Visiting Planeta   
One of Sicily's leading producers


Sicily has a lot of vineyards. It’s the second largest wine region in Italy, and has about the same area under vine as South Africa or Chile, with 120 000 hectares of vineyards (I bet you didn’t know this). It is the proud possessor of 23 DOCs and a sole DOCG (Cerasuolo di Vittoria), although some of these DOCs are for fortified and sweet wines, not table wines.

But Sicily is only just beginning to establish a reputation for fine wines. Planeta is one of the most significant producers in this regard: a large, modern producer with a good reputation internationally for its wines, with wineries in Sambuca, Menfi (two), Vittoria and Noto, and a new project in Mount Etna. Altogether, Planeta now have an impressive 390 hectares of vines.

Along with fellow writers Simon Woods and Olly Smith, I visited Planeta’s various wineries and vineyards in a whistle stop tour of Sicily. We met with three members of the Planeta family: Francesca and her cousin Alessio, and also Diego Planeta, father of the former, uncle of the latter – the visionary figure behind both Planeta, and also the impressive Settesoli cooperative, which he is president of.

We began in Noto (above), in Buovino. Planeta make just two wines here from their 60 hectares of vines, Nero d’Avola and Moscato di Noto (an unfortified sweet wine, now referred to officially, since 2008, as Passito di Noto DOC). Planeta built their Cantina Invisible winery here (below), sunk into the ground, in 2002/3, and this turned out to be an expensive project. This is where Planeta’s Nero d’Avola-based red Santa Cecilia is made.

Alessio Planeta speculates that Muscat may have been the original white grape variety moving around in the ancient world, and that this might have been the first variety to reach Sicily. The grapes for this wine are dried for a month and a half in 5 kg cases in a low-temperature room. In antiquity, the grapes would have been cut and leaves placed over the bunches outside to protect them from the sun while they were drying. Fermentation slows and then stops naturally leaving a lot of residual sugar.

Alessio and Francesca Planeta

Planeta Passito di Noto DOC 2008 (tank sample)
Grapes are picked ripe then dried for 45 days. 190 g/l residual sugar. Really aromatic and fresh. Grapey, sweet and herby: viscous and rich-textured with spicy, lemony freshness. Sweet and intense but with lovely acidity.

Planeta Moscati di Noto 2007
Powerful, grapey and citrussy with lovely richness and high acidity. There’s some marmaladey freshness; this is a lively wine. 91/100

Planeta Moscati di Noto 2006
Rich, intense, grapey and spicy with lovely viscous texture. There’s a nice combination of floral freshness with tropical fruit richness. Fresh and lively. 91/100

Planeta Santa Cecilia Nero d’Avola 2008 (barrel sample)
From a five-year-old vineyard. Very aromatic dark fruits nose with fresh cherry and spice notes, and some new oak evident (this is from a new barrel, the final blend is one-third new oak). Very fresh with lovely definition and bright plum and cherry fruit. The same wine from an older barrel had a fresh, dark, chocolatey nose that was bright and sweet. Quite firm tannins. Tight but still fresh.

Francesca says she’s never seen such a good vintage as 2008 in this district. There wasn’t too much heat in the summer and the bunches were in perfect condition. It was dry during harvest. 2007 was a warmer vintage.

Planeta Santa Cecilia 2007 IGT Nero d’Avola di Sicilia
Fresh, focused sweet floral aromatics to the cherry fruit nose. The palate has a hint of oak and a bit of plummy bitterness along with the fresh focused cherry fruit. It’s a lovely wine, although I’m not overly keen on the slightly bitter, tarry, earthy notes in the background. Savoury with bright acidity. 90/100

Planeta Santa Cecilia 2006 IGT Nero d’Avola di Sicilia
Lovely sweet and sour nose with aromatic sweet black cherry and blackberry fruit, as well as some fresh, herby, spicy notes. The palate is bright with good acidity and fresh savoury, spicy structure. Nice sweet cherry fruit here. 91/100

Planeta Santa Cecilia 2005 IGT Nero d’Avola di Sicilia
Sweet, pure focused dark cherry and blackberry fruit. Quite smooth with a polished personality. The palate is fresh, smooth and has nice dark fruits over a spicy structure. Savoury style. 89/100

Planeta Santa Cecilia 2002 IGT Nero d’Avola di Sicilia
Pure dark fruits/cherry nose with some restraint. The palate has earthiness as well as bright cherry and berry fruit. Finishes earthy and structured. 87/100

