White Sicilian varieties

As we have seen in the introduction to Sicily, this region still has a large volume of white varieties planted, especially Sicily’s own native varieties.  The most important of the white Sicilian varieties are Catarratto, Grillo, Inzolia and, latterly, Carricante.  Zibibbo has a very particular role to play. 

Catarratto Bianco 

This variety is the big daddy of Sicilian viticulture. With 38,000ha planted it is one third of all Sicilian plantings and second only to the ubiquitous Trebbiano as a white variety in Italy as a whole.  Catarratto has a parent-offspring relationship with Garganega and is a relative of Trebbiano Toscano. These three related varieties are therefore responsible for the characteristically low aromatic, high acidity, white wines which come from the mind-boggling total of 100,000 hectares in Italy or 15% of all Italian wine (ISTAT 2010 figures).  As such Catarratto is a work horse variety, a big and reliable yielder with good disease resistance.  It was totally dominant in the recent past when planting for high yields was the primary aim. As recently as the late 1990s it constituted 75% of all Sicilian plantings but has been reduced as other varieties have been planted and as part of the EU vine pull scheme.  Apart from being a good performer it has two other good suits.  Paradoxically the fact that it oxidises easily in the winery meant that it made a good base for Marsala in the days when this was a big industry.  More enduringly and relevantly to today, it retains acidity in a hot climate and ripens with a moderate alcohol level.  This is especially the case with the higher quality biotypes, Catarratto lucido and Catarratto extra-lucido. In comparison to Catarratto commune these have progressively higher acidity, lower sugar levels and, on the downside, tighter bunches, which mean the grower has to be extra vigilant about disease.  

But while most Catarratto wines are unremarkable quality there are exceptions which are worth looking out for and even ageing.  In June 2016 I tasted: 

Fazio Wines: Calebianche, DOC Erice (i.e. north of Trapani), 2015, 12.5% – lively lemon in colour with a hint of green, quite pronounced citrus, green melon and pineapple fruit with a chalky texture and a hint of something saline.  Attractive mid-palate weight (the wine is kept for six months on fine lees) and surprisingly aromatic for the variety. Bright acidic finish (MLF is suppressed). Impressive concentration from fruit from 80-year-old vines.    

Fazio Wines: Pietra Sacra Bianco, Historic Vineyard, IGT Terre Siciliane, 2012, 13% – again from 80-year-old vines here from a single vineyard at 300m above sea level.  This cru is made in a more opulent style and is now four years old.  Fermented in second-use barriques the wine is allowed to go through MLF and then spends a year on lees in stainless steel tanks before it is bottled.  Deep lemon colour; complex dried apricot fruit with herbal sage and vanilla undertones; Excellent depth of flavour and long.  Low yields of 35 hl/ha.  Catarratto made a bit like Grand Cru Burgundy! – less the ageing in barrels which would overwhelm this variety’s moderately aromatic fruit.    (The two Fazio wines feature in the picture above.)

Feudo Montoni: Catarratto del Masso, DOC Sicily, 2015, 13.5% – wine made from Catarratto Extra Lucido clones grown in vineyards up to 700m on this remote estate. Bush vines at very low density, 55 years old.  At this altitude, the grapes ripen a bit more slowly and are picked in October. The final wine may be a relatively full 13.5% abv but this kept fresh by remarkably high acidity (6.8TA and pH 3.1 – a figure more associated with England or Champagne than Sicily!)  Bright melon and peach fruit, tingling acidity which will give this the ability to age, full bodied and leesy.  Crystalline and precise.  I also enjoyed the monovarietal wine from Tasca d’Almerita and the 70/30 Catarratto/Viognier blend Barbazzale Bianco (for a fuller body and rather lower acidity) from Cottanera on Etna.  

Grillo 

Grillo has an undisputed place as the best quality variety for Marsala.  In the past the problem was that it had erratic fruit set and therefore yields which led to the super reliable Catarratto being planted instead.  But now there is a quiet hope that Grillo can make a come back, especially for dry table wines.  

Grillo is the perfect example of how children can turn out very differently than their parents.  The variety is the product of a spontaneous cross between Zibibbo (i.e. Muscat of Alexandria) and Catarratto, but it really does not have an obvious Muscat character.  If picked early it produces light, moderately aromatic wines, which reminds some of a restrained Sauvignon Blanc. If picked late it develops a gold colour which turns to amber with time, again moderately aromatic but with enhanced texture and palate weight. It goes nutty with age and hence its key contribution to Marsala.  But the real interest is in whether Grillo can provide top quality dry wines.

Donnafugata produce a newish Grillo called SurSur, 2015, 12.5%, their fourth vintage of this wine.  The variety is not typical of the Contessa Entellina area, 40 kilometres in land from the southern coast at Sciacca, where the grapes are grown but the wine is a perfect example of the light, crisp refreshing style of Grillo now being produced.   The grapes are picked in late August, fermentation temperatures are low and the final wine has lively citrus acidity (pH 3.2).  Peach and melon fruit, very clean, good length.  Beautiful contemporary labels which shout ‘exotic, accessible and fun’.  

