By W Peter Hoyne
Sicilia, or as most refer to it as Sicily, is an undiscovered paradise with countless hidden treasures of wines and grape varietals that are piquing the curiosity of consumers. According to a recent US Wine Survey by Colangelo & Partners “by a margin of two to one, respondents voted Sicily as the next hot wine region.” This secluded island offers a wealth of affordable pleasures spread throughout 24 wine growing terrains. In addition to Sicily being the largest island in the Mediterranean with 9,800 square miles of land, it retains the status as the largest wine growing region in all of Italy with nearly 242,000 acres of vineyards, 7,902 winegrowers and 530 wineries.
Situated at the tip of Italy’s geographic boot, the majority of Sicily is composed of rolling hills and mountainous slopes with a modest covering of flat land. Elevations can exceed 11,000 feet near Mt Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano. The sub-soils in Sicily range from dark volcanic material to mineral rich limestone and sandy clay. The combination of varying elevations, native grapes, soils and progressive approaches to quality winemaking account for the broad diversity of wines. There are over 100 indigenous grape varietals throughout Sicily along with the international varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah, which were introduced in the 1970’s. The three main indigenous red grapes are Nero d’Avola, Frappato and Nerello Mascalese, which are grown primarily in the volcanic soils near Mt. Etna. The dominant indigenous white grapes include Cataratto, Grillo, Carricante and Inzolia. International grapes can be blended with indigenous grapes to create a distinctive style of wine.
Grillo’s captivate your senses with a variety of fresh floral aromas backed by tropical underpinnings and a swath of elegant acidity. The diverse white wines of Sicily may be one of their greatest strengths.
Sicily is gifted with an abundance of sunshine, graced with arid weather, sufficient rainfall and a Mediterranean climate making it ideally suited for grape growing. The arid conditions reduce the likelihood of diseases such as mildew and rot while vineyards near coastal areas benefit from sea breezes reducing infestations by pests. As standards and quality have improved, 30% of the growers today pursue organic farming and sustainability in the vineyards.
Sicily’s strategic position in the Mediterranean and lush landscape brought the colonization of diverse civilizations. It became a melting pot of cultures with the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and the Normans all claiming rights to the island. Grape growing had commenced with the Phoenicians introducing the first wines in western Sicily. Afterwards, the Greeks arrived on the eastern shores in the 8th century BC. The Greeks introduced new viticultural techniques with pruning, bush training and varietal selection. By the third century BC, Sicily became a Roman province for 600 years as the Romans graced their table with Sicilian wines and new varietals which had become the favorite of Julius Caesar. Agriculture flourished under the Spaniards and Normans with a broader recognition of Sicilian wines.
In 1773, a British merchant, John Woodhouse introduced a fortified wine called Marsala to the market. After landing in the western town of Marsala on a voyage back to London, Woodhouse purchased barrels of Sicilian wines. He added a neutral brandy to them, similar to the process used to fortify wines of port and sherry, to preserve the wines during the long voyage home. It was embraced by the British and their naval fleet while becoming the first Italian wine to be exported to America. Thomas Jefferson was known to indulge in this beverage.
A renaissance occurred in the 1990’s as many of the Sicilian wine growers drifted away from the production of bulk wine for the European market in favor of higher quality wines. This trend especially took hold in the vineyard plantings near Mt. Etna. In 2011 winemakers created the Consorzio di Tutela Vini DOC Sicilia to promote quality Sicilian wines, especially those with a DOC designation, and to protect their good name.
Today, Sicily has, 23 DOCs regions (Denomination of Controlled Origin) and 1 DOCG region (Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin), which were established in 2005. Only the wines from the region of Cerasuolo di Vittorio DOCG have Sicily’s highest quality rating. Cerasuolo means “cherry-like’ in Italian as these red wines are a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frapatto exhibiting a delicate red ruby appearance with notes of bright berry fruits.
One of the most noteworthy regions of Sicily is Etna DOC, situated in the northeastern corner of the island on the slopes of Mount Etna. The higher mountainous regions of Sicily have a cool Continental climate with many mesoclimates and soils of black volcanic matter. The grapes are grown at elevations between 1,000 – 3,500 feet above sea level. These wines differ by their elevation, lava flow, slopes and sun exposure. Some of the whites have been described as “liquid stones” because of their mineral-rich content and aromatic acids.
The red wines from this region are recognized as Etna Rosso and must contain at least 80% Nerello Mascalese grapes with 10% of Nerello Cappuccio. These reds can be complex with red berry spice and savory notes. The whites are known as Etna Biancos and must be composed of at least 60% Carricante grapes. Their flavor profile is an expression of white citrus, minerality and fresh acidity. In addition, there is also Etna Rosato.
Throughout Sicily there is a wealth of captivating wine styles to explore, built around the natural beauty of this island. Sicily’s DOC wines are a composite of flavors from native indigenous and international grapes offering a new horizon for wine consumers at affordable prices.