The art of winemaking has been a Sicilian tradition and beloved pastime for centuries. Today, many families still partake in this institution, pouring their heart and soul into tending to the land to produce incredible wine. One winery that is known for this is Planeta, who has been involved in winemaking for seventeen generations. Today, Alessio Planeta is at the helm of his family’s company. His foray into the wine business began back in 1989, alongside famed enologist Carlo Corino, where the duo experimented with native and international grape varieties, matching each type to its ideal soil and terroir.
Next, he turned his attention to helping select the best vineyard sites for Planeta where he oversaw the planning and building of the family wineries. Alessio wears the title of Chief Winemaker extraordinaire. He has currently been closely involved with Planeta’s DOC project, identifying areas of primary importance in Sicilian viticulture and establishing wineries in each wine region, following the company’s motto: for each terroir, its own winery. Swig Contributor Kristen Oliveri sits down with Alessio to learn more about the history for Planeta, his latest initiative and what makes Sicily so special.
Q: You’ve been in operation for 20 years. How did Planeta get started?
A: For five centuries and through seventeen generations, our family has been involved with the course of agricultural evolution in the complex land of Sicily, with an approach always inclined to openness and innovation. Where too often the agricultural world has been confined to ancient ideas of social tradition and production processes, instead we have inherited, from each generation, an instinct to generate positive changes around us, both with people and in the culture.
During the 1900s it was Grandfather Vito who showed us how, rather than in static management of the land, we must all move towards new solutions and new prospects. First of all he transformed our small family winery in Menfi into a large co-operative winery that in a short time, under Diego’s management, became a collective property and a model of local development. At the same time as being chairman of the regional institute for vines and wine, Diego contributed as chief mover in the wine making renaissance of Sicily, transforming it into a huge experimental laboratory with illustrious advisers such as Giacomo Tachis, Carlo Corino, Giampaolo Fabris and Attilio Scienza.
In the meantime we have grown. Around the old fortress of Ulmo, where for five centuries we have cultivated our oldest land, a spark was fostered to transfer this experience and all of our new ideas into the project of a new company. In 1985, we planted our first vineyard there.
Two different generations – brothers and sisters, children, nieces and nephews – work together since then, with the perfect understanding that derives not only from harmony of character and the complementing of our abilities, but above all from the unity of vision and love for this land. This desire to protect it and the capacity to imagine every day as a new way to appreciate it, has continued to unite us.
Q: In your opinion, why is Sicily such an important winemaking region?
A: There are three main reasons: Ancient history, huge biodiversity of the vineyards and a mosaic of different terroir.
Q: How do you compete with the likes of the wine regions of Tuscany and Piedmont, etc.?
A: The wine regions are so different and it is difficult to think of a real competition. For us these regions are a benchmark, a model both for the development of the different grapes and the wines, and the beauty of the territories. Sicily is not far behind potentially, but there is so much work to do.
Q: What wines are you best known for?
A: Chardonnay Planeta and the Santa Cecilia, which is our highlight from the most important Sicilian grape variety, Nero d’Avola. Our long research into finding the best place to produce a great wine from this grape brought us to Noto, where the DOC Noto insists that the variety originates at the southern extremity of Sicily with its white soils and ancient vines. This is the epicenter of cultivation for Nero d’Avola. Santa Cecilia is an expression of elegance, power, balance and eminence of the unique aromas of Sicily, and today is the reference point for red wines produced from indigenous Sicilian grapes. Its name derives from that of our family: Planeta di Santa Cecilia.
The project of the five territories, our history, is the story of a journey through time and space, through Sicily from west to east, and through the five areas where today we produce our wines, our olive oils and the places of our family hospitality.
It has been a long journey which we chose in order to protect the uniqueness of the environment, the countryside and the culture, with the same respect with which we explore the characteristics of the terroirs and the vineyards, enhancing the specific details of each area.
Q: What are some of your new varietals?
A: In our Etna region, we have produced white wines with the Carricante grape and red wines with Nerello Mascalese. But the latest in recent months is Nocera. This noble vine is cultivated on just a few hectares in the province of Messina, facing the sea which is of historic importance. La Baronia on Capo Milazzo is a spectacular vineyard surrounded by the sea, with ancient olive trees and amazing views to the Aeolian Islands. We have produced a marine red wine with aromas of Mediterranean macchia, myrtle and garrigue.
The Lucifero Foundation, which owns the property, devotes a portion of the proceeds for “Gigliopoli:” social, cultural and recreational activities for children in the Milazzo area as well as the recovery project Mamertino. The name of this wine goes back to ancient times when Mamertino people produced it, which is famous for being described by Pliny and loved by Julius Caesar. The small winery is just a few steps from the sea and surrounded by the splendid vines we planted at Capo Milazzo.
Q: What is your favorite Sicilian food and wine pairing?
A: Sicilian cuisine has huge diversity. But if I had to choose, I’d pair eggplant parmesan with Cerasuolo Di Vittoria. From the countryside of Dorilli, between the sea and the Iblean Mountains, known as the center of excellence for Sicilian food, comes our Cerasuolo di Vittoria. The name of the only DOCG in Sicily comes from ‘Cerasa,’ which is cherry in Sicilian dialect. It is produced from the indigenous varieties Nero d’Avola and Frappato. It is a unique wine, recognizable and unforgettable for its youthful flavors and aromas of cherry, strawberry and pomegranate, all due to the particular soil and climate in which the grapes are cultivated. A wine, which like few others, combines traditional flavors and delicious wine.
With the help of the food journalist Elisa Menduni, we collected the memory and history of Casa Planeta between city side and countryside into a cook book. The culinary map of the volume is made up of hand-written recipes from the Planeta family passed down over generations and selected recipes from the rich tradition of the island, picked and chosen in the five Sicilian areas in which Planeta now grows vineyards and olive groves, and produces wine and extra virgin olive oil.
Q: Not only do you have five territories in which you make wine, but you also offer guest accommodations for those looking to stay on your properties. Why did you decide to add that to your repertoire?
A: We have always combined our passion for Sicily with a desire to warmly welcome those who wish to discover it. Because of this, our wineries have never merely been places to produce wine but have also been devoted to hospitality, linked to cooking, nature and the local culture. It’s a natural evolution of our work.
At first we hosted only professionals, but then we figured out how to offer the experience of food and wine to the public and we turned this into a new project: Planeta WineTour. La Foresteria Planeta is our resort with a restaurant, a welcoming home for whoever wishes to spend a holiday in an oasis of peace, all the while exploring an area for wine pairing excellence, enjoying an unspoiled beach, discovering the wealth of Sicilian cookery and really finding the pleasure of true family hospitality.
Q: What’s next for you and for Planeta?
A: We always strive to do better and better, to achieve the best quality in each territory and to wait for the vineyards to get older. But, at our core, we have always been explorers, so therefore we will certainly be investigating something new to consider.