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Herbert Phillips/iStockphoto

The Grape Glossary: A guide to hip varietals

The city of Avola in Sicily is almost as far south as one can travel in Italy, closer to Malta than to the mainland's toe. It's hot down there, no place for wimpy grapes that shrivel in the sun. Nero d'Avola – the name means "black from Avola" – is anything but a shrivelling sissy. Tannic and full-bodied, it thrives in the heat like an oiled-up Muscle Beach bodybuilder.

Born in Avola it may have been, but the vine now grows throughout the Mediterranean's largest island, where it's become something of a flag-bearer for Sicily's modern wine renaissance. Prior to the 1990s, the red grape had mainly been an anonymous workhorse, used for bulk wine sent to other parts of Europe to add colour and heft to blends. Although Sicily remains a huge exporter of unbranded wine in tanks (France remains a big market, oddly enough), a new generation of enterprising young winemakers took shrewd notice that their predecessors had been shipping away something else in those tanks – profits. Estate-bottled wines became their value-added mantra, and nero d'Avola soon became a key varietal of Brand Sicily that turned red ink into black.

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A principal draw was its name, which is not only easy for English speakers to pronounce but also conveniently had regional specificity built into it. (There's not much nero d'Avola grown elsewhere.) Another was the fact that it's mouth-filling and fruity, and does a compelling impersonation of muscular syrah, like Will Smith channelling Muhammad Ali. Dark plum and bitter chocolate tend to come through in the wine, along with solid astringency for backbone. And despite those tannins it can be smooth and seductive, qualities today that many consumers seek, especially when they venture into the Southern Italy aisle for good value. Two reliable and widely available brands: Planeta and Cusumano.

Those wineries and several more, such as Abbazia Santa Anastasia, Cos, Rudini and Tasca d'Almerita, also craft excellent higher-end versions that can run to $40 and cellar gracefully for 10 years or more, developing prune- and tobacco-like qualities. Sometimes nero d'Avola is found as a major component in blended reds, such as delectable and lively Cerasuolo, mixed with the local frappato, and more modern-styled wines that marry the grape with such international varieties as cabernet sauvignon and merlot, two grapes that also do splendidly under Sicily's glorious sun.

The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol recently took home top prize for best general English cookbook at the Taste Canada Food Writing Awards. Published by HarperCollins.

E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail website.

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