The most serious example we tasted was Feudo Montoni, Grillo della Timpara, 2015, 13.5%.   Orange and floral notes on the nose, lots of dry extract and a nice bitter note on the palate, long and quite rounded (2.2g/l residual sugar) shows what happens with later picking.  Probably this wine has considerable ability to age.  Fazio, Aegades, 2015, 13% was also classy with a saline and leesy finish.  Feudo Arancio, Dalila 2013, 13%, is a good Grillo/Viognier blend with a hint of peach from the 20% Viognier (some barrel aged) followed by salty and herbal notes.  (Viognier as a minor blender with Sicilian varieties is clearly a bit of a trend in Sicily.)  Valle dell’Acate‘s Zagra 2015, 13.5%, 100% Grillo, is also a good effort, moderately aromatic with light tropical fruit and floral notes.  

This was quite a small selection of Grillo-based wines to make a judgement. It is missing, for example, the oak-aged Grappolo del Grillo from Marco de Bartoli, the pioneer who started to make quality claims for dry Grillo.  We did taste the slightly eccentric bottle-fermented sparkling wine here: Grillo Spumante, Pas Dosé, Terzania, Marco de Bartoli, 11.5%. This spends 18 months on the lees and shows cider apple notes and is lean and chalky.  While the latter two characteristics are shared with a certain famous Blanc de Blancs I am not sure the fruit character of Grillo really shines in the spumante version. 

All in all, I found these Grillo-based bottles to be good to very good wines, rather than truly outstanding ones.  I remain a bit puzzled about the buzz around this variety among the growers which we met. Or to put this positively, there were many interesting wines from the full range of Sicilian white varieties, without Grillo really standing out from the pack.  In my view there is a local star but we haven’t arrived at it yet!  

Inzolia

The third in the triumvirate of traditional Sicilian white varieties and the one also know as Ansonica.  The latter is the name used on the Tuscan coast where it produces crisp, lemon-scented wines which are very good with seafood on a hot, sunny day; its a classic holiday lunch wine!  The wine-parentage detectives tell us it is a relative of Grillo, Frappato and Nerello Mascalese, which suggests Sicilian origins.  Similarly the vast majority of the plantings are on Sicily, 8,000 hectares.  Like its stablemates it is moderately aromatic but is naturally tannic, oxidises easily and tends to lose acidity as it ripens (6g/l TA is rare) – all of which make it a good part of the Marsala blend.  It is a good partner for the more acidic Catarratto in dry wines.  

Having introduced Inzolia in this slightly underwhelming way, I have to say that we tasted some really good examples.  Valle dell’Acate’s Insolia 2015, 12%, (under its second label, Tenuta Ibidini) has a floral and grassy nose, and is light bodied with a grassy to citrus leaf finish.  Again at a higher quality level Feudo Montoni have released their first vintage of Feudo Montoni Inzolia ‘dei Fornelli’, 2015, 13.5%. 100% Inzolia from 30-year old vines.  It has a neutral, stony entry but then ripe melon and red apple fruit, with the vibrant acidity which is so characteristic of these Sicilian white varieties.  

There are also Inzolia-based blends which are worthy of attention.  Donnafugata, Vigna di Gabbri 2014, 13% is made up of 60% Inzolia in a complex blend with Catarratto, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.  This a high quality wine marries a interesting blend of broadly three low-aromatic varieties with the more powerful Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc, knit together by some subtle wine making. Most of the blend is vinified in stainless steel but the Chardonnay spends time in second and third-year old barrels.  Fine citrus and peachiness, nuttiness from lees, elegant dry, long, finish, very accomplished.  The well-known international whites do not dominate this subtle blend.  Equally intriguing is Tasca d’Almerita‘s Regaliali Bianco, 2015, basically a Sicilian/Italian Inzolia-blend: here the local variety (40%) is joined by Grecanico (the Sicilian name for Garganega, but you knew that!), Catarratto and a touch of Chardonnay.  Honeysuckle and ripe peach, real freshness (low fermentation temperature again, 14-16ºC) with some subtle complexity.  In both cases, the minor blenders are being used to add complexity and some depth to lemon and green fruit character of Inzolia.  

Zibibbo

Zibibbo is the exotic Sicilian name for Muscat of Alexandria, a heat and drought-resistant variety that can survive the drying winds and the sun of the island of Pantelleria. It also does well in the slightly more moderate but still harsh conditions on Sicily.  It comes basically in two styles, sweet wines of potentially great quality from sun-dried grapes and the modern table wine.   

The most famous examples, especially the sweet one, comes from Donnafugata.  The fruit comes from the volcanic island of Pantelleria, 100km from Sicily and just 60 from Tunisia.  The climate is hot, dry and windy with an average mean temperature in the hottest month of 25ºC (similary to Jerez, warmer than the Barossa Valley). The vines are grow in individual planting holes to protect them from the incessant wind and to collect every last drop of water (annual rainfall 450mm).    They are trained as low bush vines, planted at a density of just 2,500 vines per hectare and pruned very short.    

