According to the oenologue, Bruno Pastena, “Sicilian wines encompass the essence and spirit of 20 civilisations.” Although, in Sicily vines were already present and their grapes turned into some sort of wine, before the arrival of the Greeks they were not cultivated. The Greeks brought their knowledge of pruning and selection to Sicily, as well as introducing the form of growing known as “alberello” (vines grown low to the ground as bushes), which is still used today in very dry and windy areas. Wine production was increased under the Romans, during which period it was exported to Gaul, the Eastern dominions and the territories that now make up Spain and Germany. Following Christianisation, during the period of Byzantine occupation, 2/3 of the island’s territory came under the control of the Church, which did much to increase the diffusion of innovations and improvements in viticulture. Although the Arabs increased the production of table grapes, many of which were dried, wine production decreased. Under the Normans and Swabians it picked up again but it was under the Aragonese (1288-1512) that interest in Sicilian wine was really revived and exports started again, this had a huge impact on the increasing economic prosperity of the island. The wine produced typically had a very high alcohol content and was used to blend with wine from other regions. The origional areas of production are to be found around Castellamare, Castelvetrano and Alcamo, in the west of Sicily, and around Avola and Vittoria in the east. Marsala was first produced in 1773, and bottled wine was first marketed by the Duca di Salaparuta, following the foundation of the house of the same name, in 1824 (see below).
The Phylloxera (an aphid brought to Sicily on vines bought from France) crisis of 1880/1881 had a devestating effect on production all over Sicily. It took until the 1950s for the replanting of/replacing with vines resistant to phylloxera to be completed. The 1950s themselves saw the start of a period of great change, with the start of the mechanisation of vineyards. This conicided with a fall in demand for wines for blending and so the start of the policy of timing the grape harvest with the aim of producing wine with a lower alcohol content. During the 1970s new technology was introduced which improved the quality of the white wines produced by preventing the early oxidisation of the wine, and so preventing their becoming too acidic. Finally in the 1990s the pressure of the international market has meant that Sicilian wines need to justify their place in the market on the basis of quality, not quantity, on which they had previously relied. This has resulted in great investment in the Sicilian wine industry, with public bodies and private investors working side by side. New techniques are being studied and previously undervalued grape varieties have been re-introduced, not to mention the expansion of the area of land suitable for the growing of vines.
Sicilian vines account for 17.5% of the national total, and together with Puglia, Sicily is now the largest producer of wine in Italy. Wine accounts for 15% of Sicily’s agricultural production. Although 70% of wine produced in Sicily is white, it is its reds that are causing an international stir. According to the 2005 Gambero Rosso “this is a golden period for Sicilian winemaking”, with 15 Sicilian wines being awarded the prestigious Three Glasses in 2005. There are now 19 DOC wine areas in Sicily, mostly concentrated in the Val di Mazara, an area of gently sloping hills to the west of the island. However, the south-east produces some excellent wines, with many of the better known names of grape varieties coming from this area, hence the Frappato di Vittoria and the Nero d’Avola. The islands of Pantelleria, Lipari and Salina also produce wonderful sweet wines. Etna, with its unique microclimate, is another important area of production. The variety of topologies that make up Sicily and the different characteristic weather patterns which are then created mean that a huge variety of wines can be produced within a relatively small area. The high-altitude of some Sicilian vineyards creates climatic conditions similar to northern regions, with the advantage of much more sunlight. Overall however, the predominant climate is hot and dry which results in characteristically robust and powerful wines. Wine-making is generally accepted to be simpler in the South, where problems with hail, excessive rain and prolongued, freak weather occurences are much rarer. The lack of water also means that there is less need for intervention against moulds and diseases that attack the vines. However, this lack of water means that, despite the hardiness of the vines, tannins in the grapes are much more liable to mature while the grapes are still on the vine. Oenologues working in Sicily therefore need to take this into account when working with the grapes so as not to produce wines which could be described as astringent.
Although, following the phylloxera epidemic, Sicily now grows many international grape varieties, there are some varieties which, because of Sicily’s climate are to be found almost exclusively here.
- Catarratto – probably not indigenous, but found mainly in the area around Trapani. Rarely found used on its own, more often to be found blended with other varieties to give more structure and interest to the wine.
- Carricante – found exclusively around Etna and has been for centuries. It is one of the bases for the DOC Etna Bianco Superiore.
- Grecanico – probably Greek in origin, it is now diffuse all over the island. It grows very well in the area around Trapani as it can withstand the brackish winds common to the area.
- Grillo – probably Pugliese in origin and only introduced in 1897 after the devestation caused by the phylloxera. It produces wines with a relatively high alcohol content and is one of the bases used for good Marsala.
- Inzolia/Ansonica – possibly Greek in origin, mainly found in the west of Sicily, where it produces fresh, structured and intense wines.
- Malvasia di Lipari – grown only on the Aeolian islands, mainly on Salina, it was probably introduced by the Greeks in 5C. BC. It forms the base of the sweet wine of the same name.
- Moscato Bianco – very old variety cultivated all over the Mediteranean and used to produce both the DOC Moscato di Noto and DOC Moscato di Siracusa. Production of both is limited due to the difficulties created by the effects of climate and the techniques that must be used to produce the wine.
- Moscato di Alessandria/Zibbibo – probably Egyptian in origin and introduced to Sicily by the Romans. It is only to be found on Pantelleria and the arid conditions mean that production is severly limited.
