Fine wine in Sicily?

I am still awaiting the opportunity to visit Sicilia properly to explore its exciting wine scene. In the meantime the next best thing is an excellent new book on the history, culture and development of wine in this the largest island of the Mediterranean. Here is my review:

Bill Nesto MW and Frances di Savino, The World of Sicilian Wine

University of California Press, 2013, 287pp

Italian regional wines are finally getting the literature which their inherent quality and interest merits as indicated by the publication of The World of Sicilian Wine. In the Anglophone world we take it for granted that we can buy serious studies of Bordeaux and Burgundy and a number of other classic regions. By contrast Italian wine has been served by excellent overviews (Belfrage 1999 and 2001) and the superlative d’Agata on Italy’s native grapes (2014). Very recently the first region-specific books have begun to appear, mainly thanks to the excellent work of two publishers: the University of California Press and The World of Fine Wine. Not surprisingly these started with Tuscany and Piedmont, the focus of fine wine buying from Italy. These regions were dealt with by Belfrage (2009) on the former and Kerin O’Keefe (2014) on the latter, following her earlier volume on Brunello (2012). But there is far more to Italy than Brunello and Barolo.

Nesto on Sicily

Until very recently the reputation of Sicily has been more for cheap, bulk wine, often used for blending, than for fine wines which reflect regional differences. Thus most wine writers would not regard Sicily as a suitable subject for a substantial monograph, even with the rise of the currently fashionable wines from Etna. Bill Nesto MW and Frances de Savino demonstrate how wrong they are. Their achievement is to try to give as full a picture as possible, setting the modern industry within a long term historical perspective. Bordeaux and Burgundy have many claims to fame but in terms of antiquity they cannot complete with a reference to ‘fine wine’ from Mount Etna in Homer’s Odyssey! Frances di Savino’s main contribution to this book is the historical chapter making the most of the scattered references to wine in Sicily from Homer down to the mid eighteenth century. Bill Nesto then picks up the story and writes at length about the current state of Sicilian wine.

There are many fine sections in this book. The chapter on recent history covers topics such as Sicily’s response to the threat of phylloxera, the advent of industrialised wine production, the rise and (with the honourable exception of Settesoli) decline of cooperatives, the growth of important, large scale family companies with an orientation to quality wine after 1990 and the metaphorical eruption of Etna in the 2000s. It is extraordinary how quickly Sicilian wine has improved and how recent this phenomenon is. Nesto’s particular strength is to explain complex developments in wine production and the business of wine in clear prose accessible to any committed reader. Alongside the accounts of developments in viticulture and wine making, he argues that the mentality of an frequently invaded island has led to a culture of mistrust which in turn has prevented effective collaborative action on the part of wine producers at regional and island level. By contrast in recent decades individual family wineries have flourished.

Other strengths of the book include the excellent chapter on the grape varieties, indigenous and international, which are now grown on the island. Did you know that Syrah, having been grown as an experimental basis in the mid-1980s, saw a 738% growth in plantings by surface area between 2000 and 2007? As a result it is now the second most planted red variety after Nero d’Avola. (No, neither did I.) Equally surprisingly, Nerello Mascalese, despite increasing plantings on Etna, is actually in decline on the island as a whole where it is being displaced by Nero d’Avola except for its star role on Etna. Nesto’s treatment of the Sicilian varieties would have been unique had it not been for the near contemporaneous appearance of Wine Grapes (2012) and Ian d’Agata’s book on Italian varieties. However, only he treats the local varieties alongside the international ones now being grown on the island.

The middle chapters of the book are taken up with the developing trends in vine growing and wine making on the island. Modern wine production was implemented rather late in the day but has led to a rapid rise in standards. MW students will love the pages on the work of Paulsen and Ruggeri who introduced phylloxera-resistant rootstocks which can also deal with the Sicilian requirements of drought resistance, high lime tolerance and high salinity. The second half of the book is organised geographically by region with sections on Val di Mazara (in effect western Sicily), Vale Demone (great name! Etna and the north east) and Val di Noto (south east corner). Within these sections, individual denominations or wines (eg Marsala) are dealt with in detail, with profiles of leading producers. This allows for in-depth treatment of regional climate and soils along with typical varieties. Some may wish for more detailed tasting notes on individual wines but there are plenty of ratings websites for a wine-by-wine approach. What this book does admirably is to provide the background and history to wines which most wine lovers will not be familiar with … and which they might now choose to buy and to drink.

My one regret about this book is that the maps come a very poor second to the text. There is just one map of the island as a whole which is vital to orientate the reader to key towns and regions. But it does not appear until page 153. A good quality, fold out map, early on in the book would have really helped the reader.

It will be clear by now that Bill Nesto MW and Frances de Savino’s The World of Sicilian Wines has put Sicily firmly on the map of fine wine and fine wine publishing. This is no mean achievement. And it sets a precedent for proper explorations of other important but less well known Italian regions. Here’s to full scale treatments of the wines of Puglia, of Campania, of Abruzzo and Molise, the Veneto, Umbria; indeed to the 17 regions of Italy which are not Piedmont, Tuscany or – as we can now add – Sicily.

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