A Sicilian Wine Renaissance

The Time to Drink Sicilian Wine is Now

 


Sicily has a jaded reputation. Thanks to the illustrious movie making of Francis Ford Coppola, Americans have believed for decades that Sicily is mafia. Having visited Sicily twice I have yet to meet a Corleone. What I have experienced in Sicily is a carefree atmosphere, affable people, delectable cuisine, and well-crafted wine.

Sicily is the largest of all the Mediterranean islands, the largest wine region in Italy, and in terms of volume one of Italy’s top producing regions. It is an island country within a larger country and Sicilians want to make sure visitors understand this point. A rich history of conquerors including Sicanians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Germans, and Spanish have left a tapestry of influences across the island. These influences, as well as Sicily’s island nature, keeps it detached from mainland Italy.
Sicily began producing wine under the Greek occupation. Production thrived along with their reputation. The Romans furthered Sicily’s wine reputation. Legend has it Mamertine, a sweet wine, was believed to have been a favorite of Julius Caesar. As the twentieth century arrived Sicily’s wine production had become a woeful tale. The mentality shifted from quality to quantity. Bulk wines became the focus, quality winemaking became a rarity, and producers were only bottling 20% of production. Something had to change. In the 1970’s-80’s quality Sicilian winemakers started a wine revolution. They began to rip out planting of grapes that did not belong in Sicily, revamp winemaking practices by investing in and embracing modern techniques, and winemakers began to explore the Mt. Etna region.

Today Sicily is one of the world’s most exciting wine regions. Its topography varies greatly across the island, but characteristically Sicily offers an undulating terrain, poor quality soil, and unyielding sunshine. These conditions are ideal for vitis vinifera. It is home to 23 DOCs and one DOCG. However, many are not well known; therefore, producers often opt for the catch all IGT designation. A few DOCs of note are Etna (gaining attention for its rich volcanic soil wines), Marsala, and Pantelleria (more below). Sicily is home to many international varieties that are worth seeking out; however, the time is now to discover Sicily’s top indigenous varieties.

Sicily produces more white grapes than red; however, there are two white grapes you want to know: Grillo and Carricante. Grillo is a chameleon grape of endless potential. If you like Sauvignon Blanc you must try Grillo. It is crisp, savory, even flinty, and often expressive of ripe tropical and stone fruit. It is the grape of Marsala that can also be enjoyed as a dry still, sweet, and sparkling wine. Carricante is often used as a blending grape but can also be found in single varietal wines. It is a workhorse grape, straw yellow with green hues, herbal, citrus, floral notes combined with high acidity make it a great wine to choose.

Sicily is home to many red grapes but I’d like to draw your attention to these three as the stars of the bunch. The best known of Sicilian reds is Nero d’Avola. It is planted in over 16% of all Sicilian vineyards. Nero d’Avola is a dark skinned grape that can be crafted in a variety of styles from light and fruity to rich and robust. Its typical characteristics include dark fruit, floral, minerality, with medium tannins. Its lighter styles are perfect for seafood, a Sicilian classic.

Another red grape is starting to steal some of Nero d’Avola’s thunder. Nerello Mascalese can be considered a cross between Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo. This grape is grown in the rich volcanic soil of Mt. Etna. It offers red fruit and floral notes with structure of tannins and acidity to promote age-ability.

A final Sicilian red grape of note is Frappato. Formerly a blending grape, Frappato has come into its own. Popular with somms and savvy wine purchasers, this red grape crafts wines that express red fruit and spice in its youth, as it ages the fruit notes dry and are joined by dried floral and herbal notes as well. This is another red to enjoy with fish.

One cannot have a conversation about Sicilian wines without a mention of Zebbibo, aka Muscat of Alexandria. These grapes grow on the tiny island of Pantelleria, an active volcanic satellite island off the coast of Tunisia. The island was under Arab rule for four centuries; during that time they introduced grapevines to the island. Zebbibo is crafted into dry still wines; however, it is most revered as Passito di Pantelleria. This sweet dessert wine is rich and viscous with flavors of dried apricots, figs, and honey. It typically offers a balanced mouth-feel with plenty of acidity.

