Seductive wines with ancient character.
Sicily has been making wine since before the Greeks colonized the island in 750 B.C. The region is a farmers’ wonderland, with roughly 300 days of abundant sunshine per year, temperate Mediterranean influences, island winds that blow from the four cardinal points to protect against frost and mildew, and one of the longest harvests on the planet (lasting more than 90 days, spanning one season to the next).
Yet until the 1980s, the island had been primarily known as an industrial producer of bulk wine and fortified Marsala. Some 90% of Sicily’s vineyards were planted to white varieties (mostly Trebbiano and Catarratto), largely in Trapani Province.
In 2012 that image of Sicilian wine seems as old as the Valley of the Temples. What characterizes the industry today is self-awareness, confidence and philosophical maturity. It is intellectually seductive. It has sex appeal.
The 1990s saw the so-called Sicilian Wine Renaissance, which marked a milestone shift from quantity to quality production. Aged, volume-producing vineyards were ripped out and replaced with vines trained on cordon trellises to reduce yields. More red and international varieties were introduced, and the acreage percentage devoted to white grapes dropped to 64%.
Consulting enologist Giacomo Tachis (“the father of Sassicaia”) was first to bring winemaking credibility to the island. Strong brands emerged, namely Tasca d’Almerita, Donnafugata and Planeta, which shifted the narrative to family, territory and grape.
“Sicilian producers proved they could be team players,” says Antonio Rallo of Donnafugata. He’s also the president of Assovini Sicilia, a vintners’ association with 66 members. “Under the extraordinary guidance of a group of luminary leaders, Sicily pulled its act together at a fortuitous moment when both consumers and critics were searching for exciting new territories to discover. They found Sicily.”
Wine as Territory
From 2000 to 2010, a trend celebrating indigenous varieties swept Italy. Suddenly, every forgotten corner of the peninsula claimed its own native or “traditional” grape with genetic distinctions that make it a unique expression of a specific geographic area. The poster grape for this trend is Sicily’s Nero d’Avola.
Today, Nero d’Avola is the island’s second most planted variety after Catarratto. “Like Sangiovese and Tuscany, or Malbec and Argentina, Nero d’Avola and Sicily are forever linked in the eyes of the consumer,” says Alessio Planeta, whose family business has five wineries and 10 vineyard holdings in Sicily.
So, how to characterize Sicily’s wine industry today? A wave of quality-minded boutique wineries has taken root. At the helm is a dynamic new generation of Web-savvy young men and women who speak several foreign languages and have studied international marketing or completed cellar apprenticeships in France, California and Australia.
Sicily’s historic wine dynasties have all recently passed the reins to their youngest members—a refreshingly equal balance of males and females.
This demographic shift is more pronounced than in any other Italian region. With 25 centuries of winemaking history, Sicily is finally coming of age. If Piedmont is storied tradition, Tuscany is nobility and the Veneto is power and versatility, Sicily is Italy’s land of innovation.
The Nitty on Nero d’Avola
Sicily’s flagship red grape is Nero d’Avola and it is planted all over the island. Although poorly vinified in the past, it has proven to be a reliable and expressive variety thanks to its plush notes of berry fruit, marzipan, pistachio and soft tannins. Not nearly as popular but worth mentioning are Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio; these make their home on Mount Etna and have an incredible capacity to absorb the volcano’s distinctive mineral aromas. Sicily is also home to international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Arguably the best Sicilian wines are blends of Nero d’Avola and one of these three grapes. Sicilian wine enthusiasts have a field day comparing and contrasting the blending possibilities: Nero d’Avola and Cabernet Sauvignon represents a marriage between tradition and power; Nero d’Avola and Merlot is extremely fruity and soft; and Nero d’Avola and Syrah share similar qualities once vinified, making them particularly compatible.
Sicily is also abundant with native white grapes such as Grillo, Insolia (also spelled Inzolia) and Catarratto (the first two were used to make fortified Marsala). These are vinified independently or are sometimes blended with Chardonnay for a creamier, richer effect. Zibibbo and aromatic Moscato are sun- and-wind-dried to make Sicily’s notoriously sweet dessert wines, or passitos.
One of the most important trends emerging in Sicilian winemaking may come as a surprise: the high number of organic, biodynamic and natural wines being produced.
“Our experience with organic farming in Sicily has produced higher quality fruit than traditional farming,” says Stefano Girelli, co-owner of Feudo di Santa Tresa in Vittoria.
“Agriculture is a historic bond that links all Sicilian families,” says Arianna Occhipinti (left), who at age 30 is one of Sicily’s youngest wine stars. “Luckily, this moment is driven by a strong sense of conscientiousness. Experimentation and curiosity are fundamental.”
From the Vittoria area, Occhipinti’s wines, under her own label, are biodynamic; the vines are farmed organically and fermentation takes place using indigenous yeasts.
“Thanks to our climate, Sicily is ‘organic’ by definition,” says Frank Cornelissen, who makes natural wines aged in clay amphorae on Mount Etna.
Besides climate, another ace up Sicily’s sleeve is biodiversity. With 19 classified native grape varieties, Sicily boasts a unique genetic patrimony. Island-wide, or “regional,” grapes are Catarratto, Inzolia and Nero d’Avola. But “local” grapes limited to pinpoint areas include Carricante (Etna), Frappato (Vittoria), Grillo (Palermo and Trapani), Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio (Etna) and Nocera (Faro).
“In addition to the ampelographic, biochemical and genetic work we are doing to protect our biodiversity, we have also launched a project to safeguard vitigni reliquia, or so-called antique varieties,” says Rallo. These grapes—Lucignola, Catanese Nera, Dunnuni and Tintorè, among others—were saved from extinction and are slowly being reintroduced for commercial viability.
Of course, Sicily is also home to many international varieties, with Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay showing impressive results.
Innovation in Sicily extends to energy, sustainability and savvy use of the Internet. Vintner Giacomo d’Alessandro installed 800-square meters of solar panels capable of producing 85 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy just four miles from Agrigento’s famed Temple of Concordia (built in 430 B.C.).
“Tasca d’Almerita and Planeta have started the SOStain project that certifies sustainable winegrowing,” says Alessio Planeta. “We are also working with the Italian Ministry of the Environment to study ways of reducing water and carbon footprints.”
Lastly, and perhaps due to the insular nature of island culture, Sicily has developed a keen relationship with the Internet. Barbera is arguably Sicily’s (maybe Italy’s) most prolific social media communicator. Sicily regularly nabs top prizes for Web site design.
Amidst the excitement and innovation, no project is more important to Sicily’s core identity than the mapping of its subzones. “Sicily is a continent of wine,” says Giuseppe Longo, managing director of Assovini Sicilia. “Within that continent, however, are pockets of unique climate, territory and altitude.”
Today, Sicily counts 22 DOC zones. It has one DOCG zone, Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Each of these subzones is focused on shaping a distinct identity expressed through grape variety, geography and branding.
In addition to media darling Mount Etna (see sidebar), a special nod goes to Faro (at the northern tip of the island near Messina) and the Nocera grape. Faro could well be Sicily’s next hot spot because of the elegance, complexity and longevity of its red wines. Noto, home to some of Sicily’s best Nero d’Avola, and Menfi, a garden of native and international varieties , are also worthy of praise.
“I like to say that Sicily is Italy’s Cinderella story,” says Vinzia Novara of Firriato, a Trapani winery producing wines from Nero d’Avola and Perricone, among others. He was also the first producer to plant vines on the island of Favignana. “We believed in ourselves, in our strengths, and we made miracles happen.”