The largest of the Mediterranean Islands, Sicily is separated from the rest of Italy by the 2-½ mile Straits of Messina. Hot and dry on the coast, temperate and moist in the interior, 85% of Sicily is mountainous or hilly. The land’s archeological finds, slower pace (except the drivers); its vineyards, lemon, orange, almond and cherry trees and olive groves offer a proud heritage of sights and sensual experiences. The Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines and Normans all left their archaeological wonders and influences on the Island’s early history. Sicily is one large open-air museum.
The times, they are a-changing. Sicily is the second largest wine producer of Italy’s 20 regions, with almost half a million acres under vine. In the past, most of the Island’s production has been inexpensive jug wine, or wine sold in bulk. Much of the high alcohol wines were shipped to Northern Italy where they were blended with cooler climate wines to increase the alcohol content. Recently, the growers have come to realize that they can bottle their own wines and be proud of them. The unrelenting heat during harvest has been channeled by the use of night (cooler) harvesting and the transfer of the grapes directly to temperature-controlled stainless steel vats. In addition, more modern techniques in viticulture (the art of grape-growing, as distinguished from viniculture, the art of wine-making) coupled with the unique blending of local Sicilian grape varieties and international ones(Inzolia blended with Chardonnay; Nero d’Avola with Cabernet Sauvignon), has spawned a new industry.
The wines grown on the slopes of the world’s most active volcano (last eruption was June 2001); Mt. Etna is nourished by the volcanic ash terroir. The vines hug the slopes of the huge volcano and the area was the first to be designated by the then new Italian wine laws of 1968. The area around Catania and Taormina on the eastern coast produce approachable wines with names like: Etna Rosso, Bianco and Rosato. It is the center and western end of the Island from Agrigento to Marsala; Palermo to Casteldaccia and Vallelunga that has the wine world swirling and sipping.
Sicily’s warm, dry Mediterranean climate is best suited for growing red grape varieties. Nero d’Avola is a native variety that has both high acidity and aggressive tannins and makes wines suitable for drinking young or for long aging. Other red grapes used are Perricone and Nerello Mascalese and some Cabernet Sauvignon. White wines use Inzolia, Cataratto (the most planted grape), Grecanico and some Chardonnay.
Marsala is the most famous fortified wine of Italy (and Lord Nelson’s favorite) produced near the town of the same name. The volcanic soil gives Marsala an undertone similar to Madeira. It can be dry, semi-sweet or sweet. If the label reads Fine, it must be aged at least one year; Superiore on the label means it was aged for two years; Superiore Riserva- four years; Vergine Soleras- aged up to five years; Vergine Soleras Riserva- aged up to ten years. The later two are dry wines used as aperitifs. Unfortunately, only the sweet and dry varieties seem to be available in the US (a mistake). Other dessert wines include Malvasia delle Lipari, especially the Hauner brand, produced on the Isles of Lipari off the north coast. The Malvasia is made with techniques that have changed little over the centuries. The grapes are gathered when they are extremely ripe and then put out in the sun for 10 to 15 days on large mats before the fermentation begins. Moscato di Pantelleria, from the Muscat of Alexandria grape, is from the volcanic island of Pantelleria.
The following is a far from complete list of Sicily’s better wine producers. I sampled these wines while on a recent trip and most should be available in the US.
The largest and best-known winery on the island is Duca di Salaparuta, located just east of Palermo. The wines are sold under the Corvo label and production is over 900,000 cases. There was a recent transfer of ownership from the government (think about having the New Jersey legislature argue about the style of winemaking) to the private sector and boy has that improved the wine quality. Try their top of the line Duca Enrico red and Colomba Platino white. They have recently built a visitors center, museum and tasting room. The same company also owns the Florio Marsala and Amaretto di Saronno brands.
Another coupling was Rallo Marsala (recently sold) and Donnafugata whose viticulture roots go back 150 years. Try their white Anthilia, Chiaranda or Tancredi, a Nero d’Avola and Cabernet Sauvignon blend that won top honors at the 2002 Paris wine competition. Lombardo Marsala has been in the same family for over 120 years and has been my favorite cooking and sipping Masala for years. Planeta is located along the southwest coast and is youthful both in age of the winery (less than 10 years) and the owners (under 35 years of age). Try their Santa Cecilia from the Nero d’Avola and Burdes from Cabernet Sauvignon; their Chardonnay 2000, made in the high alcohol California style, was ranked 19th in the Wine Spectator 2002 list of its top 100 wines. Morgante is located in Agrigento and their Don Antonio is made from the Nero d’Avola, Sicily’s most important red varietals and aged one year in oak. Tasca d’Almerita’s Regaleali estate is in the mountainous central area (a bit of a tricky drive). It is in a micro-climate on mountain slopes up to 2,000 feet and the cool nighttime keeps the acidity high. Their pride is Rosso Del Conte (90% Nero d’Avola). Palari’s vineyards overlook the Straights of Messina. The grapes are handpicked and aged in French Oak for 12 to 18 months. They are both unfined and unfiltered; the Faro red was my favorite. Benanti was the brand from the Etna region that I found at my hotel in Taormina. Their Rovittello uses 80% Nerello Mascalese fruit, from 80-year-old vines, planted at 3,650 feet above sea level.
Just the fact that I had these wonderful wines to enjoy both in Sicily and back in the United States proves that Sicily has arrived as a quality producer. But the best is yet to come; enjoy the journey.