Here are some suggestions to get your Sicilian wine exploration underway:

2016 Firriato Altavilla Della Corte DOC Sicilia: 100% Grillo; pale gold in the glass; medium+ aromas of Korean melon, fresh squeezed citrus, floral notes, honey, almonds; classic wine, refreshing, light and lively on the palate, dry with medium acidity, this is an easy wine to drink and enjoy.

2016 Tenute Gorghi Tondi Kheirè DOC Sicilia: 100% Grillo; medium- lemon with gold hues in the glass; pronounced aromas of ripe melon, stone and tropical fruit (pineapple), citrus zest; full on the palate, pronounced acidity, elegant wine with good structure, potential for aging, long mouth-watering finish.

2016 Pietradolce Archineri Etna Bianco: 100% Carricante; pale gold in the glass; delicate aromas of stone fruits such as peaches and apricot, pears, and white floral notes all resting on a backbone of firm minerality; racy acidity, a complex wine that evolves throughout the bottle, long crisp finish.

2016 Firriato Le Sabbie Dell’Etna DOC: 80% Carricante, 20% Catarratto; pale gold in the glass; medium aromas of stone fruit, pears, jasmine, and honey; mineral driven palate, medium+ acidity, crisp and zesty with a mouth-watering long saline finish.

2015 Tenute Gorghi Tondi Sorante DOC Sicilia: 100% Nero d’Avola; medium+ ruby in the glass; medium aromas of black fruit, violets, baking spice, dried herbs, black pepper, medicinal; the fullness of the nose follows through on the palate, expressive wine, rich and round, medium acidity and tannins, earthy with a medium finish.

2015 Donnafugata Sedàra Nero d’Avola DOC Sicilia: Predominately Nero d’Avola with some added Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and other grapes; medium- ruby with scarlet hues; medium+ aromas of fresh picked blackberries, cherries, blueberries, and cranberries, dried violets, sweet baking spice, black pepper; a medium body wine with medium acidity and tannins, fresh and elegant on the palate, easy to drink, youthful and pleasing.

2015 Pietradolce Contrada Etna Rosso: 100% Nerello Mascalese; pale scarlet in the glass; medium aromas of blackberries, dried red flowers, dried herbs, black tea, black currant leaf, medicinal; black fruits envelop the palate, layered and complex wine with medium+ tannins and acidity, round with a nice lift on back palate, rich, elegant, full body, long finish.

2015 Firriato Le Sabbie Dell’Etna DOC: A blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio; pale ruby in the glass; medium aromas of red berries, dried roses, baking spice, savory herbs, tea, and medicinal notes; medium body wine with medium+ acidity and grippy tannins, easy to drink better with food, minerality present, crowd pleasing wine.

2015 Baglio di Pianetto BDP Y Frappato IGT: 100% Frappato; medium+ scarlet in the glass; medium aromas of dark red and black fruit, roses, dried herbs, eucalyptus, minerality; light wine, well-structured, balanced with medium tannins and acidity, nice earthiness mid and back palate, high approachable easily enjoyable wine.

2015 Firriato Sorìa Frappato DOC Sicilia: 100% Frappato; medium+ ruby in the glass; medium+ aromas of red fruit, candied violets, baking spice, tobacco; lush and silky mouth-feel, good structure, balanced with medium+ acidity and tannins, this is a crowd pleasing porch pounding wine.

2014 Donnafugata Ben Rye Passito di Pantelleria DOC: 100% dried Zibbibo; deep amber with gold hues in the glass; pronounced aromas of dried apricots, dried figs, orange blossoms, toasted almonds, candied ginger, spice notes of cardamom and cinnamon, and orange blossom honey; rich and decadent on the palate this sweet wine is beautifully balanced with firm acidity that wraps the palate, long sultry finish that begs for another sip; a wine to dazzle the senses.

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