by Don Clemens
I really love so many Italian wines. But it seems that most wine lists and wine shops like to stay in the
northern regions, such as Tuscany, Piedmont, and Friuli. Begrudgingly (it almost seems), some are
awakening to the burgeoning, high quality wines coming from the southern regions of Italy, especially
Sicily. And, as tourism to this island of volcanoes and amazing history grows, more and more people get
a chance to appreciate the diverse food and wine that this “gateway island” offers.
A lot of Sicily’s charm comes from the openness of its citizenry. This vignette from “Vino Italiano: The
Regional Wines of Italy” by Joe Bastianich and David Lynch, reminded me of several occasions that I
experienced while touring around another very busy place: Rome.
“Under a wicked August sun, Ignazio pilots his big BMW through a snarl of cars and
motor scooters in downtown Palermo, one hand on the wheel and the other wrapped
congenially around the passenger seat. As driving challenges go, Palermo may be second only to
Naples in sheer chaos. But to Ignazio the near misses and tight squeezes of the
ancient palm-lined streets are mere breaks in the conversation. When you’re a Sicilian’s
guest you don’twant for anything, least of all attention. Why would a little thing like life-threatening traffic
keep him from looking us in the eyes when he speaks to us?
You sometimes see this kind of automotive artistry in New York cabbies, but they don’t
have Ignazio’s flair: Puffing on a conical-shaped toscano cigar, his wild halo of silver curls
flapping in the breeze, he has gotten onto the subject of Sicilian ice cream, for which his hands
must occasionally abandon the wheel to make his point properly.”
This reminiscence seemed appropriate to me; my experiences with guys with close Sicilian ties would
back up this encounter. Oh well, on to the wines of Sicily.
In the last few decades, Sicily has gained new strength in terms of both the quantity and quality of its
vineyards. New appellations, emerging new and rediscovered grape varieties, and greatly improved
marketing have all made their marks upon the wine world.
In the last few decades of the last century, there were only a few Sicilian wines that were in the general
market. There was, of course, Marsala, which was actually “invented” by an English merchant, John
Woodhouse, who was looking for something to replace the “clarets”, of which the English public had
become so fond. The War of the Spanish Succession had managed to put Britain on the opposite side
from France. This was the era that Sherries, Madeiras, and Ports became established.
Sicily’s Marsala had become a world-class wine. Unfortunately, the rest of the wines made there were
pretty much plonk. In 1946, Italy became a republic, which changed the entire picture of profit sharing
for farmworkers. For murky historic reasons, farmworkers in Sicily did not follow the same direction as
those on the agricultural lands in Italy’s northern regions, where farming was done under what we call
“sharecropping”. Instead, Sicily was, even after the government had been allocating property to farmers
throughout the whole country during agrarian reforms in the 1950’s, still locked into a system of selling
their produce to the large Marsala houses or joining a cooperative winery, or cantina sociale. In
addition, unlike their counterparts in the rest of Italy at this time, these new landowning farmers had
the mafia to contend with. Unfortunately, the agrarian reforms attempted by the government didn’t
lead to success in most cases. The redistributed parcels of land weren’t large enough to support
individual farmers. Recognizing the failed reform, the government decided to subsidize the creation of
cooperatives. With money from the government, and ever-increasing investment from the
European Community, the expanding numbers of cooperatives basically became pumping stations for
bulk wines to be sent to the north, and particularly to France (whose winemakers needed a replacement
for the bulk wines that they used to import blending wines from Algeria, which declared its
independence from France in 1962). Many wine drinkers “of a certain age” will remember the wines
from Corvo (as in “Duca di Salaparuta”) and Regaleali (from the Conte Tasca d’Almerita estate in
Vallelunga). These brands really dominated the marketing of Sicilian wines.
It took until the late 1990’s and early 2000’s for the real change to take place for Sicily’s winemaking to
be noticed on the world stage, as independent growers/winemakers began to make an impact.
Enough of the “history lesson” already! What about the grapes? What’s making that impact?
