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Wine grapes have always grown on the Italian island of Sicily. Some say it was Dionysus, the god of wine, who planted them there himself. The Mediterranean climate with abundant sunshine, balanced rainfall, hilly terrain and soils made rich by Mount Etna’s ash all create the perfect conditions for quality agriculture. Ancient civilizations were producing wine on the island as far back as the 17th century BC. The Greeks arrived some time around 8 BC, bringing other varietals in with them. They also brought innovations such as pruning, varietal selection and low vine training. Large quantities of wine began to flow all over the island. Very, very alcoholic wine.
For several centuries, the Sicilian wine industry fell into boom and bust cycles. As the Romans spread their empire, they carried wines from Sicily with them. A type of Sicilian wine called Mamertino was said to have been Julius Caesar’s favorite. In the Byzantine Age between the 6th and 9th centuries, the religious communities held power over Sicily and wine production peaked (for ceremonial purposes, natch). But this booming wine industry was left to decay once the Muslims took over between the 9th and 11th centuries. During the Aragonese Empire from the 13th to 16th centuries, Sicilian wine once again became a hot trading commodity.
In 1773, British merchant John Woodhouse saw great potential in Sicily to produce a local fortified (brandied) wine. Port and Madeira had become quite popular, and other English men rather wealthy from importing it. So he introduced a perpetuum system, an equivalent to the solera system of blending wines from different vintages, and produced the first Marsalas to take home to England. This venture brought great fortune to both Woodhouse and the Sicilian economy.
Marsala and still wines began to boom in Sicily during the 19th century, and many historical wineries were established during this period. The Catania province had become such a key viticultural zone that a railway was constructed in order to connect it to the port city of Riposto to facilitate wine trade.
The global Phylloxera crisis had a profound effect on Sicilian wine production, which did not recover until well into the 1950s. Unfortunately, to compensate for such a long period of stagnation, the government subsidized programs to grow very high yields of grapes. The bulk wines being produced and exported gave Sicily a bad rap in the wine world for decades to come. But the shifting tastes and standards of the populous encouraged local producers to turn things around and reach for higher quality standards. By the end of the 20th century, Sicilian wines had come to show great promise.
Varietals grown in Sicily are a blend of indigenous and global, and there are dozens of DOCs. The signature red native grape is Nero d’Avola and its white counterpart is Cattaratto. Juice from the latter is used for the production of Marsala, and is also often sourced to other cooler regions to bulk out thinner wines. Other popular red varietals are Nocera (for Faro DOC), Frappato (for Cerasuolo di Vittorio, the region’s only DOCG), Norello (for Etna Rosso DOC), Perricone, Primitivo and Syrah. Popular whites are Grillo, Inzolia, Carricante, Grecanico, Chardonnay, Malvasia and Moscato (for the dessert wine of the nearby Sicilian territorial island, Moscato di Pantelleria DOC). ~Amanda Schuster
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