- Frappato (di Vittoria) – 1st records of this variety date from the 17th C, but there is argument as to whether it is indigenous or was introduced by the Spanish. It is one of the bases for the Cerasuolo di Vittoria.
- Perricone/Pignatello – it is known by these two names in Palermo and Trapani respectively. It is often mixed with the Nero d’Avola to give wines with a more interesting structure.
- Nerello Cappuccio/Mantellato – its origin is unknown but it grows mainly in the province of Messina. It is also found around Reggio Calabria and Catanzaro and is often blended with the Nerello Mascalese to increase the longevity of the wine.
- Nerello Mascalese – very different to the Nerello Cappuccio. It has been present on the slopes of Etna and around Mascali for at least 400 years.
- Nero d’Avola/Calabrese – most commonly grown red grape in Sicily, found in the provinces of Agrigento, Siracusa, Caltanissetta and Ragusa. It is often blended with Frappato and Cabernet Sauvignon. According to the Gambero Rosso it is now the most sought-after red in Italy.
There are now many excellent, world-class wines being produced in Sicily and this is a very exciting period of experimentation and expansion. The majority of Sicilian houses are still owned and run by the founding families. However, many, for example Firriato and Calatrasi, are working alongside agronomical experts and oenologues from all over the wine-making worlds, both old and new. Producers from other parts of Italy, looking to increase their range of wines, have also moved into Sicily recently. Feudo Arancio, for example, which is produced in the area around Agrigento, is owned and controlled by a co-operative from the Trentino-Alto Adige. It is not possible to give an exhaustive list of all the Sicilian houses of note, but a few names should be mentioned:
Feudo Principe di Butera – started in 1997. Already its nero d’Avola, Deliella 2002, has won the Gambero Rosso Thee Glass award. It is one of Siciy’s leading wineries, with vineyards in the area between Riesi and Butera.
Tenuta Rapitala` - in 1999 this aristocratic estate owned by the French count Hugues de la Gatinais went into partnership with Gruppo Italiano Vini. This has brought the house a wealth of new resources and knowledge that has allowed it to expand its range and improve, even further, its quality. They are part of the elite of Sicily’s pioneering, modern estates.
Abbazia Sant’Anastasia – based in the hills around Castelbuono, this house has long been considered one of the stars of Sicilian winemaking. Huge amounts of work have been carried out on the estate over the last 10 years, which uses the most up-to-date technology. Until 2002 their Litra had won the Gambero Rosso’s ‘Three Glass’ award for 5 years in a row.
Duca di Salaparuta – Vini Corvo – founded in 1824 by the Duca di Salaparuta to produce wines in the “french style” – meaning having a lower alcohol content and being more subtle than the heavy, rough Sicilian wines produced at the time. The house had immediate success among the Sicilian nobility who drank mainly French wines. The house was taken over by his son who travelled in Tuscany and france in order to increase his knowledge of wine-making techniques, and he employed the services of a French oenologue from Sauternes. By the 1890s he was already exporting to Europe and the New World. Unfortunately, in 1961, his great-niece was forced by massive inheritance taxes to sell the winery to the state. However, quality was scrupulously maintained. In 2001 it was bought back from the state by Illva di Saronno. Along with Cantina Florio it now forms part of Case Vinicole di Sicilia.
Baglio Hopps – although the house stopped producing for a few years, it has recently been revived by the two brothers Fabio and Giacomo Hopps, direct descendents of John Hopps, the Yorkshire merchant who moved to Sicily between 1795 and 1801 in order to export Marsala to England and founded his own house. The quality of the wines produced is consistently excellent and their whites are noted for being unique.
Cantine Florio – founded in 1833, the house is known almost exclusively for its excellent Marsala. Although the house was begun by the English Ben Ingram, his nephews, the Whittakers, to whom he had left the business, went into partnership with the Pugliese Florio. Since 1998 it has been owned by Illva di Saronno.
Planeta – founded in 1995 by three cousins, it has already established an exceptional reputation for quality with 13 of their wines winning the Three Glasses award in only 10 years!!!
Settesoli – one of Italy’s largest co-operatives, founded in 1973, but rare in the fact that it opts for quality rather than quantity. Their Mandrarossa line is to be noted.
Fatascia` - established in 2002 by the children of Francesco Lena, the owner of Abbazia Sant’Anastasia, with his daughter, Stefania, the chief oenologue. A very young house but already with a great reputation for quality and innovation.
Sicily produces some excellent sweet wines, of which the most famous is the Moscato di Pantelleria, made from Zibbibo and the Moscato di Siracusa, made from the white Muscat grape. Another sweet wine is produced on the island of Lipari from Malvasia. Mention must also be made of Marsala.
Marsala, like sherry, can be an aperitif or a digestif, a fortified wine or aged as a solera sherry. It was ‘invented’ in 1773 by John Woodhouse, an English Madeira wine merchant, who having being forced into port by a violet storm, on sampling the local wine detected something similar to that which he normally traded. He took a gamble and shipped a considerable consignment home to sound the market, but only after having fortified it with alcohol to survive the sea voyage. On arrival it had turned into Marsala and proved extremely popular. The first Italian house to produce Marsala was Florio who bought out Woodhouse, but maintained quality. Pellegrino was established in 1880 and produces excellent quality Marsala. In 1963 DOC regulations were introduced to control Marsala and ensure quality. It can either be dry, semi-dry or sweet but the main denomination is relative to the amount of time it has had to mature, from 1 year to 10 and more. It is made from grapes with a high natural sugar content, Grillo, Catarratto and Insolia. It forms the base of zabaglione.