Sicily’s Most Frequently Seen White Wine Grapes
Let’s start with one of the easy-to-drink white wine grapes. We’ll begin with Grillo (pronounced gree-yo
by most anglophones). Grillo is a variety of grape that is indigenous to Sicily. It is likely the offspring of
Catarotto and Moscato d’Alexandria and is historically used for the production of Marsala. When made
into non-fortified wines, its color is usually straw yellow, with aromatics reminding one of tropical fruits
such as mango and papaya that blend with hints of jasmine and white flowers. Usually, the acidity is on
the delicate side.
Another important white wine grape is Catarratto (pronounced kah-tahr-rah-to). Primarily planted in
Sicily (where it is the most widely planted grape), it can make full-bodied wines with lemon notes. It is
possibly related to the Garganega grape variety. Catarratto is often blended with Minella Bianca and
Carricante (pronounced kahr-ree-kahn-teh) is a white wine grape indigenous to Sicily. It produces a
fresh, straw-yellow, lightly fragrant white wine. Its name comes from the Italian caricare (to load, to
burden), referring to the vines tendency to carry heavy yields. Wines made from it tend to have high
total acidity and concurrent low pH, which means most winemakers will want the wine to undergo
malolactic fermentation. It’s often part of DOC Mount Etna’s important blending grapes.
And to absolutely no one’s surprise, Chardonnay has become a major player for Sicily’s modern
winemakers. Enough said. Let’s move on to the red wine grapes.
Sicily’s Most Frequently Seen Red Wine Grapes
The most prominent red wine grape in Sicily is Nero d’Avola (pronounced Nehr-oh dah-voh-lah), which
is planted all over the island’s vineyard lands. Nero d’Avola, often called “the most important red wine
grape in Sicily” is one of Italy’s most important indigenous varieties. Each area of origin within Sicily’s
Nero d’Avola vineyards has its own distinctive features: western Sicily’s area is marked by higher
concentration, harshness and toughness; the central area is denoted by a sharp taste of red fruits, and
the eastern area provides a more refined taste, with an aftertaste of dried fruits. Some of the newer
producers in the “hot new growing area” of Mt. Etna are making truly exciting versions, using Nero
d’Avola as the primary grape, or blending with others for their own distinctive cuvées.
As with many frequently used wine grapes in Sicily, Nerello (pronounced neh-rehl-lo) is of uncertain
origin. Thus far, it appears the Nerello is a cross between Sangiovese and some other unidentified grape
variety. Nerello Mascalese (pronounced mahs-kah-leh-seh), is named after the Mascali area in Catania
where the grape is thought to have originated. Grown mainly on the northeastern area of Sicily, it is
often made into a varietal wine, in addition to being used in blends. Nerello Mascalese generally makes
wines of ruby red color, with subtle grenache tones. It often displays a strong fruity scent of red berry
fruits, with hints of floral shades, spices, and traces of vanilla and tobacco and a persistent hint of
licorice. The wine is usually dry and tannic, with a persistent and harmonic taste and a strong body.
It is considered superior in quality to another Nerello, Nerello Cappuccio (pronounced kahp-poot-cho),
which is often used as a blending grape in the Etna DOC. It can add color and alcohol strength to the
wine. Nerello Cappuccio is one of three grape varieties used in producing Corvo Rosso, one of the
earliest successfully branded wines of Sicily.
Frappato (pronounced frahp-pah-to) is planted primarily in Sicily. It generally produces light bodied
wines with a distinct grapey aroma. Another grape of uncertain origins, and so far, it appears that
Frappato is a crossing of Sangiovese, and another yet-to-be-identified grape variety. In recent years,
Frappato has begun to appear as a varietal wine. Prior to this, it was mostly used as a part of Sicily’s only
DOCG wine, Cerasuolo di Vittoria (30—50% Frappato, 30-70% Nero d’Avola).
Sicily is no longer simply a source of bulk wines used to strengthen poorer vintages of French, Spanish or
other Italian wines. There is true quality available across many of the districts of this complex, historic,
and vibrant island. The winemakers of Sicily have established their diverse range of world-class wines.
They are definitely worth getting to know!