Friday, August 5, 2016

Overview of Sicily Wine Region

(June 2016) It took less than 24 hours in Sicily to realize we were in a different country, and it was not Italy. This was a sentiment not only pronounced repeatedly by the Sicilians we met – “We are different.  We are not like the rest of Italy.  We used to be our own country.” – but also by the landscape, architecture, food and wine. It was different.  Even the palpable energy and seemly ready instinct of the people to argue about any topic, made us realize that we were far removed from the quieter and gentler wine regions of the north, such as Tuscany and Piedmont.

The Beauty of Sicily

However the charm and beauty of Sicily was overwhelming, and I was unprepared for the splendor of the island with its towering volcano, flower covered hills, and antique buildings covered with pillars and tiles, all surrounded by a sparkling blue sea and shining white beaches. Sicily is, in a word, breathtaking.

White Sandy Beach in Sicily

Number of Wineries in Sicily and Key Players

At the time of this writing, it is estimated there were around 450 wine producers on Sicily. Many of them produce bulk wine, with reports showing that less than 20% of Sicilian wine is actually bottled. Cooperatives currently dominate Sicily and produce around 75% of the wine.

However, the major wine players in Sicily have gained much global recognition for unique and high quality wines. Following is a partial list of these top producers:  Donnafugata, Benanti, Planeta, Tasca d’Almerita, Cottanera, Frank Cornelissen, Passopisciaro, COS, Feudo Montoni, De Bartoli, Ceuso, Cusumano, Firriato, Morgante, Rapitala, and Abbazia Santa Anastasia.

For one of the best articles I’ve read on Sicilian wines, see Tom Atkin, MW’s blog Cork Talk on Sicily.

Unique Architecture of Sicily

Major Sicilian Wine Grapes

Interestingly for such a warm climate wine region, the majority of Sicilian grapes are white – at around 65% - with Cataratto being the most widely planted grape variety.  This is because Cataratto is the primary grape in Marsala, along with Grillo and Inzolia. Marsala is, of course, the famous fortified wine (20% alcohol) made in Sicily – rather in response to Portugal’s white port. In fact, the Woodhouse firm, also found in Oporto, founded the first marsala firm in 1796.

Cataratto – the most widely planted white grape in Sicily, and the main grape in Marsala. On its own, it produces a rather bland, neutral tasting wine with notes of lemon and straw, with medium acidity. However, we enjoyed saying the name of this grape out loud, because we nicknamed it the “Cat and Rat” grape – “Cat- a- rat-to”.

Grillo - a white grape with floral and stone fruit qualities and fresh citrus zest. Similar to a light pinot grigio, we found this wine to be a refreshing drink on a hot day. It also pairs well with fish dishes, and is perfect for the beach.

Nero d' Avola – the most famous red grape of Sicily, and also the most widely planted.  Nero d' Avola is known for its soft tannins, and warm berry and milk chocolate notes. Very approachable and likeable to new red wine drinkers. In order to boost its intensity and add some complexity, however, most Sicilians producers blend it with other grapes, often cabernet sauvignon, syrah and/or merlot.

Frappato - another red grape with markers of strawberry, spice, and orange peel. With its medium red color and perfumed notes, it looks and smells like pinot noir, but is usually earthier on the palate. Often blended with Nero d Avola to provide more color and complexity, but very pleasant on its own with light silky tannins.

Zibobbo – actually Muscat of Alexandria, but called Zibobbo in Sicily. A white grape used primarily to make the famous passito dessert wines. Very floral with apricot and honeysuckle, most famously grown on the island of Pantelleria. The word “Zibobbo” actually has Arabic roots, and the island of Pantelleria is actually closer to Tunisia in South Africa than it is to Sicily.

Vineyard in Sicily with View of the Sea

Unique Grapes of Mt. Etna – a Cooler Subregion of Sicily

Most of us fell in love with Mt. Etna when we visited, not only because of the beauty of the 10,922 foot (3,329 m) mountain, but because of the exquisite grapes produced in its moderate to cool climate. Here we found two unique grapes:

Carricante – a beautiful white grape that produces elegant, high acid, minerally whites with some floral and citrus notes. The Sicilians call it the riesling of Sicily, and like riesling, it also has the ability to age well.

Nerello Mascalese – though a mouthful to pronounce, this red grape produces light colored wines with huge tannins and high acid. With notes of dried cherry, tar and earth, it has some Barolo like similarities.  If blended with other red grapes, it can often be darker in color. Like Barolo, it ages well.

Vineyard on Mt. Etna

DOCG in Sicily

Currently Sicily only has one DOCG, but after tasting some of the unique white wines from Mt. Etna, I think they should apply to receive another one soon. The existing DOCG is Cerasuola di Vittoria is located in the southern part of Sicily and is a special red wine made from Nero d'Avola and Frappato grapes. We tasted several and found them to be delightful, with bright fruit flavors of berries and red cherries, and a hint of Sicilian earthiness.

View of Mt. Etna on Sicily

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