Italy is a magnet for lovers of food and wine, attracting around 17 million visitors annually in search of the boot’s gastronomic delights, 90% of whom also arrive with wine tasting on their mind. Yet how many of these visitors end up in the south of the country? A paltry 7%, with Lazio, home to the capital Rome, creaming off a good proportion of that. Most of the Italian food and wine lovers end up in Tuscany, Piedmont and Trentino-Alto Adige. So where does that leave Sicily, once known as ‘God’s kitchen’, with its abundance of fresh produce and increasingly high-quality wines. Well, with a fraction of that 7%, I guess.
Sicily and its vinous and gastronomic bounty have a special place in my heart. So, when I received a call from Salvo Giusino of Cronache di Gusto and a subsequent invitation from Luigi Bonsignore, president of the Strada del Vino e dei Sapori della Valle dei Templi (Wine and Flavours Route of the Valley of Temples), to attend their inaugural conference and tasting in Agrigento at the beginning of June, I was delighted to accept.
The area of Agrigento is known primarily for the Valley of the Temples – an archaeological park with wonderfully preserved Greek temples that is the world’s largest archaeological site and one of Sicily’s main attractions. Yet of the 950,000 visitors visiting the park last year (up from 550,000 in 2012, according to director of the park, Giuseppe Parello), how many of these actually take the time to discover the wider region and its produce? Probably a fraction of that, before they jump back onto their tour buses and head back to resorts such as Taormina or Cefalù, having not spent a penny outside the park.
A group of local companies, including olive oil and wine producers, restaurants and hotels have clubbed together to establish a wine and food route, branded with the name ‘Valley of the Temples’ with the aim of improving the quality of tourism in the region and attracting visitors to remain longer and sample its wine, olive oil and abundant hospitality. It’s no coincidence that the Valley of the Temples is at the heart of the route, as the site also boasts a wonderful garden, and wine and olive oil are produced from the plantations within its boundaries. The produce from the park is branded with the name Diodoros; Val Paradiso (who also took us on a tour of their facilities) tend the olive and almond groves and produce the olive oil whereas the Canicattì cooperative produce the wine from a blend of 90% Nero d’Avola and 10% Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio – the latter two varieties being more closely associated with Mount Etna.
1 June saw the official start of the wine route with a conference involving discussions and presentations by key members of the route, such as Luigi Bonsignore, its president and owner of Baglio Bonsignore and Fabio Gulotta, its director and owner of the Terracotta restaurant in Agrigento as well as representatives from the Sicilian Regional Institute for Wine and Oil and the Federation of Sicilian Wine Routes.
Luigi Bonsignore believes that the region has something unique to offer in terms of its olive oils and wines. It’s one of the best places to grow Nero d’Avola , he thinks, and the wines produced here represent the best expression of the variety. The initiative aims to bring this to the eyes of the public and attach it to the already known brand of the ‘Valley of the Temples’, which already draws crowds to Agrigento. The hope is that some of these visitors will then also remain a little longer and discover the beauty of the 250-kilometre route stretching from Casteltermini and Caltanissetta in the north to Licata and its heart, Agrigento, in the south.
The region also boasts attractive, off-the-beaten-track Baroque hill towns such as Nardo and the Farm Cultural Park of Favara where an abandoned town was brought back to life by community efforts and is now one of the area’s most important attractions – as its name suggests, an open-air cultural park. Florinda Saieva from the Farm Cultural Park emphasises the need for cooperation here in order to really achieve something.
One of the participants jokes that they now have a wine road, but no roads! A slight exaggeration perhaps, but one of the hurdles that the region, and Sicily as a whole, faces – is a lack of infrastructure. Many of the roads are in a poor state of repair and often lined with rubbish, an eyesore for tourists not used to this. They realise they need to work together to improve this situation as this also represents a factor for success. They are also proposing the introduction of mobility solutions for sustainable tourism, such as electric carsharing.
The following day, journalists and visitors to the archaeological park had the chance to taste the producers’ wines and olive oils in an idyllic, if rather hot, setting in the heart of the site. As well as the region’s stated flagship variety, Nero d’Avola, juicy Grillo, elegant Perricone, attractive sparkling wine, zesty Cattaratto Comune, refreshing Nero d’Avola Rosé and spicy Syrah were on offer, demonstrating that the region has plenty to offer the curious wine lover.
A website is under construction at http://www.stradadelvinovalledeitempli.it/, where visitors will soon be able to find comprehensive information on the region and producers taking part in the initiative.
I wish them the best of luck and hope that the Valle dei Templi will soon become a more recognisable name on the Sicilian wine map. I’ll certainly be watching their progress eagerly.