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According to legend, it was Dionysus (aka Bacchus) who brought pleasure to mankind, and wine to Sicily.
Legend aside, it is certain that wine has been made in Sicily for millennia. There is evidence that Mycenaean traders cultivated grapes in the Aeolian Islands as early at 1,500 BC and when the Greeks began to settle in Sicily in the 8th century BC, they too were unable to forgo their favourite libation, "oinos", and introduced several varieties of vines.
The next significant date in Sicilian wine history is 1773, the year John Woodhouse began producing what destined to become one of the island's best loved products: Marsala.
Woodhouse understood immediately that the decent local wine could be transformed, using in perpetuum techniques (similar to the solera system used to make sherry), which, through the addition of alcohol, would not only fortify the wine but also help it survive the sea journey back to England in tact. It was an instant success with the British, and other entrepreneurs, such as Ingham and Whitaker, soon hurried out to exploit the wine's popularity.
Sicily is a wine-lover's paradise, such is the variety, complexity and abundance of Bacchus' unique gift!
Towards the end of the 19th century, the English dominion in Marsala-making was brought to an end by the arrival of Vincenzo Florio, one of Italy's first tycoons, who bought up much of the land around Marsala. Cantine Florio, though in different hands today, remains one of the best producers of Marsala and a visit of their enormous barrel-filled winery is recommended.
For most of the 20th century, Sicily continued to produce enormous quantities of grapes, most of which, however, were exported to be added to wine made elsewhere in Italy.
Over the last 30 years, however, Sicily's wine culture has changed dramatically, as the many international prizes won by Sicilian producers confirm. Some of Italy’s finest wines are now being made in Sicily, and a new generation of Sicilian producers are realising the full potential of the island’s enviable climate, its autochthonous grape varieties and its fertile soil. At the same time, prestigious winemakers from around the world are buying land, planting vines and creating fabulous wines, particularly on Mount Etna, which has been nicknamed the new Bourgogne.
Another aspect of Sicily's viticultural evolution regards the increase in the number of producers making organic, bio-dynamic and natural wines, many of which have already gained international recognition.
The ecological aspects of winemaking are also close to the hearts of Sicilian producers. Since 2010, Planeta and Tasca d'Almerita have been at the heart of SOStain, an Italian scientific research programme into viticultural sustainability. Other producers have joined the scheme over the years and Sicily is now a leader in ecological winemaking.
The Mediterranean's largest island is a wine-lover's paradise. The variety, complexity and abundance of Bacchus' unique gift is astonishing and most definitely to be explored! Here's a brief guide to Sicilian wine:
To DOC or not to DOC
There are 23 DOC (Denominazioni di Origine Controllata) areas in Sicily:
Alcamo - Contea di Sclafani - Contessa Entellina - Delia Nivolelli - Eloro - Erice - Etna - Faro - Malvasia delle Lipari - Mamertino di Milazzo - Marsala - Menfi - Monreale - Moscato di Noto - Moscato di Pantelleria - Passito di Pantelleria - Moscato di Siracusa - Riesi - Salaparuta - Sambuca di Sicilia - Santa Margherita di Belice - Sciacca - Vittoria
... and one DOCG (Denominazioni di Origine Controllata e Garantita) area: Cerasuolo di Vittoria.
Area-specific DOC(G) wines only account for a small proportion of Sicily’s overall wine production, however. This is partly due to the institution of a regional, umbrella denomination - DOC Sicilia - in 2011, and partly due to the fact that most winemakers in Sicily also like to work outside the strict parameters of DOC(G) regulations (both area-specific and regional). This means that you shouldn’t necessarily consider wines labelled IGT Terre Siciliane (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) to be in any way inferior: on the contrary, if they’ve been made by a quality producer, they'll most likely be a fascinating personal expression of a master winemaker.
Red grape varieties
Indigenous red grapes
Arguably the most important red grape variety in Sicily, Nero d’Avola is grown all over the island. It is used both in purezza and with other varieties, notably with Frappato (to make Cerasuolo di Vittoria), and with Syrah. 100% Nero d’Avola wines generally have a dark ruby colour, juicy berry fragrances (particularly strawberry and cherry) and spicy, chocolaty aromas that can tend towards liquorice. To the taste they're full-bodied, with a fine balance between fruitiness and peppery spice, and good levels of acidity and tannins.
Traditionally cultivated to complement Nero d’Avola in Cerasuolo di Vittoria wines, Frappato is almost uniquely grown in the southeast of Sicily. In more recent times, however, winemakers have been producing excellent 100% Frappato wines. These have a ruby-violet colour that is complemented by aromas of red berries and violets. To the taste, they're gently spiced with a pleasantly acidic, slightly zingy fruitiness, redolent of rhubarb and young cherries.
