A deep look into the island’s productive balance, qualitative probability, sustainability by nature and signature varieties in red and white
as seen on WineAlign
Sicily is, as they say, “casa quantu stai e tirrinu quantu viri,” or “home for as long as you need to be and land as far as the eye can see.” I always assumed it would be the water that surrounds the island that captivates and holds all attention, but from endless seas of wheat to grapevines covering plains, hills and terraces, the Sicilian quiddity would be its land.
You might also think this largest island spanning over 25,000 square km in the southern Mediterranean would ripen grapes with the sort of ease akin to some of the world’s warmest climates, like South Australia or the Western Cape of South Africa. Would that it were so simple. In Sicily they say, “austu e riustu capu i mmennu,” which says that “after August, winter starts.” Growing grapes is truly a matter of place. Sure there are arid and warm pockets all over the island but a grower must be specific with grape varieties matched to meso-climates but also soils. This is a Sicilian necessity. The farmers and producers in Sicily continue to prove that staying true to core values, paying attention to quality and limiting yields in the name of productive balance puts the island in a league with the country’s elite denominations. Where does this ring with more consistent truth than those that fall under the auspices of Sicilia DOC?
A recent concise and focused study by Jacky Blisson MW tells us that Sicily’s terrain is predominantly hilly and mountainous, with a mere 14 per cent flatlands. It is home to Europe’s highest active volcano, Mount Etna, which towers above the island’s other peaks at 3,350 m. A continuation of the Calabrian Apennines, Sicilian Ranges cover a large swathe of northeastern Sicily. Central and western Sicily are a mix of rolling hillsides and isolated mountains. The island’s only large expanse of flat land is the fertile plain of the Catanian central range from sea level to more than 1,000 metres on the slopes of Mount Etna. The wide range of grapes and altitudes means that harvest season across the island can last from the beginning of August until well into November.
Given its location, it is no surprise that Sicily enjoys a sunny Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers and mild, moderately rainy winters. Lack of rain in summer makes irrigation necessary in many of Sicily’s low-lying vineyards. Indeed, Sicily’s plains are its driest areas, with an average of 500 millimetres of rain annually. The mountainous regions are rainier, with up to 1,400 millimetres of precipitation per year. Vineyards in these higher altitude sites generally do not require irrigation. The island’s vineyards are located mainly in proximity to the island’s coastlines. Marine breezes ventilate the vineyards, resulting in lower disease pressure that allows for organic practices. Depending on the direction of the wind, temperatures can fluctuate significantly. On the southwest side of the island, the Sirocco, a hot, dusty wind from the deserts of northern Africa brings scorching summer highs.
The soil composition of Sicily’s vineyards are diverse – from sedimentary sandstone through limestone and granitic rocks, to volcanic areas. Ancient seas that receded over various geological eras are responsible for the calcareous nature of many vineyards. The chalky vineyards of the southeastern zones Noto and Eloro boast some of the oldest soils and are prized for their elegant wines. In south-central Sicily, soils of marine origin dominate alongside limestone-rich areas, but there are also sites with more sand and clay. The western provinces have sandy loam soils, as well as rockier areas with calcareous clay (and sandstone soils). Much of Sicily’s vineyards are planted on this fertile terrain. The northern provinces have sandy and rocky soils mixed with windblown silt. Volcanic soils are also prevalent, notably surrounding Mount Etna and the islands of Pantelleria and Salina. With multiple yearly eruptions, soil composition is constantly changing, which makes this the youngest soil type on the island. The volcanic areas are a mix of basalt pebbles, pumice, and black ash.
Take a trip to Italy’s southern-most wine region and you will be struck by the number of specificities Sicilian winemakers and producers have already figured out in order to make generational decisions. The success of any wine region depends on knowing where to denote qualitative probability so that it is possible to achieve the greatest results. Sicily’s vineyards are defined within a land of mono-estates, much like Tuscany, in that its crus are single-owner farmed. This means that in order to qualify their best blocks and single-vineyards they must do so with ambition and ego. Unlike Tuscany the complication is much greater because they are not going at the exercise with just one grape. This might be looked at as a most difficult undertaking but if you own your problems and your decisions you can make it happen. In micro terms there are two dozen DOCs and one DOCG. Look inward at the hundreds upon hundreds of “contrade” (districts within the Italian countryside), crus or small geographic areas defined in terms of soil types, including many layered volcanic lands. In macro terms this is also why the island has chosen to create an all-encompassing category, Sicilia DOC. It’s the only DOC unanimously chosen to represent the region as a whole. In terms of size Sicily is equal to South Africa, Germany and three New Zealands. The fact that a place of such breadth can unify under one umbrella is nothing short of an Italian miracle.
