Posted on July 5th, 2012
There’s nothing like standing on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily to make you feel mortal. The active volcano, regularly crowned by a halo of vapour, is considered ‘young’ by scientists, but is actually 500,000 years old. What’s more it’s still evolving: growing by 10 metres a year and gradually shifting to the west.
If you were looking for a metaphor to describe the Sicilian wine industry, you could do worse than Etna. It, too, has its roots in history – the Greeks and the Romans both rated the vino produced here – but is in its infancy as far as fine wine is concerned. Sicily has a couple of “historic” wine styles – the fortified wines of Marsala and the sweet Muscats from Pantelleria – but that’s about it.
Until the 1980s, Sicily was dismissed, even in Italy, as a faucet pouring a never-ending stream of cheap plonk into the European wine lake. The wines, dubbed “bianco carta” (white paper) because of their lack of personality were some of the least distinguished in Europe: thin, over-cropped brews made from dull grapes like Trebbiano and Catarratto.
To a certain extent that’s still true. Sicily is the largest wine region in Italy and still churns out a lot of highly forgettable wines, but that’s only part of the story. In the last 30 years, a handful of winemakers have been on a mission to change the island’s image. It’s no exaggeration to say that, almost from nowhere, Sicily has become one of the most exciting wine regions in the world.
The potential was always there, to be honest. Sicilians knew how to grow good grapes when they had to. It’s just that there wasn’t much incentive to do so if the price of the resulting wines didn’t make the effort worthwhile. In Sicily, there are always other things to do: go to the beach, eat well, or just sit in the sun.
The climate, or rather climates, is well suited to grapes. It’s a remarkable (and little known) fact that the harvest in Sicily last for up to three months, beginning in Trapani region on the west coast and ending on Etna in the north-east. As a result, Sicily has been described as Italy’s New World, a place where almost every grape feels at home. The place can do passable counterfeits of almost every wine style.
“There’s nothing like standing on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily to make you feel mortal”
The problem with growing a bit of everything, from Pinot Grigio to Viognier, Merlot to Syrah, is that it has obscured the quality of Sicily’s indigenous grapes, which can be truly wonderful. There are a number of these, but I’d recommend you look out for five of them: Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese and Frappato among the reds and Grillo and Caricante among the whites.
They are very different in character. Nero d’Avola makes structured, deeply coloured reds and is grown all over the island. Nerello Mascalese is paler, but with a tannic kick, like Nebbiolo, the grape of Barolo, and is pretty much confined to Mount Etna, as is Caricante, a source of minerally, stony whites. Frappato is more like Gamay, the grape of Beaujolais, and is mostly produced in Vittoria, where it is used with Nero d’Avola in the blend for Sicily’s top red wine, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, while Grillo (used to make fortified Marsala in the west of Sicily) also turns its hand to salty, dry whites.
Sicily has a lot of DOCs (Italian appellations), but most of them aren’t worth remembering. Aside from Etna, Marsala, Pantelleria and Cerasuolo di Vittoria (the island’s only Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), they are little known, even in Sicily. Better to look out for wines labeled as IGT Sicilia (which allows producers greater freedom) or for the new catch-all DOC Sicilia, which will be introduced for the 2012 vintage.
What really matters here – as in Burgundy – is not the appellation, but the producer. The ones that I’d recommend, in alphabetical order, are Abbazia Sant’Anastasia, Benanti, Ceuso, COS, Corvo (Duca di Salaparuta), Cottanera, Cusumano, De Bartoli, Donnafugata, Feudo Montoni, Firriato, Florio, Frank Cornelissen, Gulfi, Il Cantante, Morgante, Occhipinti, Palari, Passopisciaro, Planeta, Sangue d’Oro, Regaleali, Tenuta di Fessina and Valle dell’Acate.
“The most exciting thing about Sicily’s wine revolution is that it has barely begun. In the space of 30 years, the island has joined the list of the best wine regions in the south of Italy, but there is so much more to come”
The best way to taste Sicilian wines – and this applies to most wine regions, but especially one as varied as this – is to visit the place. If you’re driving around, which is preferable to taking the train, allow plenty of time as Sicily has a lot of poor, bumpy roads. The major wine areas are situated all over the island, from Etna and Syracuse in the east to Trapani and Marsala in the west and Agrigento and Ragusa in the south, so it will take you a week to visit all of them.
The journey is worth the effort. Sicily is a place of remarkable natural beauty: forests, beaches, parks, golden wheat fields and, of course, Mount Etna. Avoid the cities of Palermo and Trapani and the place feels almost empty. The biggest island in the Mediterranean is home to 5m Sicilians, but that leaves a lot of space for visitors. And for fans of antiquity and architecture, Sicily has some of the best-preserved churches, castles and Greek and Roman ruins in Europe.
Sicily’s food is another draw. Over the centuries, it has been influenced by a remarkable range of cultures, including Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman, German and Spanish. That heady cuvee is reflected in the quality, abundance and variety of Sicily’s cuisine. It includes such Mediterranean staples as wheat, olive oil, tomatoes, figs and fish, but has a flavour and a range of ingredients that are all its own. Don’t’ miss out, in particular, on the desserts.
The most exciting thing about Sicily’s wine revolution is that it has barely begun. In the space of 30 years, the island has joined the list of the best wine regions in the south of Italy, but there is so much more to come. Like Mount Etna, it’s a work in progress, shifting by the year and still remarkably young.