Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France


Sicilia … finally

I have been promising myself a proper wine trip to Sicily for some years.  Janet and I have visited this great island twice before in the 2000s but led by an interest in the ancient world and in wild flowers. Since then commitments to the Italian mainland regions – and for MW student purposes, the small task of learning about the wines of the world – have led to repeated postponements. But finally, in late June 2016, we made the trip accompanied by fellow wine students, Pietro Russo, winemaker at Donnafugata, and Rob Rushmer.  In the meantime, I have learnt a great deal from Bill Nesto and Frances di Savino’s excellent book, The World of Sicilian Wine (reviewed here). In terms of planning where to visit, the Masters of Wine’s visit in 2012 was very useful.  Basically the itinerary was to land at Palermo airport and take an anticlockwise tour.  So we started with visits in Trapani and Marsala in the west, crossed to Agrigento and Menfi and then made a big diversion inland to Regaliali. After this, we headed south-east to Acate and Vittoria before turning north to a suitable climax on Mount Etna.  We visited 14 wineries in five days, crossed the island lengthwise (330 kilometres), stayed in a different hotel each night, ate endless excellent meals and only got badly lost once.  (We were of course within a kilometre of our destination but on an impassable track!) I would like to say a big thank you to Assovini Sicilia, the association of Sicilian wineries, for their help with the winery bookings, and JustSicily for finding the hotels (all different, all good to outstanding). The biggest thanks go to the individual wineries for their generosity in hosting us and in some cases for feeding us too.  

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My plan for writing up this week of heavily compressed experience is to set out some general themes about Sicilian wine on this page and then to comment on the wines and styles made from the Sicilian local varieties.  And there will be lots of pictures as Sicily is a very photogenic country.  Of course, the island is a part of Italy today as we experienced from watching the Italian national football team in action in Euro 2016 with fellow hotels guests. But in vinous terms, it is best thought of as a separate country. The varieties which really thrive here are the local ones, if made in a recognisably Italian style: broadly, moderately aromatic whites, well structured and refreshing reds and sweet wines from semi-dried grapes.  Plus some rosé and sparkling wines too.  

General impressions 
A long vinous history

With its position in the centre of the Mediterranean and thus of its civilisation it is hardly surprising that Sicily has a long history in wine. This is fully documented in Bill Nesto and Frances di Savino’s book with reference to wine from Phoenician times (eighth century BCE) and Homer in wine-critic mode commenting adversely on Sicilian wines.  The physical reminders of the recent history are to be seen in the palmenti which contemporary wineries have inherited. These often-large buildings are the wineries of a pre-modern society with open-top fermenters, some carved into stone, with a crude but effective systems of gravity feed. The size of these buildings is testament to the feudal history of the island with many large estates.  Then from the late eighteenth century, the British were responsible for the formerly very sizeable Marsala trade based at the western end of the island. Its physical imprint can be seen in the number of wineries and storage facilities, some active, some deceased, which crowd around the port at Marsala.  But the modern Sicilian wine industry, with its focus on table wines and its modern winemaking, feels like a completely different world.  

A swift journey towards quality

In volume terms, Sicily is still dominated by bulk wine production.  It is a big place with a highly reliable climate which allows huge volumes of wines to be produced, mostly at low prices.  Its annual production, average 5 million hectolitres a year, 2011-15 (ISTAT figures reproduced by Italian Wine Central), is 10% of Italy’s total production.   (It is sometimes stated, for example on the Jancis Robinson website, that its production is greater than Australia’s but today it is half of Australia’s – which is still impressive!)  And, unusually in Italy, a small number of large companies dominate its production reflecting a long history of important families and now large-scale investment by Italian and some foreign owners.  

While 85% of the wine is still sold in bulk, the remaining top tier is of a high quality. Any bottle by the big names, Planeta, Donnafugata or Tasca d’Almerita will deliver a technically well-made wine which will stand comparison at its price point with wines anywhere in the world.  It has one of Italy’s best and largest cooperatives in Settesoli.  (It was perhaps the one regret of our trip that it was not possible to visit Settesoli on this occasion.) 

Whites still dominate production

Given its warm to hot climate and Italy’s general reputation for red wines, it is something of a surprise to discover that white wine grapes are still in a two-to-one majority.  Historically this was, even more, the case.  Here is the overall situation: 

From these figures, you can see that the traditional whites – Catarratto, Inzolia, Grillo – used for table wines and for Marsala, dominate the whites. They are then followed by three imported varieties, interspersed with Zibibbo, the Sicilian (and indeed Pantellerian) name for Muscat of Alexandria. The three much-planted imported white varieties are the rather dull Trebbiano from the mainland which arrived when Sicilian viticulture valued volume over quality; Chardonnay, as everywhere else in the world; and the all-conquering Pinot Grigio.  For the reds, Sicily’s own Nero d’Avola towers above all other varieties, as Catarratto does in the whites.  Syrah is very much in vogue and it now has overtaken Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in the foreign legion.  The native Nerello Mascalese is planted mostly around Etna and if fact it used to be much more widely spread than it is now.  As elsewhere in Italy there is a resurgence in interest in the local varieties. Etna’s star white variety, Carricante, only just makes this list (just 146 hectares) while the reds Frappato, Perricone and Nocera (no figures) are being cherished once again.  

Local adaption to climate

Before we consider the individual varieties it is really worth underlining how well adapted the local grape varieties are to the very warm Sicilian climate.  Getting good meteorological data is always difficult but Palermo while being warmer than most vine growing areas has an average temperature in its warmest month of 25ºC, with a ‘hot Mediterranean/dry summer subtropical‘ climate.  Bill Nesto gives the average temperature for the warmest month for Sicily as a whole as 22ºC (p. 76), slightly warmer than the Barossa Valley. Of course, vines are not grown in an ‘average’ place and many factors such as altitude, proximity to the sea and prevailing winds can moderate these high temperatures. Nonetheless, the challenge in Sicily is to retain freshness and acidity and to have reasonable alcohol levels.  I am delighted to say that of all the wines we tasted in our week on the island, excluding the special case of Marsala, only one had a high alcohol level (Valle dell Acate’s Tané, 15.1ºC) and it has a portion of semi-dried Syrah in it.  The richest Nero d’Avola crus do weigh in at 14.5% but there are many fine examples at 13.5%. The whites are even better examples of a local variety being adapted to its climate with many Catarratto wines being just 12.5%, as is Donnafugata’s Grillo. Again the richer whites clock in at 13% but in general alcohol levels are entirely reasonable and as we will see all these local varieties have good natural acidity.  And these restrained alcohol levels are attained even though some of these varieties are picked quite late, for example, Catarratto at Feudo Montoni in late September/early October with higher 13.5% abv but a total acidity of 7.5 and a pH of 2.8!  Thus, the local varieties can have the benefit of a long ripening season for intense flavour but retain high acidity.  

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