Planeta Santa Cecilia 2001 IGT Nero d’Avola di Sicilia
Very pure, sweet dark cherry fruit nose with brooding, spicy, meaty complexity. The palate shows lovely earthy backing to the intense dark fruits. Broad, sweet, spicy and structured. Drinking very well now. 91/100

Planeta Santa Cecilia 2000 IGT Nero d’Avola di Sicilia
Deep coloured. Smooth, pure, slightly herbal, restrained dark cherry nose. The palate shows tight, fresh dark cherry fruits with some hints of earth and meat. Quite pure and focused with good purity. 89/100

Planeta Santa Cecilia 1999 IGT Nero d’Avola di Sicilia
This was the first year when some Noto fruit was included (now it’s 100% Noto, from 2003 on). Evolved, earthy, spicy nose with warm spiciness. The palate is fresh, warm and spicy with lots happening. Earthy and dense with good acidity. 87/100

Planeta Santa Cecilia 1998 IGT Nero d’Avola di Sicilia
From now on, this is 100% Nero d’Avola. Quite a tight nose showing some earthy, spicy notes. The palate is fresh and tart with good structure and nice dark fruit. Ageing better than the 1997. 88/100

Planeta Santa Cecilia 1997 IGT
This was the first vintage of this wine, and in 1997 this had 15% Syrah in it. Warm, spicy, earthy, herby nose with some evolution and a hint of mint. The palate is fresh and earthy with a hint of funk. Elderly, but still has acidity. 86/100

Next stop was Vittoria, where we were to stay for the night in the converted farmhouse at Dorilli (above). In 1997 Planeta planted 17 hectares here, following this with a further 20 in 2002. This is the region where Nero d’Avola and Frappato are blended together to get Cerasuolo di Vittoria. This is where we met with Diego Planeta (below), who cooked dinner for us.

Planeta began in 1985 in Ulmo, which is in Sambuca di Sicilia. 45 hectares were planted with Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Nero d’Avola, Aglianico as well as experiments such as Riesling. 1995 was the first Planeta vintage, and from 1996 onwards Planeta expanded, with more experimentation, more vineyards and two new wineries in the years following (1997 Vittorio and 1998 Noto).  

Diego has always had an experimental tendency, first with the Settesoli cooperative when he started planting lots of varieties in the early 1980s, and later with Planeta. Altogether, 50–60 varieties have been trialled. The reason for this experimentation is that there was general dissatisfaction with the indigenous white Sicilian varieties, which according to Diego have a problem: none of them can age.

85% of production in Sicily is white, and the most commonly grown grapes are Catarrato, Grillo and Trebbiano. ‘Grecanico [aka Garganega] is the only local variety that can age,’ says Diego, ‘and that’s the reason we have invested so much in it.’ Diego says that the indigenous varieties just tend to collapse after a year or two in bottle, and this is one reason why he has focused also on imports such as Chardonnay and Fiano (which he brought to Sicily from the mainland of southern Italy).

Chardonnay is Planeta’s most successful wine. He says that if the Inycon wines (a brand from the Settesoli Cooperative that’s popular in the UK) are labelled by the local varieties, they don’t sell. This makes it difficult to sell the likes of Grecanico as varietal wines. ‘It is a tremendous barrier,’ says Diego. In 2006 he commissioned some market research in the UK. It found that while 95% of people were aware of Sicily the place, only 7% knew it was a wine-producing region.

Vittoria is home to the island’s only DOCG: Cerasuolo di Vittoria. It’s a blend of Nero d’Avola with Frappato. ‘If you grow Frappato anywhere else in Sicily it is a disaster,’ says Diego. Here, it is bright and fresh with lovely cherry fruit and high acidity, as well as low alcohol. It’s not what you’d expect from a warm climate.

Barrel samples:

Frappato 2008 Pale and fresh with bright cherry aromatics and high acidity. Grippy with good acid. Bright and light.

Nero d’Avola 2008 Deeper colour. Vivid, intense and aromatic with bright dark cherry fruit and good acidity.

