fun spotting them on our various drives shouting and pointing, “mangy dog!” Out the windows of the van.
The rooms at the hotel were like half sunk golf balls that were bigger than they looked from the outside. Mine happened to be a quick bushwhack away from the pool, so it became a bit of a hub for unauthorized late night swims and general after-hours merriment.
Dinner that night was at the hotel restaurant where pizzas were a plenty. The hotel agreed to keep the bar open til midnight for us with some nudging from the owner of Rallo, Andrea Vasco. Super hospitable of both the hotel and Mr Vasco. After a great deal more wine and Amaro and beer while we played Bullshit around a large raft of tables by the bar, we were backflipping off the diving board and loving the warm Sicilian evening.
Morning came and we headed to the winery where we got an intimate look at the production and how much care is taken to maintain purity throughout the process. There was a cleanliness and serenity to each of the rooms dedicated to a stage in the wine making process. The actual bottling line was up and running as we passed and, in my hung-down state, it seemed as good as any ASMR videos out there to relax and entrance my fragile mind that felt like it had been filled with wet cement.
We worked our way into the tasting room where we tried another 6 wines. Most interesting of which was the La Cuba who’s elegance sat atop its acidity as if it were balancing on a pin. The creaminess that underlaid the peach and orange character kept me coming back for more, even though my head felt like the gremlins within were angrily clawing at the walls.
We got a treat by being able to try two vintages of the Beleda, which was a beautifully precise look at how good wine can age linearly. The ‘15 was showing crispness and a soupçon of the skin of a freshly peeled satsuma. It was lifted like a Stevie Wonder chorus that’s followed by a melodic lead from his signature tonally shrill harmonica. The ‘13, while still exhilarating, had the feeling of a Sicilian wild garlic farmer’s saddle leather as he ambles through his fresh crop. It was more soothing and rounded at the edges. Both did exactly what they were supposed to do. A true sign of expert wine making.
After a long lunch by the sea, which served primarily seafood, we had some time on the beach and in the water which was fresher than any wine we’d tried. And necessary for a revival of my war-worn soul. Back to the hotel for a nap for me. Slept a few minutes and then headed back out to meet everyone who was playing boules by the bar. Tres sophisticated and such. There was even some bitching about the condition of the pitch from a guy who was a champion boules player in the south of France. Perfect.
Dinner was in a beautiful oasis of a square in downtown Marsala. Our spot was a long table with simple settings that were doled out in canvas pencil cases. More beautiful food. More beautiful wine. Some serious topics of conversation finished off with gin and tonics that had more black peppercorn chucked in than a 12 gauge rounds worth of shot.
Back to the hotel well after the sun had set for a drink that we had to order from the reception as the bar was closed. So, we sipped our last beverage near the pool before heading to bed before an early flight in the morning.
Sicily is an often undersung place for quality wine. I would say that it’s also not recognised for the caliber of hospitality and overall sense of warmth that I felt through the visit. Historically, the grapes grown here have been used as a bulk production fodder due to its hot weather and ability to produce vigorous vines that can be used to fill out euroblends extremely well. It is only relatively recently (the 60’s) that the production has seen a shift towards quality over quantity and I’m so glad that it has.
Drink well and better,
J Corey Evans
Your Friendly Neighbourhood Sommelier