Gone are the days when Sicilian wine was shipped en masse northwards to lend its sun-soaked alcohol levels to anonymous table wines. Sicily is back, baby, and once again starting to live up to its historic potential.
Archaeology reveals that Sicily has been growing grapes and making wine since at least 2000 B.C., and the winemaking methods continue to improve with each ruling dynasty. We know that the Sicilian Greeks had a game called kottabos, where they would try to throw wine from a glass to a bowl on the other side of the room without spilling any. The Romans claimed that Sicilian wines were a favourite of Julius Caesar, and that he served them at all important banquets. However, it was the Normans who really perfected the art of making wine.
Today, Sicily ranks third in Italy for wine production, boasting 20 DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) wines, denoting careful quality controls and typicity. The province of Trapani (including Marsala and Mazara del Vallo) alone claims 45% of all of Sicily’s vineyards. To try to make sense of Sicily’s bewildering variety of wines, below are some of their most important autochthonous varietals, or grapes that have evolved for millennia on the island, and some of our favourite DOC regions. International varietals like Syrah, Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay are increasingly popular, especially when blended with these local treasures.
Our advice? Try a bit of everything!
Red Sicilian Wine & Varietals
Whether red, white or rosé, you know it comes from the lava slopes of eastern Sicily’s great volcano. The white is made from carricante, catarratto bianco, trebbiano and mannella Bianca; the red and rosé from nerello mascalese, nerello mantellato and nerello cappuccio. Producers to watch include Antichi Vinai, Emanuele Scammacca del Murgo, Tenuta Scillo di Valle Galfina and Barone di Villagrande.
This grape, the most typical varietal of Etna, is named for winemakers from the Mascali plain (squeezed between the volcano and the sea), who increased its cultivation. Often blended with Nerello Cappuccio or other grapes, it brings an intense violet nose and full, warm and dry flavour to the mix.
Frappato di Vittoria
An autochthonous red grape named for the southeastern town of Vittoria, frappato is blended with Nero d’Avola (and sometimes Grosso Nero and Nerello Mascalese) grapes to make Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOC. Intensely red with hints of violet, its flavour recalls cherries. Producers to watch: Avide, Fatascià, Feudo di Santa Teresa, Poggio di Bortolone.
Nerello Cappuccio or Mantellato
Also called Mantiddatu Niuru, this grape from the Etna region is so named (“cloaked”) for its planting style. It is most often vinified with Nerello Mascalese, its less-intense flavour, fruity notes and very gentle tannins smoothing out the blend.
Named for the south-eastern town of Avola, this deep red grape used to be called Calabrese (from the Sicilian calavrisi, meaning “grape from Avola”) and is one of Sicily’s most important varietals. Its wines are well-structured for aging, with a deep cherry-red colour and a rich earthy nose with spice, mineral salts, and prominent red fruits. Vinified in steel tanks, it can make a fresh, fruity red when drunk young, while aging can bring it to its full potential of a harmonious, balanced, warm and dry wine worthy of great meals.
Sicily’s vines yield more wine than one blog post can contain. Check out our round up of the island’s whites and varietals in Vines 102.