One can travel all over Italy and still have no sense of Sicily, as Sicily is like no other place. It is probably one of the most diverse regions in Europe with not only a long history of a multitude of conquerors, but to this day, an evident openness to various cultures. This open attitude towards diversity is expressed by the architecture, food, and wines along with the sea of faces ranging from pale skin and blond hair to Mediterranean olive skin and brown curly hair to dark skin and woolly, black hair. Northern Europe, North Africa and Greece are just a few of the influences that meld so wonderfully with the Italian culture within this lovely island. Sicily offers a beauty that is multifaceted and complex… it is the only place that I can think of that would place so much of their quality white wine focus on a grape variety such as Grillo.
Grillo

Although Sicily is sometimes thought of as just another Italian wine region, when it comes to wines, it could be considered its own continent. The range of soils, climates as well as grape varieties makes Sicily not so easy to understand in regards to wine unless one devotes a significant amount of time dissecting it. In fact, according to Antonio Rallo, president of the Consiglio di Tutela that supervises the DOC Sicilia, there are 76 autochthonous (indigenous) varieties currently in production in Sicily; so their choice of picking Grillo as the white wine they promote to the world gives an insight into some deep core Sicilian beliefs.

Over the past few years, Grillo has been spoken about a lot, but it always seemed like it was an ancient Sicilian white grape variety that was finally getting the focus for its quality wine potential - but that is actually not the case. In the beginning of May, Master of Wine Robin Kick revealed that it was an intentional crossing of Catarratto Bianco and Zibibbo (Muscat of Alexandria) in Agrigento, Sicily in 1869 by Baron Antonio Mendola, an agronomist and expert of grape varieties, with the first grapes appearing in 1874. Even some Italian grape variety experts are lacking this knowledge and have previously incorrectly hypothesized that it is an indigenous variety of Puglia; some experts realize it is a crossing but do not know it was an intentionally human-created one. Robin Kick, however, was sent a copy of the document that proved it was created by Baron Mendola.

Grillo benefits from the aromatic complexity of Zibibbo and the fresh acidity of Catarratto Bianco. It is a variety that is more resistant to disease than Catarratto Bianco and so it usurped many of the Catarratto plantings after phylloxera (the pest that devastated many European vineyards) in the early 1900s. But after World War II, Grillo had a dip in popularity as other varieties that produced higher quantities were favored since there was such a huge demand for wine across Europe during that time.


Marsala & Grillo

Historically, the grape variety Grillo was mainly known in Sicily as one of the varieties that made Marsala fortified wine. Despite Marsala being known as a cooking wine to the rest of the world, those who have been long time Sicilian wine connoisseurs considered the best Marsala, which many of us don’t see on our own markets, on par with the greatest fortified wines in the world such as Madeira. And so through time, as Sicily started to focus less on quantity and more on quality (40% less vineyards today and very low yields with an average of 50 hl/ha noted by Antonio Rallo) the leaders in the Sicilian wine world decided that a focus on Grillo would be part of their plan to raise Sicily’s wine quality.

Today there is an array of Grillo wines that range from herbaceous to fruity to perfume notes and can be light and bright or big and rich; some may seem more like Sauvignon Blanc, others like Viognier, and many a combination of both. Sicilian wine producers have been able to identify two biotypes (aka clones) that are labeled A and B to make things simple yet there are quite a few Grillo vines that are not identified as either and so they are still discovering this variety’s potential.

Sicily’s belief in Grillo is so strong that, as of 2017, the variety can only be noted on approved Sicilia DOC bottles.


Sicilia DOC

The protection and promotion of Sicilia DOC wines by the Consorzio di Tutela Vini Doc Sicilia has been evident since its establishment in 2012 by the Assovini Sicilia (a group of small to large size wine producers); not only was there an increase of 9.96% of bottles purchased that had Sicilia DOC on the label, but also an increase of 21.81% of bottles mentioning Sicily at all (figures comparing 2016 to 2017 sales). Grillo is part of Sicily’s wine success story, seeing a sales increase of 23% for wines that mention the variety. And that commitment to excellence will only accelerate in the future as they study new local strains of yeast that could potentially improve wine quality and find more autochthonous (indigenous) grape varieties that go way beyond the 76 currently in production.


Improving by Diversifying DNA

The mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando said of Sicilian wine, “…it is fair to say that we have managed to reconcile the roots and the wines of our existence. A metaphor indicating our respect for the past and commitment to the future.” On the last day of Sicilia en Primeur 2018, he adamantly said that all immigrants are welcomed to Palermo and to Sicily as a whole as diversity is part of their success of a people and why Palermo, the capital of Sicily, was recently named “Italian Capital of Culture for 2018”.  

Sicilians deeply appreciate that it is the mixing of cultures and DNA of people that makes it such a special place and they are investing in that idea; there is no better representation of that then their passion for Grillo, a mix of two beloved Sicilian grapes. No other region has stood so strongly behind a crossing but Sicily proudly does. They know that the mixing of people have enriched them a thousand times over and so it makes sense that it would create one of their best white wines.


Grillo Recommendations from Sicilia en Primeur 2018

NV Fazio, Spumante Brut, Grillo, Sicilia DOC: Charmat method sparkling wine. Lemon confit, creamy bubbles, and saline minerality – only 4g/l residual sugar.

2017 Caruso & Minini, “Timpune”, Grillo, Sicilia DOC: A Grillo that comes from a high altitude vineyard at the top of a hill with 20 days in used barrels. Citrus zest, linear body with lots of energy and a textural contrast on the body.

2017 Firriato, “Caeles”, Grillo, Sicilia DOC: An organic wine that is vegan certified with exotic flavors of mango and spice with hints of rosemary on the finish.

2017 Donnafugata Sur Sur, Sicilia DOC: 100% Grillo. Floral and sweet peaches on the nose with a medium body and a zingy finish.

2017 Cusumano, “Shamaris”, Grillo, Sicilia DOC: If I didn’t know what this wine was, I would have sworn it was Viognier with its intense perfume and rich stone fruit, yet it had a fresh acidity that gave it energy on the palate.

2017 Baglio del Cristo di Campobello, Grillo, Sicilia DOC: Made from chalky soils, this wine shows Grillo’s expression of terroir with fierce minerality that is accompanied by a bright backbone of acidity that has plenty of rich fruit to make this wine delicious as well as ethereal.

Cantine Florio, "Donna Franca", Marsala Superiore Riserva DOC: 100% Grillo fortified wine that is an ideal example of great Marsala. Blend of Marsala aged from 15 to 30 years in oak barrels. Grilled figs, Mediterranean scrub, candied orange rind, hint of vanilla and finishing with roasted almonds all wrapped around a velvety texture. 19% abv and 93g/l residual sugar.