About Sicilian Wine
The wine business in Sicily has been going through a period of rapid change in the last 20 years, with a radical change of policy, in terms of styles and quality of wine produced. This large island at the foot of the country vies with Puglia as the nation’s largest wine producing region, with more vineyards than any of the others. In terms of production, it makes more wine than the whole of Australia, New Zealand and Hungary put together, which provides some idea of scale!
The Background To Sicilian Wine
Until 20 years ago, Sicily produced a vast amount of inexpensive, and frequently very poor wine, used for the heavy domestic consumption (at one stage Palermo had one of the highest city populations in Europe), and for shipping northwards to blend into the thinner, weaker, northern wines, and to make cheap vermouth. Today, there has been a real transformation, with the island now at the forefront of innovation and change, and moving at a far swifter pace than its northern counterparts.
Wines are produced from both native and international grape varieties, and new wine-producing areas are being discovered and trialled all the time, with the latest being the slopes of Mount Etna. It is a wine region of large co-operatives, which produce the increasingly good quality and affordable generic and varietal wines, but also has some superb, premium estates, many of whom have pioneered the change in strategy. And none more so than the Planeta family, who now have 7 estates throughout the island, but were the first estate, back in the 80s, to start to experiment with new techniques, new locations , and to blend international grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, with their traditional, indigenous varieties, whilst also bringing in international winemakers to help them in their quest.
Sicily has the oldest wine producing traditions of the whole of Italy, dating back almost to antiquity, with heavy Roman and Greek influences throughout the island, in terms of architecture. It has therefore been at the heart of Mediterranean wine culture for centuries, lying off the coast of the mainland, and also close to north Africa, from where the south west of the island takes many influences in terms of culture and cuisine. It is the largest of the Mediterranean islands, with a distance of 280km from east to west, and about 100km from north to south.
Its chequered history is well documented; political struggles, Mafia controlled towns and businesses, which also included wine businesses, and many of its cities severely bombed during the 2nd world war, especially the main city of Palermo, where, despite redevelopment, much of the rubble remains today. However, the island is now a vibrant and busy holiday destination, and new, forward thinking wine businesses are thriving. Its classic Mediterranean climate, with long, very hot summers and mild winters, together with the varied topography, and hilly landscapes, and the rocky soil structure of most of the areas, make is perfect vine growing territory, as well as vast quantities of olive oil, fruit and vegetables, which are its main exports.
The reputation for wine in Sicily was originally built in the 18th and 19th century, for its sweet, fortified Marsala production, which is still made today on the western side of the island. Today however, due to the size and wide variety of vineyard locations and microclimates, Sicily can almost do it all in terms of wine styles – fresh, crisp whites, rich, buttery, oaked whites, lively fruity reds, and bold, rich and structured reds, much work having been done by forward-thinking producers about the best locations for each grape.
A wide range of grape varieties are used, including all the classic international ones – Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah. But Sicily has a wealth of top quality, native varietals, which it is now showcasing to effect, with Greganico, Catarrato, Inzolia and Grillo, the best of the whites. In terms of red wines, the gloriously rich, enticing Nero d’Avola reigns supreme, with Nerello Mascalese and other lesser-known grape varieties as support.
Due to the scale of the island, Sicily has many different microclimates and soil types, but divides up roughly in four.
Northern Sicily is dominated by the end of the Apennines, which cover the entire length of Italy, with strong sunshine, but sufficient rain, whereas the south is far more arid, with scrubby hills, where irrigation is needed, and the vines are unprotected from the hot, dry north African winds.
The major influence on both climate and also the overall soil structure of the island, is, of course the presence of Europe’s highest active volcano, Mount Etna, which stands at 3300m, and is the reason for the island’s dark, rich, mineral soils. Along with western Sicily, Eastern Sicily is the other main quality wine producing region; Etna now has its own DOC, with vines being planted higher and higher up the volcanic slopes, to benefit from the cooler temperatures of the mountain, which oddly overlooks one of the hottest cities in Italy, Catania! Etna vineyards are now amongst some of the highest in the world, along with Salta in Argentina, and the most premium wines come from the highest areas. One reason that vines can grow at much higher altitude here, than in land-locked countries, is that the heat and sunshine from the Mediterranean sea reflect up onto the vines. Traditional red grape varieties are dominated by Nerello Mascalese, whilst the lovely , vibrant dry whites come from the stylish Carricante grape, combined with Catarrato.
Still in the east, but 100km south, lie the regions of Siracuse and Noto; the south east, with its very hot climate is best known for its sweet Moscato and Moscato Passito ( intensely sweet dessert wines), but new plantings are now being made, especially by Planeta, of red grapes in the Noto region.
Western Sicily is probably best known historically for the production of Marsala, right on coast, a stone’s throw from north Africa; the Marsala DOC, which also includes white and red wines covers about a 5th of the island, and western Sicily , in general is the most widely planted region in the whole of Italy. It’s the area where most of the international grape varieties are planted, and where new blends first succeeded. The main Sicilian grapes are nero d’avola, Inzolia, Cataratto, Grillo and Grecanico. The renouned estate of Planeta was started here, and there are numerous estates and co operatives, with the largest co-operative Settesoli, situated on the south east coast.
What Styles of Wine Are Produced in Sicily?
Sicily is a veritable treasure trove of wines, and makes some of the most innovative, and exciting wines in the world right now, across a wide variety of styles.
