Sicilian wine, an age-old tradition
According to legend, Dionysus (aka Bacchus) was the God who brought pleasure to mankind, and wine to Sicily.
Legend aside, it is certain that wine has been made in Sicily for millennia. There is evidence that Mycenaean traders cultivated grapes in the Aeolian Islands as early at 1,500 BC and when the Greeks began to settle in Sicily in the 8th century BC, they too were unable forgo their favourite libation, “oinos”, and introduced several varieties of vines.
The next important date in Sicilian wine history is 1773, the year John Woodhouse started producing what was to become one of the island’s most famous products: Marsala.
Woodhouse understood immediately that the decent local wine could be transformed, using in perpetuum techniques (similar to the solera system used to make sherry), which, through the addition of alcohol, would not only fortify the wine but also help it survive the sea journey back to England in tact. It was an instant success with the British, and other entrepreneurs, such as Ingham and Whitaker, soon hurried out to exploit the wine’s popularity.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the English dominion in Marsala-making was brought to an end by the arrival of Vincenzo Florio, one of Italy’s first tycoons, who bought up much of the land around Marsala. Cantine Florio, though in different hands today, remains one of the best producers of Marsala and a visit of their enormous barrel-filled winery is recommended.
For most of the 20th century, Sicily continued to produce enormous quantities of grapes, most of which, however, were exported to be added to wine made elsewhere in Italy.
The last 20 years have seen enormous changes to the island’s wine culture and, as the many international prizes won by Sicilian producers confirm, some of Italy’s finest wines are now being made in Sicily. A new generation of Sicilian producers are realising the full potential of the island’s enviable climate, its autochthonous grape varieties and its fertile soil.
Sicily is a wine-lover’s paradise, such is the variety, complexity and abundance of Bacchus’ unique gift!
A brief guide to Sicilian wines
There are 23 DOC zones in Sicily…
Alcamo,Contea di Sclafani, Contessa Entellina, Delia Nivolelli, Eloro, Erice, Etna, Faro, Malvasia delle Lipari, Mamertino di Milazzo, Marsala, Menfi, Monreale, Moscato di Noto, Moscato di Pantelleria, Passito di Pantelleria, Moscato di Siracusa, Riesi, Salaparuta, Sambuca di Sicilia, Santa Margherita di Belice, Sciacca and Vittoria
… and one DOCG wine: Cerasuolo di Vittoria
Many grapes types are grown, used either “in purezza” (single grape variety wines), or blended. Some have been around for centuries, others are more recent imports. The following are some of the main varieties:
Red grapes: Nero D’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Mantellato, Perricone, Frappato, Calabrese and the more recently introduced Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Shiraz (Syrah).
White grapes: Cataratto, Grecanico, Grillo, Inzolia, Zibibbo, Damaschino, Trebbiano, Ausonica, Moscato Bianco, Corinto Nero and the more recently introduced Chardonnay, Viognier and Fiano.
Sicilian red wines include…
Nero D’Avola: Nero D’Avola is one of the oldest indigenous grapes and Sicilian wine-makers are justifiably proud of the recognition that this variety is now receiving.
Syrah: anyone familiar with the southern hemisphere wines (or indeed French wines) will have tasted plenty of Syrah and the climate and soil of Sicily are particularly suited to this tasty grape.
Etna Rosso: a blend of Nerello Mascalese (95%) and Nerello Mantellato (5%) this is the wine born on the rich, fertile volcanic slopes of Mount Etna.
Cerasuolo di Vittoria: a blend of Frappato (min 40%) and Calabrese (max 60%) with the possible addition of some Grossonero or Nerello Mascalese, this is the famous wine of the province of Ragusa.
Sicilian white wines include…
Bianco D’Alcamo: a blend of Cataratto (min 80%), Grecanico, Damaschino and Trebbiano, this excellent white can be found all over Sicily, but can only be produced in the rich area between Alcamo and Trapani.
Wines made from Grillo, Inzolia, Cataratto, Grecanico and Chardonnay are produced “in purezza” or blended together by all the big wine producers, and some are truly excellent.
Sicilian dessert or aperitif wines include
The sugar content of the grapes and the drying qualities of the sun mean that Sicily lends itself well to production of dessert wines. The best known of these are:
Marsala: the famous fortified wine first produced by the Englishman John Woodhouse in 1773 is a blend of Grillo, Cataratto, Ansonia and Damaschino with the addition of distilled alcohol. Though it has a reputation as a sweet wine, there are also some excellent dry aperitif varieties. Try chilled Marsala vergine or extra vergine from any of the big producers.
Passito di Pantelleria: made from Zibbibo grapes which have been dried in the sun to increase the sugar concentration. Pure heaven from Sicily’s southernmost offshore island, Pantelleria!
Malvasia delle Lipari, a blend of Malvasia (95%) and Corinto Nero (5%), first produced at Monemvasia, ancient Laconia. Known as Malmsey to Shakespeare in Loves Labours Lost, George, Duke of Clarence (brother of King Edward IV of England) was possibly executed by drowning in a “butt” of it. Malmsey was also well known to Nelson’s sailors (who allegedly drank a lot of it).
Passito di Noto: 100% Passito Bianco grapes for a harmonious sweetish wine, with honeyed hints