Italy's Cinderella Region (August 25, 2011)
The first thing Sicilians will tell you is that they are not Italian. And the inhabitants of the Etna region, surrounding Europe's largest and most active volcano, will impress upon you that they are "an island within an island."
The next thing they will say with pride is that while their island is the largest in the Mediterranean at just shy of 10,000 square miles, it is a continent in terms of microclimates and soils. The Mount Etna region, for example, gets three times as much rainfall as the rest of the island.
This diversity of climates, coupled with the different vineyard elevations, makes Sicily an exciting place to grow wine. Formerly the supplier of dark, alcoholic red plonk to put lead in the pencils of wines grown in the cooler northern provinces of the country (and if truth be told, surreptitiously, in other European countries as well), Sicily has emerged as Italy's Cinderella region. More and more mainland producers are buying vineyard land here, attracted by the land costs, the almost perfect growing conditions and the presence of ancient indigenous varieties that have nothing to do with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. At a time when wine consumers around the world are looking for something new, Sicily offers an astonishing collection of hitherto-unknown varieties.
Give yourself a gold star if you have ever heard of, let alone tasted, red wines made from Frapatto or Nerello Mascalese and white wines from Cataratto or Carricante. Throw in Gaglioppo, Inzolia, Grillo, Perricone and Zibibbo and you get the idea.
While many of the wines you see in the shops and wine lists there are made from these ancient varieties, the producers are making them more market friendly by blending them with international varieties, such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
The Greeks introduced the vine to Sicily during their colonization of the island around 800 BC. Thus there was a thriving wine industry on the island long before the Rhône Valley, Germany or Hungary, let alone the rest of Italy. Echoes of that early Greek history are still alive in the name of Sicilian white variety they call Grecanico.
If you ever had any sense of Sicilian wine – and it may not have even crossed your radar, let alone your palate – it was probably as a purveyor of bulk wines not unlike like the Languedoc of yore. Certainly Sicily might give that impression, since the region is the largest producer of Italian wine, making more wine than the annual production of Australia and New Zealand combined. Surprisingly, even today, only 15 per cent of island's production is actually bottled there, the lion's share being tankered out for blending or bottling abroad.
The most heavily planted area is in Trapani province on the island's west side, where more than two-thirds of Sicilian wines are grown, much of it white. While 70 per cent of the island's production is white wine, it is the quality of the reds that is capturing the attention of wine aficionados around the world.
Perhaps the two most interesting Sicilian wines are Nero d'Avola and Nerello Mascalese, both red. Nero d'Avola takes its name from the coastal town of Avola in commune of Ragusa in the southern part of the island, although today you won't find any Nero d'Avola vineyards there. Nero d'Avola has spread over the entire island to become Sicily's most prolific red variety. Good examples of the style are Planeta Santa Cecilia Nero d'Avola 2007, Duca di Salaparuta Duca Enrico 2005 and Valle dell'Acate Il Moro Nero d'Avola 2008.
The Nerello Mascalese grape is named after the Mascari plain in Catania, where the grape is believed to have originated. This variety, with its sister Nerello Capuccio, the region's "Merlot" to Mascalese's "Cabernet," is grown extensively in the Etna (the Burgundy of Sicily) and Faro DOCs. The best examples I've tasted of this wine (usually a blend of the two varieties) are Benanti Rovittello 2005 and Palari Rosso del Soprano 2007.
One of the most interesting of the local blends has been granted the island's first DOCG appellation by the Italian government: Cerasuolo di Vittoria is 60 per cent Nero d'Avola and 40 per cent Frappato. The best producers of this most indigenous of wines are Cos, Planeta and Valle dell'Acate.
What Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc did for New Zealand, Planeta Chardonnay accomplished for Sicily in the 1990s. But it is the indigenous whites that are so appealing today, such as Grillo, Inzolia and Carricante. At Benanti Estate I saw a Carricante vineyard that dated back 100 years. The wine made from those vines is labelled Pietramina. I tasted the 2007 vintage and it was nothing short of amazing, with its flavours of dried peach, apricot, toasted sesame seeds and honey with a thread of minerality from the volcanic soil of Mt. Etna.