The western coast produces, fresh, vibrant, modern style whites, from blends of the native Grillo, Greganico or Catarrato, with Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and even Viognier. There are also elegant, complex single varietals, with some oaked wines. Nero d’avola dominates the reds, and again, as well as being used on its own, it blends well with Syrah, cabernet Sauvignon and merlot, to produce rich, berry fruit-packed, full flavoured reds, with intense flavours, yet an opulent, spicy softness and generosity which is characteristic of the Nero d’Avola. The main DOCs include Alcamo and Menfi (home of Sicily’s largest co-operative, Settesoli), Monreale and Salaparuta.
Etna – a region of high quality wines of all dry and red styles, but due to the climate and location, the focus is on livelier, fresher, higher acidity wines, with more elegance and balance, across both reds and whites. The further up the mountain slopes, the more delicate the grape varieties that can be planted, and Planeta, especially are trialling many new grape and blend options at present. One of the exciting new white grape varieties to emerge is the fragrant, elegant Carricante.
Marsala – a great tradition of Sicily, sales of which have slumped in the last 30 years, due both to changes in consumer styles of drinking and also to some poor quality and badly made wines appearing ( although new practices have now been put in place to redress this). The area of Marsala is as far west as Sicily goes, in an area directly facing the sea; the rich , fortified wines, are unique, and produced from the classic local grapes of Grillo, Catarrato, and Inzolia.
Moscato – the heat of the deep south and the far south-east is best suited to the production of sweet, intense dessert wines from the Moscato and the Malvasia grapes. The best known and most revered is undoubtedly Moscato di Pantelleria, deep amber in colour, almost burnt, salted caramel on the nose, and with a powerful, intense rich, raisiny sweetness. The island of Pantelleria is a tiny place, off the west coast of Sicily, mid distance between Sicily and Tunisia, with a very hot climate and has become an exclusive holiday destination for top celebrities in the last 10 years, due to its relative exclusivity and out of reach location. The wines are made from the Muscat of Alexandria, known locally as ‘zibibbo’, meaning ‘raisin’ in Arabic.
Grapes, Wine Styles & Food Matching
The main Sicilian grape varieties are as follows:
White Sicilian Grapes
Catarrato – the most widely planted grape in Sicily, covering over 50% of vineyard space. It’s the main grape used in Marsala, but is better known, as a fresh, peachy, citrus edged dry white when blended with Inzolia, Grillo, Greganico, or Chardonnay, since on its own, it can be fairly neutral.
Inzolia - another Sicilian native grape, with greater character and style than Catarrato; gently aromatic and floral, with a peachy, hazelnut character it also blends well with its other Sicilian white counterparts.
Grillo – growing in popularity as a stand alone wine, but also working well in a blend, the Grillo grape is characterised by its full character, and intense citrus style, with bold flavour and real vivacity.
Carricante – a rising star, this ancient grape variety is grown on the slopes of Mount Etna, and ripens slowly, therefore , with its naturally high acidity, it retains a greater intensity of fruit and aromas; it works well on its own, having a higher citrus and mineral content than most of its fellow white varieties, with zesty lemon, and hints of tangerine, mixed with a fresh herbaceous tang. It blends well with the broader style of Cataratto.
These white wines will change considerably in style, when blended across a range of different varieties, therefore it’s impossible to give very detailed advice about food matches. The main rule of thing is to pair the youngest, freshest, unoaked wines, with salads, fresh seafood, grilled fish, and chargrilled chicken style dishes, together with a host of fresh, ripe vegetable dishes.
The slightly more aromatic Inzolia and Grillo, depending on what they are blended with, work well with slightly spiced dishes ( Sicily uses a lot of chillies), from spaghetti alle vongole, through to chilli spiced roast chicken pieces, and mild Asian dishes; fresh goats cheese salad also works well, as does fruity couscous and vegetables – North african couscous is a very popular dish in western Sicily, due to the promixity of the African mainland.
The richer, Chardonnay dominant blends, and anything with oak is better served with richer, creamier dishes, such as salmon, chicken casserole, frittatas, and buttery roast chicken.
Red Sicilian Grapes
Nero d’Avola – the king red grape of Sicily, covering a great proportion of the island, in terms of production. This characterful grape has risen from the doldrums of being used as a blending wine, or a cheap , domestic red, to one of the real stars of Italy. It is often compared to the Syrah grape, with which it is often blended; rich, spicy, and aromatic, in its youth, it produces vibrant, plum and raspberry fruit flavours, whilst it can develop rich, dark chocolate and prune nuances as it ages. It’s a very versatile grape, with great character, and can also cope well with oak ageing.
Food wise, it matches superbly with roast lamb, chargrilled steak, spicy meatball pasta, spicy pizzas, tomato- based dishes, and roasted vegetables, sprinkled with chilli. It’s also great with mature parmesan or local southern cheeses.
Nerello Mascalese – the main red grape, grown in the Etna region, and well suited to the cooler climate of the hills; it makes very elegant, complex wines, with far fresher, livelier fruit than many of the grapes grown further down the valleys. It is characterised by a delicate, perfumed, almost violet- like aroma, with fresh berry flavours, and has been likened to a softer, aromatic version of the Nebbiolo grape from Piemonte – it works well with game, wild mushroom pasta dishes, and lighter styles of red meat dishes; it’s a red that can also cope with some spice and chillis, due to its lower tannins.