According to myth, it is Dionysus who brought the vine to Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean and largest region of Italy. Over the centuries, the Island of the Three Capes has been settled or controlled by, among others, the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Spanish. Traces of this rich and unique heritage are still evident in the local dialects, architectures, and gastronomies. Caesar’s favourite wine was Mamertine, from the area of Messina, not least because the Mamertines (‘sons of Mars’) had played a big part in the eventual defeat of Carthage. In Palermo’s archaeological museum, I admired a 2nd century stone sarcophagus in the shape of a lenòs, or tank for treading grapes.
Sicily offers close to ideal conditions for viticulture, with a varied and often rugged terrain, and hot, dry, sun-drenched summers. In the 20th century, this led to some very high yields, which have been dramatically curtailed by an increasing number of quality-conscious producers. In the last three decades, Sicily has morphed from bulk producer into one of Europe’s most distinct, intricate, and vibrant wine regions. This year, Angelo Gaja himself purchased 21ha on Etna. Although there are more than 20 Sicilian DOCs, many are rarely seen, especially on the export market. Outside certain pockets such as Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Etna, Marsala, and Pantelleria, most wine is labelled Sicilia DOC or the more versatile IGP Terre Siciliane, which cover the entire region.
The most notable black grape varieties in Sicily are the indigenous Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese. Nero d’Avola originated in the southeast but has spread out to become Sicily’s signature variety. More substantial examples are compared to New World Shiraz, dark and full-bodied with fine tannins and notes of plum, mulberry, and chocolate. Leading examples such as Milazzo’s Duca di Montalbo, Feudo Montoni’s Vrucara (pictured above), and Planeta’s Santa Cecilia are balanced, complex, and long-lived, and much in the same league as Taurasi and Aglianico del Vulture.
In the southeastern region of Vittoria, Nero d’Avola is blended with the delicate and aromatic Frappato (30-50% of the blend) to produce Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Sicily’s only DOCG. Cerasuolo means ‘cherry-like’, and the blend can be reminiscent of quality Beaujolais. COS is a top producer of Cerasuolo, and also crafts the blend in amphorae, resulting in a fresher, more persistent style.
Nerello Mascalese is indigenous to Mount Etna. May is a good time to visit: in contrast to the rest of Sicily, which is more or less calcareous, the slopes of the smoking volcano are black with fertility, creating an ideal backdrop for genista, euphorbia, and other bright blooms. The most notable viticultural agglomeration, with its north-facing slopes and sealed-off continental climate, is the Northern Valley, across the villages of Randazzo, Passopisciaro, and Castiglione di Sicilia. The terroir is divided into named areas, or contrade, such as Feudo di Mezzo, Guardiola, and Calderara Sottana, defined by such factors as elevation, aspect, and—this being Etna—lava type. Some contrade, such as Rampante at 1,000m, are, perversely, too altitudinous to claim the DOC. Pockets of old bush (albarello) vines are highly sought-after, despite the expense of rehabilitating, farming, and maintaining stone terraces. The Etna DOC calls for Nerello Mascalese, sometimes in a blend with the rustic Nerello Cappuccio. The wines are fresh, delicate, and mineral, inviting comparisons with Burgundy or Barolo. Despite later harvests, crus from the Northern Valley are more herbal and structured than those from the south, which are broader and spicier. Comparing Nerello Mascalese to Pinot Noir, both from the same Etna producer, the Pinot Noir was fuller with more blue fruit but less earthy spice.
Etna bianco calls for Carricante, sometimes in a blend with other grapes, especially Catarratto. Carricante can be reminiscent of Chablis in its acidity, minerality, and texture, but with more mandarin than lemon and an herbal note. Benanti’s Pietramarina, a 100% Carricante from the eastern village of Milo (the only village that can claim the superiore), is one of Italy’s few age-worthy white wines.
Faro DOC, produced to the north in the calcareous hills overlooking the Strait of Messina, is a similar blend to Etna DOC, but also includes the indigenous Nocera, which contributes acidity. From the vineyards above Faro Superiore (superhuman driving skills required), you can, on a clear day, just about make out the Aeolian Islands, which are noted for Malvasia delle Lipari DOC, especially the passito, which Guy de Maupassant called a sirop de soufre … le vin du diable.
In terms of volume, the west of Sicily is much more important than the east, and, like Sicily as a whole, dominated by white wines. Catarratto, the principal variety, is one of the ten fortified marsala grapes (although high-end producers prefer the traditional Grillo and Inzolia), and also the major component of Bianco d’Alcamo DOC. Most Catarratto is bland and blousy, but, with strict yield control and skilful winemaking, examples from higher slopes can be crisp and mineral with notes of lemon and flowers or herbs. Two notable producers in Marsala are Marco de Bartoli and Nino Barraco, who champion the unfortified, unsweetened ‘Marsalas’ that were being made before the arrival, in the late 18th century, of English wine merchant John Woodhouse.
Wine is also made in the centre of Sicily, in all sorts of styles. G. Milazzo in the area of Agrigento even makes hand-riddled traditional method sparkling Chardonnay: the top Federico II cuvée spends seven years on lees, and, despite the heat, wins medal upon medal. Across Sicily, there is a secondary focus on international varieties such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and especially Syrah, which is well suited to the Sicilian climate. These international varieties played an important role in attracting attention to Sicily as a quality producer, but are now somewhat less fashionable. Blending, including between indigenous and international varieties, is common practice.
Moscato and Malvasia are made into passitos all over Sicily, but the most notable passitos, Moscato di Pantelleria DOC and Malvasia delle Lipari DOC, are made on outlying islands. Moscato di Pantelleria is made from Zibbibo (Muscat of Alexandria) on Pantelleria (the name derives from the Arabic Bent el-Rhia, ‘daughter of the wind’), 60km east of the Tunisian coast. Some of the best examples are Donnafugata’s Ben Ryé and Marco de Bartoli’s Bukkuram and exquisite Padre de la Vigna.
Favourite producers are Marco de Bartoli (Marsala and Pantelleria), Nino Barraco (Marsala), Feudo Montoni (Centre), and Tenuta di Fessina (Etna). Other top producers include, on the smaller side, Bonavita (Faro), Benanti, Calabretta, Frank Cornelissen, Girolamo Russo, Passopisciaro, and Terre Nere (the latter six all on Etna); and, on the larger side, COS, Cusumano, Donnafugata, Milazzo, Morgante, Planeta, and Tasca d’Almerita. COS, Milazzo, and Morgante are in the centre of Sicily, while Cusumano, Donnafugata, Planeta, and Tasca d’Almerita are more or less pan-Sicilian.
Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting