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Your Guide to Sicilian Wines Worth Traveling For

by Christopher Atwood


 Wine and Italy are pretty much interchangeable – whether we’re talking about Chianti (Tuscany), Barolo (Piedmont) or Pinot Grigio (Veneto). Yearly, Italy corks 4.795 million tons of wine – representing the largest producer of vino in the entire globe.

Less well known are the wines of Italy’s other regions. Areas like Puglia and Sicily – both in sunny Southern Italy – account for almost 30% of the wine production in all of Italy.  Sicily, specifically, hosts more grape-growing vineyards than any other region in the country.

Sicily scenery

Why are wine-lovers noticing Sicily’s vines now? In the last two decades, Sicily has seen a Renaissance of higher-quality reds and whites. Simply put, Sicily is no longer synonymous with mediocre Marsala or tasteless table wines. Whereas Sicilian winemakers once banked on bulk at the expense of quality, today’s vintners in Sicily are driven by growing demand for small-batch vintages and organically-grown grapes.

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A new generation of Sicilian producers, trained in more established wine regions like Tuscany, are grasping the home-grown potential of Sicily’s mild climate and mineral-rich terroir – crafting award-winning (and oh-so-smooth) wines, all while spotlighting heirloom grapes you’ll only find growing here on Sicily.  The island also boasts an abundance of native grapes—adapted to Sicily’s dry-yet-elevated landscape.  Major varieties include: Catarrato (white), Inzolia (white), Zibbibo (white), Nero d’Avola (red), Frappato (red) and Nerello Cappuccio (red).

GRAPE-FRIENDLY TERRAIN:

Sicily’s varied topography – including volcanic slopes, fog-kissed coasts and sun-soaked fields – feed a bevy of rosso (red), bianco (white) and passito (dessert) grapes. Some varietals are pressed in purezza (not mixed) and others are combined to form blends. Graced with reliably sunny weather and consistently light rainfall, Sicily is paradiso for the cultivation of wine-grapes. Its mild and dry climate obstructs the growth of fruit-rotting mold—consequently chemical sprays are hardly used here, meaning that close oto 50% of Sicilian wine grapes are organically-grown.   

Sicily landscape

SICILY’S WINE REGIONS:

At present, Sicily vaunts 23 officially-recognized wine regions – including, 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. Volcanic soils cover the land around Mt. Etna (Taormina) and western Sicily. Coastal plains, stretching from east to west, spread across much of southern Sicily – offering ideal terrain for grape cultivation.

sicily winery

SICILIAN WHITE WINES:

The most widely-planted (and -grown) grape in Sicily is Catarrato—grown exclusively on the volcanic soils of western Sicily.  Utilized in local blends such as Marsala and Alcamo Bianco, the juice and concentrate of the Catarrato grape are also exported to other wine-producing regions in Italy and Europe countries.  Wines made with Catarrato have a lemony flavor. This grape is corked into lighter, easy-drinking white blends – such as Carricante Catarranto and Catarrato-Minella Bianca

white grapes

For a more subtle flavor profile, lovers of white wine might open a bottle of Inzolia or Grillo – boasting citrusy, crisp and herbal taste. Primarily grown between Palermo and Agrigento, Inzolia is frequently blended with Grillo and Catarrato grapes to add a nutty after note.  The best whites in Sicily derive from eastern side of the island—grown on the mineral-rich slopes of Mt. Etna.  Top-shelf bottles of Etna Bianco, for instance, are produced entirely of Carricante—a white grape that grows only in the Etna area.

SICILIAN RED WINES:

The most famous red Sicilian wine is Nero d’Avola, which can deliver a jammy flavor with earthy overtones. Nero d’Avola often evokes notes of black cherry or plum. This full-bodied varietal is frequently mixed with fruit from native Frappato vines—a sweeter, berry-like grape. Some of the top Sicilian red wines are now produced on the volcanic slopes of Mt. Etna.  In fact, archeological ruins here attest to winemaking since at least the 5th-century B.C.!  Etna’s reds include the rarer Nerello Mascalese—a lighter-bodied red that is fed by the volcano’s mineral-rich soil.  Reminiscent of Pinot Noir, Nerello Mascalese pairs well with lighter meats and roasted tomatoes.

purple grapes italy

In Sicily’s sublime southeast, near the stone gem of Ragusa, you’ll find Cerasuolo di Vittoria – a blend of Frappato and Nero d'Avola.  This is the only Sicilian wine bestowed with the prized DOCG label. It is barrel-aged for 10 months and then left two rest in bottle for 12 months.  Wine Spectator Magazine has awarded Cerasuolo di Vittoria from Azienda Agricola COS an enviable 92/100 score.  Lovers of wine (and sunshine) can even slumber at Azienda Agricola COS’ rustic-chic bed and breakfast—framed by the winery’s verdant vines.  Some of the Sicilian wines produced here – the “pithos” reds and whites – are aged in large clay amphoras—imbuing the vintages with a minerally profile. 

FORTIFIED & DESSERT WINES:

Perhaps the most famous Sicilian wine abroad is Marsala – first concocted by the Englishman John Woodhouse in 1773.  Marsala is a fortified wine, which generally contains a mix of Cataratto and Ansonia grapes plus the addition of distilled alcohol.  While most Americans typically associate Marsala with a sweet “cooking wine,” today’s Sicilian winemakers have produced a number of dry, easily-drunk varieties – perfect for sipping when chilled. Named after the port city of Marsala, Marsala wines vaunt flavors similar to a Port or a Madeira.  Sicily’s biggest grape-growing area stretches from Marsala on the west to Menfi in the south. Typical of this zone are round hills and vineyard-draped valleys.

grape vines sicily

Dessert wines in Sicily are a product of the island’s warm weather – as grapes left to dry in the sun will boast a higher sugar content.  Prized Sicilian dessert wines include Passito di Noto and the whites produced on the islands of Lipari and Pantelleria. These sweeter wines offer drinkers hints of honey – tasting like a sip of Sicilian sunshine.  

SICILIAN WINE TOURS:

One of the biggest plusses to accompany Sicily’s wine Renaissance is the resurgence in family-run vineyards. Here, you can learn all about Sicilian wine from the locals who make them.  Instead of sipping inside a stale and soulless “tasting room,” you’ll enjoy a glass (or three) in the vineyard’s cool stone cellars – surrounded by grape-stained wooden casks.  Instead of feeling like you’re one of countless visitors, you’ll walk the vines – unrushed – with the winery owners themselves! The best wineries in Sicily are now small-batch and family-run. So, during your private tour, you’ll hear all about the history of wine-making straight from the members of these families. Put another way: you’ll uncork a true taste of Sicily, while feeling welcomed into the family. Travel never tasted so authentic.

wine barrels

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