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This ‘knockout’ Sicilian red has power, elegance

From the nero d’avola grape, the 2003 Saia is made for that hearty sauce.

It was Saturday night, which is usually pasta night in our house. There was a request from a junior member of the family for the “sausage sauce.” That meant two kinds of Italian sausage, hot and sweet, broken apart with a well-worn wooden spoon and sautéed in a large cast iron skillet until nicely browned, then combined with a couple of big cans of Italian San Marzano plum tomatoes.

Although we were all getting hungrier by the minute, I let the sauce simmer for almost three hours, the meat slowly permeating the tomatoes to create a rich and powerfully flavored ragu. A little chopped parsley at the end was the only flourish.

There’s something else I often enjoy on Saturday night — boxing on television (dare a wine writer say it). And on this night, on ESPN Classics, we were treated to a rerun of one of the biggest showdowns of all time — Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in their 1975 “Thriller in Manila.” A muscular meal and a great fight. It was no time for a wimpy wine.

The wine, without question, would have to be Italian. Italian reds, typically with considerable acidity, are made for hearty, tomato-based sauces. The one that caught my eye was a Sicilian wine I’d been meaning to try — the 2003 Saia from Feudo Maccari, made from the indigenous nero d’avola grape.

At $33, about three times the cost of the meal, the wine would, indeed, have to prove itself. And from the first taste, I knew it would. The rich, deep fruit and bright acidity provided the winning combination. Beautifully focused and elegant, it reminded me that Sicilian wines are, indeed, coming into their own. This one will compare favorably with any number of serious reds from, say, California or Bordeaux.

Feudo Maccari, which is the name of the estate, was formed six years ago in the Noto area of southeastern Sicily by Dr. Antonio Moretti, who was well known in Tuscany. The family’s Tuscan estate, Tenuta Sette Ponti, was already making a range of wines, including so-called super-Tuscan blends, which combine “international” varieties like cabernet sauvignon and merlot with the Tuscan sangiovese.

In Sicily, the nero d’avola grape produces deep purple wines, and Saia is one of the more refined examples I have tried. In the mouth it leaves a powerful impression, including blackberry, spiced dark cherry, subtle oak and herbal notes. With the sauce (now tossed with penne and embellished with some grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and a few twists of cracked pepper), the wine blended seamlessly with the food, each seeming to make the other complete.

That, of course, is the essence of enjoying wine. When you put it with the right food, bring in good friends and the right entertainment, the evening is bound to be a knockout.

Edward Deitch's wine column appears Wednesdays. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at EdwardDeitch