Featured Image: Nero d’Avola in LangeTwins Family’s Redtail Vineyard in the Jahant AVA of Lodi.


One of California winemaker Randall Grahm’s favorite ways of referring to the under-appreciated winegrapes of the world is “ugly ducklings.” Or, if you prefer a more esoteric word, “heterodoxical.” That is, unorthodox or contrarian to the point of making a point.

The point of Nero d’Avola is that it is one of those grapes that challenges the presumed orthodoxy of today’s hierarchy of varietals considered to be the “greatest” in the world: starting with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay—the “king” and “queen” of winegrapes—as well as Pinot noirMerlot and Sauvignon blanc, among the rest of the current aristocracy.

Not coincidentally, these are among the eight most widely planted grapes in Lodi, which serves primarily as a commercial wine region (the other three commercial grapes important to Lodi being ZinfandelPinot gris, and Petite Sirah).

Nero d’Avola harvest in typical hillside vineyard in Sicily, averaging 1,300 to 1,600 feet in elevation.

Nero d’Avola’s history is probably longer than any of those other grapes. It is believed that it may have been cultivated in its native Southern Italy as long as 2,000 years ago, most likely first planted in Sicily by the Greeks. Yet as recently as the 1980s and ’90s, Italian bottlings of the varietal were nearly unheard of. At least outside of Sicily.

At the time, Sicilians themselves seemed more interested in transplanting non-native grapes such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah, relegating indigenous black-skinned grapes such as Nero d’Avola mostly to red wine blends—the same role played by most of Lodi’s Zinfandel up until the 1970s.

Brad and Randall Lange, founders of LangeTwins Family Winery & Vineyards, are now growing over half a dozen Italian varieties precisely because of their natural affinity with Lodi’s Mediterranean climate.

About 25 years ago (towards the end of the 1990s), the grape’s fortunes changed when the entire world began to focus more on the uniqueness of the cuisine and wines of Sicily. In response, top producers began to capitalize on the emerging interest in indigenous grapes by producing and exporting varietal bottlings of Nero d’Avola. Positive press ensued, and the attention quickly led to interest in the grape in other parts of the world with a Mediterranean climate similar to Sicily’s—including California.

Because of its lineage as a Mediterranean grape, Nero d’Avola pencils out as a cultivar tailor-made for Lodi’s bone-dry, warm growing seasons. According to LangeTwins Family Winery & Vineyards winemaker emeritus David Akiyoshi, “It’s all about the climate.” Explaining the Lange family’s recent commitment to more than half-a-dozen Italian varieties, Akiyoshi said: “We discovered that these are the types of grapes that can ripen with maximum flavors in Lodi, at the same time ripening at moderate sugar levels and, across the board, great natural acidity.”

LangeTwins Family winemaker emeritus David Akiyoshi.

The other big bonus, according to Akiyoshi: “This means we can produce top quality wines with very moderate alcohol [generally, for LangeTwins Family Italian varietals, in the 13.0% to 13.5% ABV range], and we can do it with a minimum of intervention. Our style anyway is to produce wines that taste more like the grapes they come from, without a lot of oak. The Italian varietals allow us to do this, more than other grapes.”

Case in point: The 2021 LangeTwins Family Redtail Vineyard Jahant-Lodi Nero d’Avola ($34), the winery’s eighth vintage of this varietal, comes across as compact, pointedly bright in acidity, moderately sturdy in tannin, yet round and easy rather than hard or edgy. There is plenty of deep color and fruit expression in the aroma and flavor—suggesting black cherry and sour plum—which is pushed front and center despite spending 14 months in neutral French and American oak (aged in barrels in order to get smoothed out, not to pick up extraneous flavors of oak).

If the future of Lodi wine is in grapes in which you can achieve all the flavor in the world without having to pick at high sugars necessitating manipulation in the winery (like alcohol reduction or acid adjustment), grapes such as Nero d’Avola may very well be a poster child. Nero d’Avola is also capable of producing a more serious red wine, even when grown in Lodi’s sandy loam soils (a terroir naturally conducive to softer, fruit-forward reds).

Nero d’Avola in Fernow Ranch, grown in the sandy loam soil of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA.

Second case in point: The 2021 Perlegos Family Fernow Ranch Mokelumne River-Lodi Nero d’Avola ($38) is a notably darker, deeper, more densely weighted iteration of the varietal than the LangeTwins Family bottlings, despite its remarkably restrained 12.9% ABV. The wine has a distinct sense of saturation or extraction while the tannin comes across with some muscularity, yet still coming managing to feel svelte and compact in feel, and redolent with black and red-toned berryish fruit.

Who would love these wines? I’d say, anyone who likes a big, rich imported style of red wine such as an Argentine Malbec or Australian Shiraz. The only thing about a typical Nero d’Avola is that it is big in flavor and color, not in body or alcohol.

In that sense, Nero d’Avola is very much a red meat wine—think of grilled cuts of beef or lamb, rubbed with olive oil and cracked peppercorn, or lavished with roasted green or red chile peppers, or even slathered in tomato, fruit, or verde style salsa.

Perlegos Family Wine Co. owner/growers John and Jeff Perlegos.

Yet the tannin level of Nero d’Avola is rarely ferocious enough that you need the charred taste of grilling to balance out a bitterness. Therefore, less fatty, brothy, slow-cooked meats work just as well: Think of cardamon or juniper berried pot roasts, or lamb shanks braised with tomato, Middle Eastern spices, or, even better, the following rendering of Sicilian lamb spezzatino (i.e., stew) with saffron and mint: See this New York Times version replicating a recipe by Fabrizia Lanza, the director of Sicily’s Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School.

Pungent threads of saffron, wonderful in braised lamb, amazing with moderately weighted reds such as Nero d’Avola.

The tannin structure in Nero d’Avola, while sturdy, is also restrained enough for leaner meat dishes such as turkey, chicken breasts, or pork (center-cut chops or loins) roasted with sweet ingredients such as fruit (fresh or sun-dried cherry, apricot, plum, or berries) or even infusions of Marsala or Port wine.

In short, Nero d’Avola makes a wine that satisfies any red wine lover’s craving for a rich, sturdy red, yet is zesty and moderately weighted enough to go with a wider range of seasonings and fruits than more monolithic red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec. Buon appetito indeed!

Fabrizia Tasca’s Sicilian lamb spezzatino, ideal with a zesty, moderately weighted red such as Nero d’Avola.


Randy Caparoso is a full-time wine journalist who lives in Lodi, California. Randy puts bread (and wine) on the table as the Editor-at-Large and Bottom Line columnist for The SOMM Journal, and currently blogs and does social media for Lodi Winegrape Commission’s He also contributes editorials to The Tasting Panel magazine, crafts authentic wine country experiences for sommeliers and media, and is the author of the new book “Lodi! A definitive Guide and History of America’s Largest Winegrowing Region.”

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