Indigenous Grapes Create a New Era for Sicilian White Wine

From left to right: Cusumano 2019 Shamaris Grillo (Sicilia), Alessandro di Camporeale 2019 Vigna di Mandranova Grillo (Sicilia) and Feudo Maccari 2019 Olli Grillo (Sicilia) / Photo by Jens Johnson

Once infamous for producing insipid jug wines and for being Italy’s well of concentrated must used to beef up more delicate northern bottlings, sunny Sicily has shaken off its bulk-wine image. Thanks to widespread focus on native grapes, organic viticulture, vineyard site selection, lower yields and careful winemaking, the largest island in the Mediterranean is now one of the country’s most exciting wine producing areas.

Even though Sicily’s reds get most of the spotlight, its new generation of dry, radiant whites should be on every wine lover’s radar.

The region’s quality renaissance started tentatively in the 1980s, and really got going in the ’90s. Initially, it depended on pioneering plantings of international grapes like Chardonnay and Merlot. But in the region’s largely hot, dry climate—ideal for organic farming—these varieties often yielded big, one-dimensional wines that had little personality and were shy on freshness.

As consumers turned toward more elegant, food-friendly wines, Sicilian producers rediscovered the island’s indigenous grapes. These natives thrive in Sicily’s varied terroirs that range from the hot, arid plains in the west to the cool, high-altitude slopes of Mount Etna in the northeast.

The best among the white offerings are made with Grillo, Catarratto, Carricante, Inzolia, Zibibbo and Grecanico, and they range from savory and crisp to complex and surprisingly ageworthy. Most are now regulated under the islandwide Sicilia Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC).

“Sicilian whites display the island’s great diversity in terms of grapes, soils and climates,” says Antonio Rallo, president of the Sicilia DOC consortium and co-owner of Donnafugata. “From west to east, all Sicilian white wines show distinctive personalities.”

Other compelling whites are made in the Etna DOC and under the more flexible Terre Siciliane Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) designation. Here’s everything you need to know to discover Sicily’s stunning whites.

Grillo (pronounced GREE-lo)

A crossing of native grapes Catarratto and Moscato d’Alessandria (Zibibbo), Grillo was once used exclusively to produce Marsala, the island’s famous fortified wine. But by the 1960s, plantings declined as producers focused on more vigorous grapes.

Legendary Marsala producer Marco de Bartoli changed all that when he decided to vinify Grillo on its own as a dry wine in 1990, which was unheard of the time.

Thanks to de Bartoli’s success, other winemakers realized the variety’s potential for producing dry whites. Today, Grillo is one of the best-known Sicilian wines. Planted primarily in the Trapani area, on the westernmost tip of the island close to the sea, it’s also cultivated in the Agrigento and Palermo provinces.

Plantings have soared over the last several years. There were 16,000 acres registered to Grillo in 2014, a 180% increase from 2004. That number jumped to nearly 20,000 acres in 2019, according the Sicilia DOC Consorzio.

The crisp, savory wine has taken off beyond Italy, especially in the U.S., where it’s often poured by the glass at wine bars.

Versatile Grillo is made in a range of expressions. Lighter styles make a great aperitivo, thanks to floral aromas and tangy citrus flavors. More aromatic versions deliver passion fruit, grapefruit and herbal sensations reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc. Other times, lees contact and barrel aging create complex, mineral-driven wines with apple, peach and citrus flavors.

The best expressions hail from vineyards closest to the sea that impart pronounced saline mineral notes.

Location is key.

“It took us 10 years to find just the right terroir that would exalt Grillo’s qualities,” says Alberto Cusumano, co-owner with his brother, Diego, of the Cusumano winery, whose Shamaris Grillo is fragrant, savory and crisp. “We found it at Monte Pietroso and Castelluzzo, that have loose soils and are situated [nearly 1,000 feet] above sea level, where there’s a strong influence of sea air.”

Although serious Grillo is a relatively new phenomenon, the best show good midterm aging potential.

“Our 2013 Shamaris, tried recently, is really good at this stage, but we need more time to understand its full aging potential,” says Cusumano.

Alessandro di Camporeale 2019 Vigna di Mandranova Grillo (Sicilia); $25, 91 points. Aromas of tropical fruit, elderflower and crushed tomato vine lead the nose. Crisp and tangy, the racy palate offers juicy grapefruit, green melon and a briny note of sea salt alongside bright acidity. Panebianco.

Cusumano 2019 Shamaris Grillo (Sicilia); $22, 91 points. Aromas of honeysuckle, tropical fruit and Mediterranean herbs are front and center on this fragrant white. Crisp and savory, the tangy palate features pineapple, grapefruit and ripe yellow apple alongside a mineral vein of saline. Terlato Wines International.

