In barely two generations, Planeta Winery has created a reputation for fine Chardonnay in Sicily. Santi Planeta, however, prefers to look to the past to build a greener future.
Diego Planeta of Planeta Winery
As the largest and one of the most fabled Mediterranean islands, Sicily has long hosted a culture of winemaking – in fact, since 4,000BC. During the 1900s though, the attention turned to sweet Marsala and cheap bulk wine as farmers looked to higher yields. It took a new wave of boutique winemakers in the 1980s to dig in their heels before Sicily became known for producing wines that could make the world sit up. Leading the way is familyowned Planeta, from which the dynamic Santi Planeta literally shows me the unique soils of Sicily during our tasting in Singapore. The key to understanding Planeta? Don’t think of it as a single brand but a collection of six smaller wineries.
ROOTING FOR SUCCESS
Like many in his generation, 50-year-old Santi was born in one of Sicily’s regions but moved to the city of Palermo while growing up. His family home in Menfi is where his grandfather Vito first transformed the family winery into a large co-operative winery, Cantine Settesoli, whose son Diego then managed for 40 years along with being chairman of the regional institute for vines and wine.
In 1985, Diego began planting a new vineyard with Nero d’avola, Grecanico, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and more, being the first to trial international varieties in Sicily. The project involved his daughter Francesca and nephew Alessio, and in 1995 they had their first vintage of Planeta wines. Santi, Alessio’s brother, joined them a few years later. Today, while the cousins are involved in all aspects of the family business, they take care of different fields – Alessio is the winemaker, while Francesca takes care of the marketing and hospitality, and Santi the international market. It’s no small feat – they produce 20,000 cases across 390 hectares, exporting to 73 countries while also managing hospitality assets such as a wine resort, apartments and a restaurant.
In this ‘journey through Sicily’, they cultivated different terroirs – Vittorio, where they have indigenous Frappato and Nero d’avola for Cerasuolo di Vittoria; southeast to Noto devoted to Nero d’avola as well as Moscato di Noto; Mount Etna for Carricante and Nerello Mascalese; and Capo Milazzo for Nocera and Nero d’avola. In some cases, they restored the existing building (in Vittoria); in others they built new spots where spaces were not adequate for the volumes required. One uniting factor has been sustainability, which they enshrined in the tenets of ‘Planeta Terra’: protecting the landscape, bio-architecture, renewable energy and recycled material.
MAKING THE WORLD TAKE NOTICE
Planeta’s Chardonnay, with its unique Sicilian characteristics that balance between creaminess and crispness, refreshed with sweet spices and minerality, soon built up a reputation internationally, making it “one of Sicily’s wine ambassadors abroad”, according to critics like Wine Advocate. For the family, it was a calling card that allowed them to grow while paying attention to what was happening back home – the revival of little-known, indigenous grapes that have previously rarely been given the chance to make single varietal wine.
Notes Alessio, the three most important varieties today include Nero d’avola: “a flexible and versatile grape variety, at Noto making wines suitable for ageing, at Vittoria fruity and intense, and at Menfi area ranging from Rosé to spicy wines”. He continues, “Grillo is the variety of the future. This aromatic white has a great personality that attracts consumers, with a profile like Sauvignon Blanc from the Mediterranean. Nerello Mascalese, in spite of living in the south, is a vine destined for great elegant reds, such as Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. It develops well on volcanic soils and altitude and dialogues with the great Pinot Noirs of the world.”
Santi sees that the second chapter for Planeta is to talk about territory. “We have defined, and now we need to refine and finetune what we have,” he details. Internationally, audiences are still more familiar with international grapes and may not demand unique productions like Cerasuolo di Vittoria – which isn’t available in Singapore (yet). On Alessio’s side, less is better, he proclaims. “The new technology is zero technology. On Etna we have concrete tanks unlike the more neutral ones, but they have a different thickness and such that the wine changes the temperature slowly, with an interesting qualitative advantage. In Menfi we have changed from barriques to wood barrels that can accommodate 2,500-3,500 litres, 10 times the capacity of the former. For each wine we seek the right ageing material, for the purpose of greater integration of wood and wine. Obviously, it is a return to techniques used in the past.”