Sicily’s history as a wine region spans millennia. Up until recently, it was known for its sweet wines but there’s more to Sicily than Marsala. Thanks to the excellent wines and great values coming out of the region, the popularity of Sicilian wines is soaring. Among the top regions in Italy for wine production, Sicily is worth exploring for bargain hunting wine lovers who refuse to sacrifice taste on the altar of thrift.
Although legend has it that none other than Bacchus himself brought the vine to Sicily, we can say for certain that this island in the sun’s viticultural history dates to the pre-Hellenistic era. When the Greeks came along, they brought new layers of viticultural knowledge which the Phoenicians, followed by the Romans added their own tricks to. And Sicily’s status as a cultural and culinary melting pot didn’t end with the fall of the Roman Empire. As Bertrand Russell wrote, “culturally, however, Sicily had great advantages. Muslim, Byzantine, Italian and German civilization met and mingled there as nowhere else.” Sure, it’s a part of Italy, but more than any other province, Sicily has a unique identity apart from its Italianness that is most obviously reflected in its food.
Once upon a time not all too long ago, the emphasis was on quantity over quality. Those days aren’t completely over, but they’re definitely receding into the past as quality-minded producers redefine the face of Sicilian wine. The volcanic soils and island’s privileged position in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea make it an optimal place for growing grapes. The rain is more infrequent than frequent and ample sun nourishes the grapes to ripeness. With several native varieties growing on the island, Sicily produces notable wines in every style and color.
Sicily’s most important red is the native Nero d’Avola. Across the Strait of Messina, on mainland Italy, the “Black of Avola” is called Calabrese. With black fruits, sour cherry and spice, the full-bodied, high acid Nero d’Avola is the most planted and noblest red on Sicily. Frappato is another major grape, especially given its role as one-half of the duo that makes up Sicily’s sole DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Perricone, Nerello Mascalese, and Nerello Cappuccio round out the indigenous varieties, and naturally, the usual international suspects are found in vineyards across the island.
Catarratto leads the way for overall plantings. The white is featured in Etna Bianco, but a great deal of it also makes its way to mainland Italy where the full-bodied white is used to give a little oompf to thin wines. Along with Grillo and Inzolia, it’s one of the main components in Marsala.
Sicily’s sweets were made for centuries, but it wasn’t until John Woodhouse, an 18th century English trader got involved, Marsala as we know it was born. Inspired by the already popular Port and Sherry, Woodhouse took to fortifying the dolce vino he found in Sicily, and ecco qua, we have Marsala. Demand exploded back in Merry Old England and Marsala joined the ranks of the sought-after wines that inspired its creator. Moscato-based dessert wines are fairly rare but occasionally produced. On the nearby islands of Lipari and Pantelleria, honeyed passito and liquoroso from Malvasia and Zibibbo (aka Muscat) make for some exceptional drinking.
The bottom line is, for an island not far off the size of Massachusetts, Sicily is a killer wine region with that has something to offer to even the pickiest of wine lovers.