Mount Etna’s red grape par excellence, Nerello Mascalese is the main constituent of Etna Rosso DOC wines and most other red wines produced on the volcano. Nerello Mascalese wines generally have quite a light red colour and release aromas of red fruit, exotic spices (cinnamon and star anise), dried herbs and minerals. These elements follow through into the taste, where the fruitiness is balanced by a distinct mineral salinity (thanks to the lava soils and the breezes from the Ionian Sea). For many people, Nerello Mascalese wines evoke fine Pinot Noirs from Burgundy.
Used alone to make strong, full-bodied wines or, occasionally, as a blending grape, Perricone is cultivated predominantly in western Sicily. 100% Perricone wines are dark ruby red with purplish hints. When decanted, they emit aromas of bramble fruit balanced by a peppery earthiness. To the taste, Perricones are well-structured and velvety with plenty of fruit and a relatively high alcohol content.
Nerello Cappuccio is grown on Mount Etna and in the mountains south of Messina. Traditionally, it has been used as a minor blending partner (max. 20%) for Nerello Mascalese in the production of Etna Rosso DOC and other red or rosé Etna wines. It is also used in minor quantities in Faro DOC wines just up the coast. An increasing number of winemakers are beginning to explore the potential of Nerello Cappuccio in single varietal wines, with some very positive results.
Cultivated in small quantities around Milazzo and Messina, Nocera is mainly blended with Nero d'Avola to produce Mamertino, and with Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio and others to make Faro DOC wines.
Non-Sicilian red grapes
The most important non-Sicilian red grape grown on the island is Syrah (Shiraz), a variety that flourishes in Sicily’s hot, dry climate. It is mostly used on its own to produce robust, peppery wines, but is also combined with other grapes, particularly Nero d’Avola.
Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are also very much at home in Sicily and are used on their own or blended, often with Nero d’Avola or with each other. Pinot Noir, meanwhile, is increasingly cultivated on Mount Etna to produce single varietal wines of great interest.
White grape varieties
Indigenous white grapes
One of western Sicily’s big three white grapes, Grillo is used on its own or blended with other varieties, most famously with Inzolia, Catarratto and Damaschino to produce Marsala. 100% Grillo wines are elegant, refreshing and fruity to the nose. To the taste, they are slightly acidic, vibrant with white melon, grapefruit and green apple, but rounded with pineapple.
The second of western Sicily’s big three white grapes, Inzolia is used for both single varietal wines and blends (including, as mentioned above, Marsala). 100% Inzolia wines have an attractive straw-yellow colour with verdant hues. To the nose, there are floral aromas, fruity elements and a nutty, herbaceous softness. In the mouth, it is a soft, agreeable wine with an elegant minerality.
Catarratto is western Sicily’s third great white grape. It is generally used as a blending grape, as its gentle aroma and flavour profiles provide a good balance to the more pronounced characteristics of other Sicilian varieties. Although predominantly used in the west (in Marsala, for example), it is also frequently added to Carricante to produce Etna Bianco DOC wines.
All Etna Bianco DOC wines contain at least 60% Carricante (this minimum rises to 80% for Etna Bianco Superiore DOC). Carricante also produces a great Champagne-method Brut. 100% Carricante wines generally have a pale golden hue with green flashes, while to the nose they brim with fruitiness and floral aromatics. In the mouth, meanwhile, they are a complex mix of citrus fruit, green apple, aniseed and herbs, all rounded off with a moreish minerality that betrays their volcanic origins.
Grecanico is an ancient variety that is making something of a comeback, particularly as one part of a double-act with Sauvignon Blanc.
The offshoot of the ancient Muscat of Alexandria, Zibibbo was introduced to Sicily by the Arabs over 1,000 years ago. Most commonly, Zibibbo grapes are dried in the sun to concentrate their sugar content and then transformed into honeyed dessert wines, the most famous and prestigious of which is Passito di Pantelleria.
Another Muscat varietal, Moscato Bianco is mainly grown in the southeast of Sicily, where it is used in purezza to produce Moscato di Noto DOC, a harmonious, refined dessert wine.
Traditionally, Malvasia Bianca is combined with about 5% Corinto Nero to produce the pride of the Aeolian Islands, Malvasia delle Lipari. Shakespeare referred to this golden, bronzed delight as Malmsey in Loves Labours Lost, and legend has it that George, Duke of Clarence (the brother of King Edward IV of England) was drowned in a butt of it. Malmsey was also well known to Nelson’s sailors. It is indubitably of far greater quality today!
Non-Sicilian white grapes
Of the non-indigenous white grape varietals grown in Sicily, Chardonnay, Fiano, Müller-Thurgau and Viognier are perhaps the most diffuse. Sauvignon Blanc is also present in some areas, while on Mount Etna, a few producers have begun creating excellent quality Reislings.
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