Feudo Maccari 2019 Olli Grillo (Sicilia); $18, 90 points. Aromas of white stone fruit, hawthorn and sea breeze lift out of the glass on this crisp, elegant white. The tangy, savory palate features ripe pear, yellow apple and Mediterranean herbs before notes of citrus and saline close the finish. Kobrand.

From left to right: Tasca d’Almerita 2019 Tenuta Regaleali Antisa Catarratto (Sicilia), Caruso & Minini 2019 Naturalmente Bio Catarratto (Sicilia) and Gorghi Tondi 2019 Midor Catarratto (Sicilia)
From left to right: Tasca d’Almerita 2019 Tenuta Regaleali Antisa Catarratto (Sicilia), Caruso & Minini 2019 Naturalmente Bio Catarratto (Sicilia) and Gorghi Tondi 2019 Midor Catarratto (Sicilia) / Photo by Jens Johnson

Catarratto (pronounced KAH-tahr-RAT-toh)

The most planted grape in Sicily and the second-most-cultivated white grape in Italy, Catarratto can make fresh, soft, medium-bodied wines. While some sources and producers divide the variety into two  distinct types, Catarratto Bianco Comune and Catarratto Bianco Lucido, studies suggest they are actually clones of the same grape variety, often called Catarratto Bianco.

A number of local producers have started to refer to the latter simply as Lucido, with the backing of the Sicilia DOC consortium. According to Rallo, “Lucido is the synonym for Catarratto, and the historic name for this variety.”

A vigorous grape, it’s cultivated across the island, but it’s mainly concentrated in the Palermo, Trapani and Agrigento provinces. Considered one of Sicily’s most ancient varieties, DNA research has revealed that Catarratto has a parent–offspring relationship to Garganega, the northern flagship white grape of Soave fame.

Catarratto has often been described as making ordinary wines. In the past, it was used primarily as an ingredient in Marsala and to produce grape concentrate that raised sugar levels in wines from cooler climates.

Thanks to its relatively neutral flavor profile, mild acidity and moderate alcohol, Catarratto has long been used as a blending component in numerous Sicilian wines. In the Etna denomination, it’s sometimes used to add body and roundness to white wines that are otherwise crisp and linear.

These days, innovative winemakers take a new approach to Catarratto, proving that, in the right hands, this often-disregarded variety can make fresh, savory wines with good body. Techniques like skin maceration and aging for several months on the lees yield wines that boast aromas of spring flowers and intense citrus flavors that evoke lemons and orange zest. Many have a pleasantly bitter aftertaste reminiscent of almond and hazelnut.

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Tasca d’Almerita 2019 Tenuta Regaleali Antisa Catarratto (Sicilia); $22, 92 points. This delicious white shows the surprising potential of native grape Catarratto when grown and vinified with care and precision. Opening with delicate scents of spring blossom and grapefruit along with an inviting whiff of bread dough, the savory palate features white peach, green melon and a note of white almond. Crisp acidity and a tangy mineral note suggesting oyster shell give it a bright, mouthwatering close. LLS–Winebow. Editors’ Choice.

Gorghi Tondi 2019 Midor Catarratto (Sicilia); $18, 88 points. Aromas evoking elderflower, tropical fruit and botanical herb lead the nose. On the fun, light-bodied palate, tangy acidity accompanies grapefruit and mango before an almond close. Sheehan Brothers.

A photo of Planeta 2019 Bianco (Etna), Torre Mora 2019 Bianco (Etna) and Tornatore 2019 Bianco (Etna)
From left to right: Planeta 2019 Bianco (Etna), Torre Mora 2019 Bianco (Etna) and Tornatore 2019 Bianco (Etna) / Photo by Jens Johnson

Carricante (pronounced car-ree-KAAN-tey)

The epicenter of Sicily’s modern-day wine revival, Mount Etna turns out wines of breathtaking finesse and precision. Once a vinous backwater where the wines didn’t live up to their majestic setting, the last 20 years have ushered in a golden age for Etna’s classic offerings.

Pioneers like Andrea Franchetti, owner of Passopisciaro, Marc de Grazia of Terre Nere and Frank Cornelissen, arrived between 2000 and 2001, and they began to invest in serious winemaking and vineyard site selection. Today, top firms from across Sicily and Italy have descended on Mount Etna’s precipitous slopes.

Etna boasts intense sunlight, but it has twice the rainfall and cooler temperatures than the rest of the island. It also benefits from the highest vineyard altitudes in Sicily, which range from 1,300 feet to more than 3,900 feet above sea level. That elevation generates marked day-night temperature changes. In these dramatic conditions, underscored by volcanic soils of basalt pebbles, pumice and ash, Etna’s native grapes thrive.