From relics of the Copper Age to present day quality:
A few years ago in Palermo, there was Maurizio Gily presenting a study by Gabriella De Lorenzis in which she explains that around ninth century BC the cultivated vine was introduced by the Greeks, in Southern Italy and in Sicily. Comparing the genetic profiles of Sicilian varieties with those from other wine-growing areas of the Mediterranean area, these are strictly connected with the vines of Southern Italy (Calabria, Campania, Basilicata and Puglia) and Greece. Numerous reports reveal how this area, historically known as Magna Graecia and defined as the Acclimatization Triangle for the varieties introduced by the Greeks, shows a certain genetic homogeneity.
Wine is an ancient Sicilian prospect. A study conducted by Davide Tanasi, Enrico Greco, Donatella Capitani and Domenica Gullì looks at fragments of jars dating back to the Copper Age in the third millennium BC found in some caves on the Kronio mount at Sciacca. The study has shed light on some components of the diet of the ancient population living there. Traces of cooked pig meat and of tartaric, proline and syringic acids have been found among the various remains. The last ones prove the presence of wine in the diet. The discovery dates back about two thousand years in the history of wine in the Mediterranean basin, whose production would be, therefore, much earlier than the colonization of Phoenicians and Greeks.
Sicily: sustainable by nature:
Where nature is generous, agriculture can also respond in the right way. Sicily is the first region in Italy dedicated to organic agricultural production, which results in excellence in the world of wine. The primacy is made possible by ideal climatic conditions, fertile soils and winds. But also, by prodigious human attention and professionalism that is maintained by individual producers and supported by the Consorzio di Tutela Vini Sicilia DOC (which, since 2012, has led the way in conservation and the promotion of the wine heritage).
The work of the Consortium was started and continues towards sustainability, reducing treatments on plants and vines that are not necessary, precisely because the island’s conditions are favourable for growth. Sicilian sustainability is therefore intertwined with respect for one’s activities and authenticity, aimed at protecting the richness and variety of the territory. The result is a high-quality product that fully respects the environment, a wine born from the privilege of an island that is sustainable by nature. Tradition remains the root of oenological culture, but does not limit its vision: new generations of Sicilian wine producers — which the Consortium supports — work on increasingly modern and fresh wines, which look to international cuisine.
A 2018 decision to allow producers and bottlers across the island to bottle under the appellative umbrella code of Sicilia DOC initially led to a 124 percent increase in the number of bottles produced compared to the first two months of 2017. “A just reward for quality and control,” noted Antonio Rallo, chairman of the Sicilia DOC consortium, also known as Consorzio di Tutela Vini Doc Sicilia. “This growth data is no surprise to us and confirms the level of interest companies are showing in the Sicilia DOC designation. An important element is that all of the Sicilian DOCs showed a pattern of growth in the first two months of 2018, confirming, as in the rest of Italy, that our aim is increasingly focused on a designation system capable of guaranteeing greater quality and controls throughout the entire supply chain, both in Italy and abroad.” In 2021 Sicilia Doc bottled 96-plus million bottles, a six per cent increase as compared to 2020.
Signature varieties in red and white:
Take nero d’Avola and now grillo as examples of how Sicily has wrapped its arms around native grape varieties to create market share. Both grillo and nero d’Avola can only be sold under the Sicilia DOC label. Grillo’s achievement as a top 10 selling Italian white wine confirms the legitimacy of this decision and above all that consumers have greater confidence in a product that is protected and guaranteed. Grillo’s bottling numbers increased 26 per cent in 2021 as compared to 2020.
“We are very proud of the results obtained for our Sicilian grillo wines, which further confirms the growth trend of the Sicilia DOC label,” says Antonio Rallo, “but, in particular, it highlights how safeguarding autochthonous vines can bring excellent results in terms of sales and induce greater confidence in a market that is increasingly aware of the importance of purchasing a traceable product. The adoption of monitoring and control activities highlights the value of our vine varieties and acknowledges the importance of a controlled and guaranteed supply chain.”
Grillo was born from the crossing of two varieties, lucido (known widely as catarratto) and the aromatic zibibbo. Both Italian and traditional method sparkling wines are becoming increasingly commonplace in addition to a plethora of stainless-steel raised and some oak-aged grillo. The variety has taken hold in more parts of the island as the most planted white variety and leads the Sicilia DOC category for white wines.
The most widely planted red cultivar, nero d’Avola is native to Sicily. More than 19,000 hectares are planted across the island. It’s surely much older than what records show, yet the first literary mention was made by Sicilian botanist Francesco Cupani in 1696. He called it calabrese. The word nero translates as “black” and Avola is the eponymous name of the southeastern town, where the variety is still heavily planted. The grape was a go to for the Tuscans, Piedmontese and also French winemakers looking to use the variety’s dark hues, flavours and acidity for blending. Now the unequivocal signature red and icon for the island’s and in particular DOC Sicilia’s wine production. Nero also plays so well with other indigenous Sicilian grape varieties, namely frappato and perricone, but also with international varieties such as merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon.
