Sicily, the southernmost part of Italy is the largest island in the Mediterranean and an ancient wine-making mecca. Wine has been a big part of Sicilian culture for thousands of years and thanks to Marsala and everyday table wines from Nero d’Avola it remains one of the largest producing regions anywhere in the world.
Ancient Peoples, Ancient Wines
Given its position in the Mediterranean, it should come as no surprise that Sicily has experienced many different inhabitants, from the Sicels that give the island its name, to the Greeks who brought much wine-making tradition, through to today’s Sicilians– who would likely differentiate themselves culturally from the rest of Italy.
The wines and conditions under which they are grown are pretty unlike most of the rest of Italy as well. Sicily is a warm Mediterranean climate of course, but its ancient volcanic soils, hills, and Mount Etna– the highest active volcano in Europe– give the terroir great soil conditions and consistent weather to go by. Though there is very little precipitation throughout the summer, the hot but humid climate also acts as a natural agent against rot, making organic wine commonplace.
To the casual wine fan or home cook, Sicilian wine may mean only one thing– Marsala.
Marsala is a fortified wine of around 20% alcohol not unlike Sherry, Madeira and Port. It has been made for hundreds of years as an aperitif, digestif, and cooking wine. Unfortunately, like much wine from Italy in the mid-20th century, large quantities over high quality led to a cheap connotation of the name Marsala, and the wine became known much more for cooking than enjoying.
That reputation is slowly shedding and the world is opening back up to well-made Marsala on par with Sherries and Ports, as it was in the past.
Marsala can come in many designations, typically falling into one of three standards: oro (golden), ambra (amber), and rubino (ruby). There are sweet and dry marsalas, and further designations based on wood aging:
=>1yr: “Fine” => 2yrs: “Superiore” => 4yrs: “Superiore Riserva” => 5yrs: “Vergine”
However, beyond all these labels are countless kinds of Marsala wine that are as unique as the producer itself.
Sicilian White Wines
Sicily is one of the few regions of Italy that seems to stick to its native grape varieties over taking the route of pumping out some Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Merlot for the masses. The white grapes that have long made Sicily their home include Grillo, Inzolia, Grechetto, Malvasia, Carricante and Catarratto, many of which have also been blending grapes in Marsala. Moscato di Pantelleria (or Muscat of Alexandria) produces another sweet wine much less known than Marsala.
White wines are produced in larger quantity than reds, with the most-planted grape in Sicily being Carricante.
Grillo, normally blended with Inzolia and Moscato for Marsala, can produce its own delicious dry whites with a fresh, flinty character. It is also used exclusively by some higher-end Marsala producers to create their product free of any other grapes.
Carricante and Catarratto come together on the rocky volcanic slopes of Mt. Etna to create delicious and in-vogue Etna Bianco and Etna Bianco Superiore, dry crisp wines with yellow fruits and minerality.
More than any other red wine in quality or quantity, Nero d’Avola is the red grape of Sicily. It can range from soft, fruity, spicy but structured to dense and deep. It is the main grape of Cerasuolo di Vittoria, the singular DOCG wine from Sicily, where it is mixed with Frappato– a light, fruity quaffable wine grape. Nero d’Avola is not a wine to be missed if having only one Sicilian red.
Nerello Mascalese is an interesting indigenous varietal that produces wines (often blended with Nerello Cappuccio) whose aromas are like a blend of Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir. The wines, which come almost exclusively from Etna DOC, have beautiful finesse that makes for a nice foil for the powerful volcano from which their flavor comes.
Other French varietals have shown to do well in the ample sunshine and mineral rich soils of Sicily, including Syrah, Grenache, and Cabernet Sauvignon. They would fall under the extremely prevalent “Sicilia IGT” moniker, which accounts for at least 25% of all Sicilian wine production.
The Future of Sicilian Wine
As with any agricultural venture, especially one where the land is being taken more seriously and being improved-upon, Sicilian wines as a whole will take some time and patience to reach the balance of quantity and quality of regions such as Tuscany, Veneto, and Piedmont. The work is being done (by the new generations of wine makers) and the care being given to ancient root stocks and vineyards, though, and in another decade or two Sicily and its unique indigenous wines could find themselves in the same class.