The dry wine Donnafugata’s Lighea, Sicilia IGT, 2015, 12.5% is concentrated, full of grapey and orange-blossom scented fruit, pretty full bodied with a salty finish.   The fruit comes from the youngest vines and the least hot sites.  From the old vines comes the world-renowned Ben Ryé, Passito di Pantelleria DOP, 2014, 14.5%, made from the fruit of 100-year old vines.  It is  the result of a blend of juice from two harvests. There is an early harvest of three quarters of the fruit around 15 August which is sun-dried for 20-30 days.  The raisined grapes are then destemmed berry by berry.  The second harvest is of very ripe fruit in September. The raisined berries are added in tranches to the normal must so as to allow fermentation to continue and the final result is a wine of 14.5% abv, a hefty 200 g/l residual sugar balanced by high acidity, 8g/l TA, pH3.8.  A wine of stunning depth of fresh orange, marmalade, honey and dried apricots with balancing freshness and acidity.  (The process is neatly summarised in Donnafugata’s artwork in the picture below.  

Zibibbo can also be used in blends: Firriato have a good example from the island of Favignava, 20 kms off the west coast at Trapani, in which the Z-grape makes up 40% plus Grillo and Catarratto. Favinia La Muciara 2012, 13.5%,  is aromatic and grapey, with some floral and citrus themes and moderate acidity.  

Carricante

I think it is a bit unfair that Mount Etna not only has the currently trendy red variety Nerello Mascalese but also a white variety of really high potential.  When it came to the prizes for ‘best native Sicilian variety’, they really should have spread the spoils around a bit more – though Nero d’Avola will have its proponents too.  What is unusual is that where is there a quite a lot of the two red varieties just mentioned, there are only 146ha of Carricante.  Bill Nesto tells us that it is the 31st most planted variety on Sicily!  The reason seems to be that growers and farmers of a previous age did not like its combination of low alcohol and high malic acidity – which of course now is a really valuable combination – though they did like its generous yields.  Most of the plantings are at altitude, 800-900+ metres, which also helps with retaining acidity.  The two DOCs, Etna Bianco and Etna Bianco Superiore require a minimum of 60% and 80% Carricante respectively.  

Carricante is one of those varieties that really does not need a lot of help in the winery.  Rather like Riesling, with which it is sometimes compared, less is more.  New oak is really out of the question, malo is an option to be occasionally played with, as is ageing on lees. Benanti‘s excellent Pietramarina, Etna Bianco Superiore, 2012, 100% Carricante, comes from 80-100 year old bush vines grown at 950m.  A long growing season with the grapes being picked in mid October produces wines of great concentration and intensity.  The vinification here is temperature-controlled fermentation at 18-20ºC in stainless steel with their own yeast strains, isolated from the yeasts in their old winery (palmento).  The wine is then aged on fine lees for two years plus a year in bottle before release.   Pale gold in colour, a powerful if taut stony nose with underripe lemon notes. On the palate these are joined by a hint of green melon and golden apple, followed by rounded, if high citric acidy and a certain saltiness.  We did not taste an older vintage but I am sure this would age well for a decade or so.  If you like wines of structure, intensity and acidity – think Chablis, Riesling, Grüner Veltliner or early-picked Semillon – you will love Carricante.  

A slightly different approach is taken by Tenuta di Fessina. Erse, Etna Bianco is fermented in stainless steel and is a blend of 80% Carricante, here blended with 17% Catarratto and 3% of the local table grape, Minella.  The result is not unlike Petit Chablis and its intended for early drinking.  The two crus from Fessina are both 100% Carricante and are fermented in large, old wooden casks – as of course nearly all wine was in the recent past. The fruit for Il Musmeci, Etna Bianco Superiore, 2013, 12% comes from four hectares with seven owners – another similarity to Burgundy.  There is a roundedness about this wine but what really strikes is the bright, green apple and citric acidity (7.1g/l TA) and the lemon pith fruit.  A Puddara, Etna Bianco, 2014, 12%, is yet more concentrated with great concentration, orange rind and apple notes and real length.  There is a slight grippiness on the palate which perhaps comes from contact with oak.  A fine, taut, structured wine with real quality. Cottanera kindly opened a bottle of the older Etna Bianco 2009, 12.5%, their first Carricante vintage.  Pale gold in colour now, it showed brilliant ripe, developed, melon and tropical fruit, a creamy palate and incisive acidity. There is no doubt that Carricante can be aged.  Their cru, Etna Bianco, Contrada Calderara, 2014 is given the part fermented in old oak treatment (40%) for a slightly more open texture.  Taut and herbal on the nose, a light biscuit note, rounded acidity, slightly lower than some examples but still a key feature (6.2g/l, pH 3.26).  This labelling with the name of the settlement (Contrada X) is undoubtedly the way Etna is going. How long will it be before these contrade are recognised along the lines of Burgundian villages?

As we have seen, there is a fine range of native white Sicilian varieties.  There are also good Chardonnays and Viogniers to be had, the occasional Fiano and rather too much inexpensive Trebbiano and Pinot Grigio. But the real excitement is in Grillo, Inzolia, Catarratto, Zibibbo and, especially, Carricante.   Here’s to the future of Sicilian native white varieties!  

 

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