Though most producers were drawn to Etna for its fragrant, glossy reds made with Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, more producers are discovering the allure of the denomination’s elegant, focused whites.

“I love their crystalline character that combines fruit and flinty mineral notes,” says Alessio Planeta, co-owner of Planeta Wine, which has estates across Sicily.

The queen of Etna’s whites, Carricante, can produce vibrant, mineral-driven wines that boast aromas and flavors like citrus blossom, Meyer lemon, white stone fruit and star anise alongside great acidity. Producers sometimes add other grapes to boost body, but more winemakers create varietal selections, like Torre Mora, part of the Tenute Piccini group. Until 2018, the estate’s Scalunera Bianco was a blend of Carricante and Catarratto.

“We decided to focus on Carricante,” says Mario Piccini, co-owner/CEO of Tenute Piccini. “The best wines made with this grape develop a unique aromatic profile, and are herby savory, with wonderful salinity thanks to the loose, volcanic soil. Catarratto works better in the calcareous soils of western Sicily, and [it] can add body and roundness, but we don’t want that here. Carricante on its own makes racy whites, with great aging potential.”

Planeta 2019 Bianco (Etna); $31, 94 points. Wild herb, cedar, citrus and Spanish broom aromas shape the enticing nose. Savory and elegant, the racy palate delivers ripe apple, Bartlett pear, Meyer lemon and thyme. Vibrant acidity and saline mineral notes lend compelling tension. Taub Family Selections. Editors’ Choice.

Torre Mora 2019 Bianco (Etna); $28, 93 points. Made with organically farmed Carricante grapes, this delicately scented white opens with scents reminiscent of white spring flowers, beeswax, pollen and pear. Linear and loaded with finesse and energy, the radiant palate doles out yellow apple, hazelnut and saline alongside vibrant acidity. 8 Vini, Inc. Editors’ Choice.

Tornatore 2019 Bianco (Etna); $35, 92 points. Delicate but alluring scents of yellow spring flower, white stone fruit and botanical herb waft out of the glass. Crisp and bone-dry, the elegant, linear palate has racy tension, offering Bartlett pear, Meyer lemon and a steely mineral tone alongside bright acidity. LUX Wines.

From left to right: COS 2018 Pithos Bianco (Terre Siciliane), Feudo Montoni 2019 Fornelli Inzolia (Sicilia) and Donnafugata 2019 Lighea Zibibbo (Sicilia)
From left to right: COS 2018 Pithos Bianco (Terre Siciliane), Feudo Montoni 2019 Fornelli Inzolia (Sicilia) and Donnafugata 2019 Lighea Zibibbo (Sicilia) / Photo by Jen Johnson

Zibibbo (Zee-BEE-boe), Inzolia (In-SOLE-eeah) and Grecanico (grek-A-NEE-koe)

Also called Moscato d’Alessandria, Zibibbo has been cultivated in Sicily since Phoenician times. It’s found namely in the Trapani province, which includes the island of Pantelleria.

In the past, it was consumed mainly as fresh table grapes or raisins. As a wine grape, it’s used traditionally for sweet, aromatic wines like Passito di Pantelleria.

Made with dried grapes, this celebrated dessert wine features aromas and flavors of honey, figs, nuts and dried apricots that are balanced by good acidity. Some firms like Donnafugata make dry versions that are crisp and highly aromatic. They boast aromas of citrus, yellow peach and white rose.

Inzolia, or Insolia, is another one of Sicily’s historic white grapes. It’s also found in coastal areas in Tuscany, where it’s known as Ansonica.

Traditionally one of the three key grapes for Marsala production, it’s often blended with Catarratto and Grillo in a number of Sicilian appellations. Known for its mild acidity, site selection and grapes harvested at ideal ripeness, but before acidity slumps, are crucial.

When made with precision, Inzolia on its own can yield bright wines with flavors of white stone fruit, salinity and a nutty aftertaste.

“Inzolia is considered the Cinderella of wine, often undervalued, so much so that it is difficult to find in purity, and is often blended with more aromatic grapes, like Chardonnay or Grillo,” says Fabio Sereci, owner of Feudo Montoni. “Our ‘Cinderella’ at Montoni, [almost 2,000 feet] above sea level, grows in clay and sandy soil, giving us a wine with a strong aromatic impact and a sensuality on the palate accompanied by strong acidity, due to vineyard altitude. It’s a Cinderella that becomes a princess.”