Planeta Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2007
This is one of my favourites from the Planeta range. Beautifully perfumed with sweet cherries and a subtle herbiness. The palate is fresh and quite pure with sweet, rounded fruit and a lovely fresh spicy cherry character. Fresh and expressive. 92/100

Planeta Alastro 2007
A blend of Chardonnay (49%) and Grecanico (60%); the Chardonnay portion sees 10% new oak. Rich, quite tropical nose with a nutty edge and some minerality. The palate has nice freshness with lemony zip to the fruit. A rich, full style with a nice pithy, subtly bitter edge. Real intensity. 89/100

Planeta Alastro 1997
I was really impressed by how this wine had developed. Deep yellow colour. Fresh still with nice acidity and deep, nutty, waxy herby notes. Expressive and evolved but still very much alive. 89/100

Next stop was Menfi, the heart of the Planeta operation, where we visited the Ulmo winery and the surrounding vineyards.

We looked at some Chardonnay barrel samples. This is an important variety for Planeta, and they do a very good job with it. Their Chardonnay can age. They have evolved the style from rich and fat to a more elegant and fresh one, although it is still quite a rich wine.

Chardonnay 2008 barrel sample (1) Lemony fresh with lovely complexity and a nice combination of richness and freshness.

Barrel sample (2) older vines, planted in 1985/6. Rich, rounded, nutty and bold with a pithy edge.

(3) One-year-old barrel. Really round, rich, spicy and nutty with lots of flavour. Exotic but balanced.

(4) Same wine, new barrel: vivid, spicy and intense.

(5) Nutty with a sweet pineapple nose, and a powerful spicy palate.

Planeta Cometa 2008
This is a varietal Fiano – a grape variety Diego Planeta brought to Sicily from the southern Italian mainland. Tank sample of final blend (since 2006 the wine has been unoaked). Nutty, intense and fresh with a lively, bold palate and complex citrussy, herby fruit. Powerful and rich but fresh at the same time, with nice elegance and aromas.

Planeta Cometa 2007
14.5% alcohol. Deep yellow colour. Aromatic, fresh, nutty nose with some herby, citrus notes, as well as tangerine and apricot. The palate is rich, concentrated and herby with melon and apricot notes. Fresh with a hint of smoky complexity, with nice intensity. 91/100

Planeta Cometa 2001
Lovely fresh style. A bit toasty with nice herbal character. Complex and rounded with nice melong, spicy characters. Quite bold and evolving really nicely. 91/100

Planeta Chardonnay 2007
14% alcohol. Deep yellow/gold colour. Rich, toasty and nutty on the nose with sweetness and intensity, but also freshness. The palate is bold and intense with rich nutty notes and hints of butter, as well as citrus fruits and spice. Stylish. 90/100

Planeta Chardonnay 1995
Deep yellow colour with a lovely open, toasty nose. The palate is nutty and evolved with smooth, toasty notes and nice acidity. Delicious stuff that has aged beautifully. 92/100

Planeta La Segreta white 2008
50% Grecanico, 30% Chardonnay, 10% Fiano, 10% Viognier. Crisp, fresh and bright with a lovely bold, full flavoured palate showing hints of apricots and herbs. 88/100

Planeta La Segreta red 2008 (tank sample of final blend)
Lovely bright sweet cherry aromatics with a slightly meaty, spicy twist. The palate is fresh and fruity with focused plum and cherry fruit. Delicious. 88/100

Planeta Rosé 2008
Syrah. Very bright and crisp with some herby notes and just the faintest trace of strawberry fruit. 87/100

Planeta Merlot 2006
Lovely pure blackcurrant fruit nose. Smooth with a hint of tarriness. The palate is fresh and quite pure with good definition of blackberry and cherry fruit and nice structure. A delicious, ageable wine. 91/100

Planeta Merlot 1998 (magnum)
Really fresh and pure, and evolving really nicely. Berryish and sweet with nice spicy earthy structure. Really nice, fresh and mineral with a gravelly edge. Ageing beautifully. 92/100

Planeta Syrah 2006
Sweet aromatic, spicy, herby dark fruits nose with some cherry freshness. The palate has lovely pure, sweet, almost lush blackberry and cherry fruit and a hint of spice. Almost Australian in style. 89/100

Planeta Syrah 2002
Evolved, spicy nose with notes of earth, cedar and spice. Quite savoury. The palate has nice sweet fruit with open, evolved, spicy complexity. Interesting stuff. 89/100

Planeta Burdese 2006
70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc, aged in new oak. Lovely sweet, smooth aromatic blackcurrant fruit nose. Pure, aromatic and intense – quite profound. The palate is fresh and pure with ripe, sweet fruit. Nicely focused and well defined. 93/100

See also:

Visiting Chianti Classico (series)

Wines tasted 02/09 
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