Paint It Black With Nero d'Avola 

A Sicilian grape with a rich history

Nero d'Avola translates as "black of Avola," and the grape is named for a town with an ancient history that's located in the Province of Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It appears to be an indigenous variety and is the island's most important red grape. Thriving in the warm climate, nero d'Avola can sometimes become over-ripe, resulting in flabby wines that lack balance. But with proper vineyard management, the result is a lush wine with a nice complexity that displays an appealing freshness in its youth. Here are the panel's top picks:

2009 Cusumano Nero d'Avola, $14.99

The nose on this wine is an intriguing mix of dusty plum, bramble-berry and dark chocolate, all colored by a light, pleasant gaminess. The heady cherry and berry fruit flavors are big and ripe but not overblown, and are colored by lovely touches of mocha and cream. This is an appealing wine made in a crowd-pleasing New World style.

2006 Occhipinti Siccagno Nero d'Avola, $32

This was the most controversial wine of the tasting, scoring both two first place and two last place votes--perhaps because there is a bit of that Old World, barnyard funk on both the nose and the palate. To my mind, that quality worked well and added dimension to the earthy berry, anise and spice aromas. On the palate, it's juicy cherry and berry in an elegantly structured wine with a long, lush finish. It's a uniquely delicious--if pricey--take on the grape.

2010 Sikelia Nero d'Avola, $14.99

This winery takes its name from the title Greek sailors gave to the island of Sicily. With its ripe red fruits backed by touches of earth, herb and spice, this is a rich take on nero d'Avola. On the palate, lightly sweet, dark berry fruit flavors are impeccably balanced by racy tart cherry. There's an enticing creaminess on the finish that's long and supple.

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