Sicily’s aromatic whites and wines today:
In Sicily, the climate and especially the many micro-climates bless the island with levels of aromatic complexity that come straight off the skins of the grapes, especially the whites. The winemaker in tune with terroir is not in search of fat wines because, quite frankly, Sicily already has so much of everything. So the question is asked, “why do they need bigger and richer styles of wine?” This fundamental approach is surely an existential one but also one that is highly practical and when followed always leads to some of the most truthful aromatic white wines on the planet. Beyond grillo, Sicily’s main indigenous white grapes include lucido (catarratto), inzolia, zibibbo, carricante and grecanico dorato. From Blisson’s report we know that some believe the modern era of Sicilian wine began with the planting of international grape varieties in the 1970s. The likes of chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah were just some of the grapes introduced to the island during this period. Producers have worked to showcase these wines around the world. In recent years, many of Sicily’s top producers have reoriented their efforts toward the island’s diverse range of indigenous grapes. Sicily boasts over 70 documented local cultivars. Major focuses include the crisp, subtly floral and savoury white wine blends featuring the grillo white variety and powerful red wines from the peppery, dark-fruit scented nero d’Avola grape.
Food pairings anyone?
The 2019 Best Sommelier of Italy, Mattia Antonio Cianca, has made some stellar suggestions in this regard — and so allow us to share them with you.
Grillo sparkling (charmat method) with freshly shucked oysters with lime dressing or cauliflower tempura with lemon mayonnaise; grillo sparkling (traditional method) with Maine lobster, remoulade, granny smith apple and black truffle or crispy fried chicken seasoned with aromatic rock salt; grillo (stainless steel) with Thai mango and shrimp salad or octopus cevichs, orange, ginger, and coriander; grillo (oak-aged) with roasted pork belly with cider and cream sauce or grilled scallops, walnuts, yoghurt, marjoram, anchovy; nero d’Avola (rosato) with radish, pomegranate and fresh mint salad or Sicilian tuna tartare; nero d’Avola (unoaked) with spaghetti with sardines, pine nuts, sultana and wild fennel or smoked beetroot carpaccio, maple syrup, and chives; nero d’Avola (oaked) with roasted venison loin with rosemary and pickled cherries or beef stew with coconut milk and salted peanuts.
I recently sat down to taste through a varied set of wines with a focus on grillo, nero d’Avola, perricone and aromatic whites. Here are the top picks from the group, available at the LCBO or through consignment channels in Ontario agents’ portfolios. Please contact the agent directly to order the consignment wines.
Buyers’ Guide to Sicilia DOC wines
Caruso & Minini Naturalemente Bio Cataratto 2021, Sicilia DOC
Friendly, nurturing and comforting, tart in the ways of tonics and their botanical inclinations, superlatively complex.
Vino Lauria Grillo Giardinello 2021, Sicilia DOC
A smashing specimen, taut, concentrated and fulfilling. As savoury as it is perfumed, swelling in unctuous viscosity and the essence of flora.
Serra Ferdinandea Rosato 2021, Sicilia DOC
A joint venture between Planeta and the Oddo family from the south of France. Here nero d’Avola and syrah are made in the airiest salty and light-tart way; quenching and satisfying. You can drink the town out of this Rosato, any day, any time.
Dolce & Gabbana Rosa Rosé 2021, Sicilia DOC
A blend of nerello mascalese and nocera, two apposite varieties, one being the Dolce and the other Gabbana. Together they combine for exotic fragrance but also sweet candied florals, cottony feels and salty streaks right on through. Can’t think of a time when this Rosato would fail to please.
Cusumano Nero d’Avola 2020, Sicilia DOC
Even at this consumer-friendly price you get the real varietal deal from all-estate fruit in a wine of silken texture and not a matter of wood. One of the most honest wines at this price made and readily available just about anywhere.
Planeta La Segreta Nero D’Avola 2020, Sicilia DOC
Light, pure and honest wine that speaks in an Ulmo varietal vernacular though there too is some fruit from Noto. More grip, pomp, power and oomph from 2020.
Feudo Montoni Lagnusa Nero d’Avola 2019, Sicilia DOC
The confidence and warmth exudes from this musky, violet floral and intoxicating wine that simply speaks to the grape’s ideal perfume. Fruit is ripe, at once delicate and then peaking with power, albeit tempered, purposed and restrained.
Centopassi Cimento Di Perricone 2019, Sicilia DOC
Perricone may have an uphill battle to rival nero d’Avola but its smoky-herbal nature also brings structure, fresh acids and earthy, lightly roasted fruit.
Vino Lauria Zio Paolo Nero d’Avola 2020, Sicilia DOC
Wise, seasoned and expertly reasoned, of herbals and fruits stirred and swirled. Some meaty or, better yet, cured salumi skin muskiness plus a sanguinity with a hint of raisin.
Caruso & Minini Naturalemente Bio Nero d’Avola 2019, Sicilia DOC
As unique as it gets, aromatically speaking, in the world of nero d’Avola of frutta di bosco (wild fruits) but also the nuts, woods, brush and soils of an equally natural and wild kind. A nero of musk and grape must hyperbole.
Good to go!