Late-ripening Grecanico (or Grecanico Dorato) is planted across Sicily. DNA testing carried out in 2003 and 2008 confirms that the variety is identical to northern Italy’s Garganega, the main grape found in Veneto’s Soave.

Wines produced with Grecanico feature floral aromas and apple, pear and lemony flavors. They can have soft textures energized by tangy acidity and savory saline notes.

Located in Vittoria in the east, COS’s Pithos Bianco is a fascinating expression. Fermented and aged in terracotta amphora, it’s dry and smooth, with apricot, honey and lemon drop notes. Thanks to notable acidity, top Grecanico wines can age for several years or more.

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Feudo Montoni 2019 Fornelli Inzolia (Sicilia); $23, 90 points. Lightly scented, this polished white opens with delicate aromas of spring blossom and white stone fruit. Made with organically farmed grapes, the bright, savory palate evokes apple and pear alongside tangy minerality and crisp acidity. Wilson Daniels Ltd.

Donnafugata 2019 Lighea Zibibbo (Sicilia); $22, 88 points. Aromas of white rose, grapefruit and tropical fruit carry over tangy palate along with ripe apricot and saline. Bright acidity keeps it refreshing. Folio Fine Wine Partners.

From left to right: Tasca d’Almerita 2018 Nozze d’Oro (Sicilia), Baglio del Cristo di Campobello 2019 Adenzia (Sicilia) and Feudo di Santa Tresa 2019 Rina Ianca (Sicilia)
From left to right: Tasca d’Almerita 2018 Nozze d’Oro (Sicilia), Baglio del Cristo di Campobello 2019 Adenzia (Sicilia) and Feudo di Santa Tresa 2019 Rina Ianca (Sicilia) / Photo by Jens Johnson

White Blends

Sicily’s native white grapes also make great blending partners with both indigenous and international varieties.

As with varietal wines, the island’s best white blends start in the vineyards, where each grape variety is harvested individually at optimum ripening and fermented separately. Styles range from light-bodied and vibrant to medium-bodied wines aged on their lees that show more depth.

Catarratto, Grillo and Inzolia make up the most common combination, while some producers add a dollop of Chardonnay for added richness and international appeal. Grillo and Inzolia mixtures are also popular and produce savory whites that offer intense citrus sensations offset by bright acidity and a rounded mouthfeel.

Innovative blends include Grillo and Viognier, which yield crisp, highly aromatic wines that evoke fragrant white flower, citrus, Mediterranean scrub and yellow stone fruit, joined by mouthwatering salinity. Tasca d’Almerita’s Nozze d’Oro is one of the island’s groundbreaking white blends. Made with Inzolia and a unique biotype of Sauvignon called Sauvignon Tasca, Count Giuseppe Tasca d’Almerita created the wine in 1984 and dedicated it to his wife to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

One of the island’s first serious whites, it possesses structure, fragrance and complexity. According to Alberto Tasca, the eighth generation to run the family firm, Sauvignon has been cultivated at Regaleali since at least the 19th century.

“Sauvignon Tasca is a biotype of Sauvignon Blanc that was already planted in Regaleali when my family bought the estate in 1830,” he says. “It imparts fresh acidity, while Inzolia imparts structure and with age, honeyed notes.”

This and other great offerings from around the island put to rest the stereotype that all Sicilian whites should be consumed immediately. Vertical tastings of Nozze d’Oro held at the winery have shown that it can age beautifully for a decade and longer, becoming more mineral-driven, but still focused and vibrant.

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Tasca d’Almerita 2018 Nozze d’Oro (Sicilia); $36, 93 points. Aromas of fragrant spring flower and white stone fruit with a delicate whiff of honey lift out of the glass. On the racy palate, vibrant acidity lends youthful tension to green melon, ginger and white pepper before a saline finish. Drink now, or hold for even more complexity. Drink through 2025. LLS–Winebow.

Baglio del Cristo di Campobello 2019 Adenzia (Sicilia); $26, 90 points. A blend of Grillo and Inzolia, this fragrant white opens with aromas of grapefruit and herbs along with a whiff of chamomile. The aromas follow through to the crisp, savory palate along with notes of tropical fruit and saline. Lyra Wine.

Feudo di Santa Tresa 2019 Rina Ianca (Sicilia); $16, 90 points. Made with organically farmed Grillo and Viognier, this crisp, savory white has aromas of fragrant spring flowers, citrus and crushed Mediterranean herbs. The racy palate doles out juicy grapefruit, yellow peach and a saline note alongside vibrant acidity. It closes on a hint of fennel seed. Vias Imports. Editors’ Choice.

Published on October 5, 2020
Topics: Italy