By another name, Moscato isn’t that cute

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Some of the best dishes in the world require a sip of wine or liquor to reach their full potential. Welcome to Spritz in the panwhere writer and beverage expert Tammie Teclemariam teaches you to bring them to life.

If you’ve tried a Sicilian wine, it was most likely a strong, fruity table red with the slight bitterness typical of the Nero d’Avola grape. Wines made from the traditional white grape varieties of Sicily are less well known and produced in smaller production, but they give a different perspective to this diversity of winemaking in the region. On the west side of the mountainous Mediterranean island, high-altitude vineyards allow the grapes to fully ripen without losing their acidity, which leads to fresh and structured white wines. White grape varieties like Grillo and Catarratto thrive here, as do Zibibbo – a grape variety that was used in the past for dessert wines and that local winemakers are currently rediscovering for its dry potential.

Outside of Sicily, Zibibbo is best known as Moscato, the same variety that ends up in bottles of the tangy-sweet Moscato d’Asti and many southern French dessert wines. Even nearby, the variety is used in sweeter bottles; About 100 kilometers southwest of the Sicilian coast on the island of Pantelleria, producers make a dessert wine called Passito by partially drying Zibibbo grapes to concentrate their sugar before pressing. This ancient grape variety, also known as Muscat of Alexandria, is said to have been grown for the first time in Egypt. It was eventually brought to the island by North African Muslims, who ruled Sicily over and over again from the 9th to the 11th centuries. “Of course they didn’t make wine out of it,” says Marilena Leta from Tenuta Gorghi Tondi winery in the Sicilian coastal town of Mazara Del Vallo. Instead, she explains, the grapes were usually either eaten fresh or dried for raisins and stored. (The local name of the variety probably comes from the Arabic word for raisins, zabÄ«b, which stayed even after local producers started using the fresh grapes for wine.)

Tenuta Gorghi Tondi was created in 2000 and its first zibibbo harvest came in 2006. “Zibibbo is one of our most popular varieties, especially in this area,” Leta tells me. When asked about its increasing popularity, she attributes the aroma of the grape and its tendency to thrive on the island, a “well-ventilated place with lots of sun and salty sea air”.

Beyond the local dialect, Sicilian culture is still heavily influenced by centuries-old Arab influences and the island’s proximity to North Africa. Less than a century ago, Mazara Del Vallo was a booming port town, where fishermen from all over the Mediterranean – particularly from nearby Tunisia – docked to sell their catch. Today seafood couscous is one of the most famous dishes in this part of the island, and Leta notes that the towns of Mazara Del Vallo, Trapani and Marsala each have their own versions. Unlike in North Africa, it is not uncommon in Sicily to serve couscous with wine.

As for the wine, most of the Sicilian zibibbo have the same rose and ripe lychee flavors you’d expect from sweet moscato, but dry and restrained, like fruits at the peak of ripeness and not so overripe. This crisp finish is ideal for pairing with hearty and spicy dishes such as the local couscous.

On a recent visit to Sicily, I was hoping to find a local dish like zibibbo that would go well with the wine too. It turns out it’s not uncommon to have a shot of Sicilian marsala in the pan in Italy, but chicken marsala is far more popular in the US; There is not much tradition of cooking with wine on the island in general.

Zibibbo raisins are available online at Gustiamo. Photography: Linda Pugliese; Food stylist: Mariana Velasquez; Prop stylist: Elvis Maynard

When I got home I decided to come up with my own recipe. Instead of looking for a substitute for the Mediterranean fish used in the seafood dishes on the coast, I went for meatballs, which are also popular across the island – not in the oversized Italian-American Sunday sauce, but smaller and more frequent made with fish or eggplant pulp and meat. I also decided to add raisins, which are found in Sicilian cuisine – most commonly in the lemon breadcrumb filling that is used to stuff sardines. Based on the North African roots of the region, I seasoned the meatballs with Tabil, an earthy Tunisian spice mixture, and then simmered them in a light Zibibbo wine sauce.

Saffron is another flavor that the Arabs brought to Sicily centuries ago, although it is now grown on the island as well. To piece the dish together, I served the meatballs over saffron-scented couscous (saffron risotto or even simple basmati rice would work fine too.) Together, the wine, fruit, and spices in the dish harmonized with the layered flavors in the glass, evoking the historical and complex flavors Sicily.

recipe

Meatball couscous with raisins and zibibbo

Meatball couscous with zibibbo raisins
Photography: Linda Pugliese; Food stylist: Mariana Velasquez; Prop stylist: Elvis Maynard

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