Their vinous history is as complex as their ethnicity, which is a unique melting pot of Greek, Moorish, Norman, Aragon, Jewish, Ottoman and Roman influences.
While it was the Phoenicians who introduced grape vines to Sicily, winegrowing only became widespread after the Greek colonization of Naxos and Syracuse in the eighth century. Over time Marsala (both sweet and dry) became Sicily’s most important wine and has highly sought by the Mediterranean traders, invaders and warmongers as the fortifieds of Spain, Madeira and Portugal.
The universal move to table wine consumption in the mid-20th century saw Marsala production slump with the focus of Sicilian winegrowers turning to simple, everyday styles - often made using French grape varieties like Chardonnay and Merlot.
A dynamic ‘renaissance’ over the last 40 years has seen a new focus on Sicily’s indigenous grapes made with modern winemaking practices – think cool ferments in stainless steel and the widespread use of French oak. If you’ve never heard of Carricante, Catarratto, Grillo and Inzolia you soon will.
These exciting white varieties are mirrored by red grapes such as Nero d’Avola, Frappato, Nerello Mascalese and its sibling, Nerello Cappuccino. While the majority of Sicily is warm, there are vineyards at 700-1000 metres on snow-clad Mount Etna that yield wines of restraint and finesse. Indeed, Mount Etna wines are the new ‘cool’ with hipster sommeliers in London, New York, Milan, Helsinki, Sydney and Melbourne scrambling for a meagre allocation.
Some basic facts
Sicily has approximately 110,000 hectares under vine, about 15 percent of Italy’s production and a little larger than the area of vines of Germany and Greece. Two-thirds of Sicilian grapes are white; a hangover from the heady Marsala days.
Today Marsala’s key grapes (Catarratto, Grillo and Inzolia) are made into dry whites with fresh, bright, citrus flavours that are just made to drink with the abundance of seafood the Sicilians fish from the Mediterranean Sea.
Sicily’s hero red grape is Nero d’Avola. As the name implies, it’s a black grape originating from the Baroque city of Avola on Sicily’s south-eastern coast. Nero d’Avola is a boisterous variety with plenty of plummy fruit flavours, modest tannins and an acid-edged finish. West of Avola in the Vittoria region, Nero d’Avola takes on a more regal robe and (when blended with the fragrant red grape, Frappato) appears as Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Sicily’s only DOCG.
A Taste of Sicily
Seek out a bottle of COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG 2016 (USD23) and you’ll be well rewarded. Think Shiraz meets Sangiovese blended with Tempranillo. Flavoursome but not ponderous, intense yet vibrant, its drinking well in its youth, even better in 5 or more years.
Mount Etna is Sicily’s secret weapon with ‘wineheads’ from around the globe clamoring for Etna’s wines - be they white, pink or red. The white grape Carricante is zesty and bright with lemon pith flavours – try the Graci Etna Bianco DOC 2018 (USD24) and you’ll get the perky picture.
(Vineyard by Mount Etna, Castiglione di Sicilia, Sicily)
Nerello Mascalese is Etna’s key red grape with a lithe frame (typical of Pinot Noir) and a fine tannin profile (like Nebbiolo), it’s the darling of makers, marketers and consumers alike. Look out for Girolamo Russo A Rina Etna Rosso DOC 2017 (USD30), it’s a startling red with an almost pinotesque-like perfumes and structure.
Wine is just one of Sicily’s attractions – the ruggedly beautiful landscape, the ancient architecture and the marvellous food make a compelling reason to visit. If you can’t make the journey – grab a bottle of Sicilian wine and drink the dream.
COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG 2016 (USD23): Flavoursome but not ponderous, intense yet vibrant, its drinking well in its youth, even better in 5 or more years.
Feudo Arancio Inzolia Sicilia IGT 2018 (USD9): Recommended well-chilled and paired with grilled swordfish and caponata.
Graci Etna Bianco DOC 2018 (USD24): Great example of Mount Etna's white grape Carricante - zesty and bright with lemon pith flavours.
Girolamo Russo A Rina Etna Rosso DOC 2017 (USD30): Startling red with an almost pinotesque-like perfumes and structure. Great representative of Etna's key red grape, Nerello Mascalese.