Sicily, where Ulysses once ran into a rather unfriendly cyclops, has had a long romance with the grapevine. In fact in the famous epic The Odyssey, Ulysses manages to escape becoming the Cyclops’ dinner in part from the help of undiluted wine! This triangular island is one of the areas of modern Italy which has been inhabited the longest, and not by just a few folks either. First by the ancient Siculians (providing the name we call it today), then by the Greeks (who nicknamed it “Trinacria” for its triangular shape) and also the Phoenicians, the Ancient Romans, Arabs followed by the Normans and the Germans and the Spanish….just to name a few of its previous inhabitants through history. The purely by chance but grand “discovery” of the fortified wine that would be later called Marsala in the 18th century was perhaps just the start of the island’s good fortune in the viniculture world.
Sicily is a unique and varying landscape capable of such a large variety of wines today that if a wine psychologist were to hold up an ink blot picture shaped vaguely like Sicily, you would be just as likely to respond with either “Marsala“, “Carricante“, or “Nero d’Avola“. It’s currently the region of Italy that boasts the largest number of vines (with Puglia just behind). Some of the grapes are raisined, perfect for dessert wine production as well as being incorporated in Sicilian cuisine such Pasta with Roasted Cauliflower, Raisins, and Pine Nuts.
Geography: Sicily is the text book definition of a Mediterranean climate, with an abundance of sunshine and moderate (=not too much, not too little) rainfall annually. Variation in elevation is high, making in turn a great variation in grapes and their wines. On the east coast the skyline is dominated by the soaring (and tallest active volcano in Europe at 10,930 feet/3,330 meters) Mount Etna. But Etna is friendlier than you think, at least in terms of the black soil rich with minerals she provides, ideal for vines and other plant life like citrus and olive trees. Vineyards brave the slopes of Etna as well as other hills to take advantage of the benefits of higher altitudes (cooler temperatures, protection from pests). Less dramatic volcanic hills are scattered on the western part of the island too, near Palermo and Trapani, home of Marsala, Alcamo, Erice and Santa Margherita del Belici. The islands of the island such as Lipari and Pantelleria are best known for dessert wine production.
Main Provinces and their Wine Regions:
Key Regional Grape Friends:
- Cataratto Bianco Comune/Lucido (white)
- Ansonica/Inzolia (white)
- Grecanico Dorato (white)
- Grillo (white)
- Zibibbo/Moscato di Alessandria (white), typically used for dessert wines
- Trebbiano Toscano (white)
- Chardonnay (white), French origins
- Damaschino (white)
- Albanello (white)
- Carricante (white)
- Malvasia Bianca/di Lipari (white)
- Minnella Bianca (white)
- Montonico Bianco (white)
- Moscato Bianco/Giallo (white)
- Müller-Thurgau (white), of Swiss origins (a crossing of Riesling with Madeleine Royale)
- Pinot Bianco (white), AKA Pinot Gris, of France
- Sauvignon (white), AKA Sauvignon Blanc of French origins
- Calabrese/Nero D’Avola (black)
- Nerello Mascalese (black)
- Nerello Cappuccio (black)
- Merlot (black), of French origins, though Merlot is among one of the top planted red varieties in Italy!
- Syrah (black)
- Frappato (black), a variety making up a large part of Cerasuolo di Vittoria, the region’s only DOCG wine at moment.
- Cabernet Sauvignon (black)
- Perricone/Pignatello/Tuccarino (black)
- Alicante (black), aka Grenache or Cannonau
- Barbera (black), better known in Piedmont
- Catanese Nero (black)
- Corinto Nero (black)
- Gaglioppo (black), more prevalent in Calabria
- Nocera (black)
- Pinot Nero (black), of French origins, aka Pinot Nero
The Better Known Wines:
Cerasuolo di Vittoria/Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico – $-$$, Sicily’s only DOCG wine (not to be confused with Abruzzo’s similarly named Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo) is made in the province of Ragusa. It is a blend made up of a min 40% Frappato and a max 60% Calabrese (aka Nero d’Avola). The result is a smooth and hearty red, that is as classically Sicilian as cannoli.
Etna Rosso/Bianco – $-$$, Etna wines are rich in volcanic minerality and offer drinkers a unique wine that is truly like no others. Reds are made of the indigenous black grapes Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio while whites can be a combination of local white varieties including Carricante, Catarratto, Inzolia, Grecanico and Minnella.
Marsala – $$-$$$, Arguably the most known Sicilian wine world wide, Marsala is a fortefied wine. Though it’s only been regulated since the 1950’s it’s been around since the 18th century, a fine result of a chance landing in the port of Marsala by English wine merchant John Woodhouse and his ability to see the potential in the English market for a Marsala prototype he drank while in port called “perpetuum”. There are a few different types: Oro, Ambra, and Rubino, as well as variation in sweetness level from secco (bone dry) to dolce (sweet). Marsala wines are comparable to other fortified wines like Madeira, Port, and Sherry, as they go through a similar vinification process. It’s hard to generalize the flavour profile due tot he large variation in styles but rest assured that good Marsala wines are rich, complex, sometimes smoky and nutty in aromas and flavors.
Nero d’Avola – $-$$, this red is quickly becoming the star of the show, made up of the grape Nero d’Avola, taking its name from the town of Avola (literally “black grape of Avola”). Nero d’Avola wines can be cranberry, cherry, strawberry, with that hint of minerality Sicilian soil provides.
Passito di Pantelleria – $$-$$$, There are loads of sweet dessert wines that come out of Sicily, but this one is noteworthy from one of Sicily’s islands (yes, Sicily the huge island itself has some islands). It’s made from raisined grapes, Zibbibo, on the island of Pantelleria.
DOCG Wines of Sicily to Date:
- Cerasuolo di Vittoria
DOC Wines of Sicily to Date:
- Contea di Sclafani
- Contessa Entellina
- Delia Nivolelli
- Malvasia delle Lipari
- Moscato di Pantelleria
- Sambuca di Sicilia (NOT the same as the anise-flavored liqueur)
- Santa Margherita di Belice
- Siracusa (previously was Moscato di Siracusa)
IGT Wines of Sicily to Date:
- Fontanarossa di Cerda
- Terre Siciliane
- Valle Belice