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The Wines of Sicily

Updated: May 25

Sophisticated and complex mineral wines alongside full-bodied, fruit-rich varieties, grape varieties that were brought by the ancient Greek settlers, and one specific wine invented by a sophisticated English merchant... If you haven’t had the chance to immerse yourself in Sicily’s wine offerings, now is the time. Sicily boasts not only fantastic food and scenery, but also wine!


It is no secret that Sicily is one of my favorite regions in Italy, and there is no question why: this wonderful island has it all. Beautiful scenery and magnificent beaches? Check. Excellent food? Check. And check again, as my jeans could attest; I couldn’t button them after a two-week holiday... Historic spots, culture, archaeology, architecture, and international-level art? Check. And plenty of it. Lively culture and charming people? Of course. But amidst all of these, there is another matter worthy of attention—Sicilian wines. If you are a fan of mineral wines from volcanic areas, like me, Sicily is a must.


Vineyards at the foot of Mount Athena in Sicily
Vineyards at the foot of Mount Athena in Sicily - Photo: Depositphotos

Some Background

When talking about Italian wines, it is customary to name the northernmost regions, such as Tuscany, Veneto, and Piedmont. However, Sicily is an important region: in the past, it was solely due to the amounts of wine produced in it, but nowadays it’s also due to the quality of some of the wines. Over 620 liters of wine are produced on the island annually. No less than 23 wines have achieved DOC status, though only one achieved DOCG status.

The tradition of winemaking in Sicily is thousands of years old, and it is likely that grapevines grew naturally on the island. However, if we wish to pinpoint a precise date for the beginning of the Sicilian wine industry, we may say the origins can be traced back approximately 2800 years, when the Greeks, known for their enthusiasm for wine, conquered the island and brought not only grapevines but also the technical knowledge of wine production.

The Ancient Romans learned from the Greeks, preserving the tradition, and admiring Sicilian wines, renowned for their very high quality. During the Byzantine Era, the industry continued to thrive, with monasteries playing a significant role in preserving the tradition, as was the case in other parts of Europe. Thanks to the monks and nuns, the technical knowledge of grapevine cultivation and wine recipes remained intact. Although the Sicilian wine industry shrank during Muslim occupation, it certainly did not vanish and was rejuvenated when the island was conquered by the Normans in the 11th century.


Sicily is renowned for its fertile lands. However, as experts explain, the same fertile land also harmed it: because of various subsidies and financial incentives, many farmers began planting large numbers of grapevines and producing significant quantities of bland and tasteless wine. Emphasis was placed on quantity over quality. The result was clear: the reputation of Sicilian wine rapidly declined, which was a regrettable outcome.

Indeed, wineries of this kind still exist today, but a different approach has undoubtedly risen to prominence, and new players have filled the island, eager to alter the rules of the game. Consequently, some historic manors and many young and new producers opted for a new direction—high-quality, innovative, and creative. Another crucial factor to consider is the significant and highly challenging climate changes occurring in Sicily. Therefore, many wineries have been placing greater emphasis on environmentally friendly production methods, striving to be as eco-friendly as possible while preserving natural resources.

As mentioned previously, 23 Sicilian wines have been awarded the status DOC. However, in my opinion, listing them all is unnecessary. Instead, I have chosen to focus on several particularly interesting wines. Two of the wines on the list are sweet and considered excellent dessert wines, and I recommend trying them even if you are not particularly fond of dessert wines. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised.


Cerasuolo di Vittoria

Let’s begin with the flagship wine, or at least the most famous wine in Sicily, which is the only one to be awarded DOCG status. Cerasuolo wine is produced from two grape varieties typical of the island: Nero d’Avola and Frappato. There are two versions of the wine: Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG, exclusively produced around the town of Vittoria, and Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG, produced in a wider area, which encompasses the provinces of Ragusa and Catania as well, and is aged for at least 18 months.


This is a big, dominant wine, characterized by a bright color when it is young, but as it ages the colors become subdued and the taste rounder. Cerasuolo fills the palate with dominant fruitiness, and the aromas develop over the years, starting with floral and fruity notes, and later, with prolonged aging, aromas of chocolate, leather, and sweet spices develop.

Like every wine holding the DOC or DOCG status, the Cerasuolo wine follows an official recipe, mandated by law: the wine must contain 50-70% Nero d’Avola grapes and 30-50% Frappato grapes. Nero d’Avola is arguably the most well-known on the island; it is considered a native variety, said to have arrived with the Greek settlers who conquered the island in the 8th century B.C. The Nero d’Avola, also known as Calabrese, gives structure and body to the wine, and wines based on this grape variety might be coarse and harsh, but with proper care, a magical transformation occurs: the wine softens and develops a wide variety of aromas and flavors: red and black fruit, liquorice, vanilla, clove, and violet. Frappato grapes, being much more refined, contribute fruitiness, tannins, and floral aromas to the wine.


Where can I try it?

If you find yourself in the westernmost corner of Sicily, I recommend visiting one of the most historic and famous wineries: COS. Critics adore this winery for its diligence, high quality, and ability to blend innovation and tradition. Grapevines are cultivated following biodynamic principles, and COS wines are among the most renowned in Sicily. While trying the Cerasuolo is a must, don’t limit yourself: it is highly recommended to explore other wines, not bound by legal constraints, that provide insight into winemakers’ creativity.

Another renowned winery is Donnafugata, but I will delve into it further in the section dedicated to Passito di Pantelleria.


Etna Bianco and Etna Rosso

Sicily is a delightful destination for mineral wine enthusiasts, and the rich volcanic terrain around Mount Etna lends wines produced in this area an exceptionally diverse range of aromas and flavors. Etna wine, as its name suggests, is cultivated in close proximity to the volatile area: Mount Etna stands as the highest and most active volcano globally, with regular minor eruptions. Equally significant is the fact that grapevines are planted at very high altitudes and experience significant diurnal temperature variations. Another factor influencing flavors is age—some grapevines here are 70, 80, or even 100 years old! The yield is naturally very limited, but the quality is exceptional.


Only officially recognized grape varieties are permitted for producing Etna Rosso: 80-100% Nerello Mascalese grapes and up to 20% Nerello Cappuccio grapes. However, Etna Bianco is crafted from Carricante grapes, with a minor addition of Catarratto.

Nerello Mascalese grapes arrived in Sicily with the Greeks during the 8th century B.C. This variety is considered resilient and high-quality, thriving in less-than-ideal conditions among the black basalt stones. It flourishes at high altitudes, ranging from 350-1000 meters above sea level. Some liken it to Nebbiolo grapes, the renowned grapes from the Province of Piedmont, used for making the celebrated Barolo wine, due to their quality and the technical challenges they present to vineyardists. The altitude and terrain render mechanical harvesting impossible, necessitating manual harvest in most vineyards.


Carricante grapes, on the other hand, form the foundation for white Etna wines, which are just as exceptional as their red counterparts. They thrive along the east side of Etna, facing the sea, flourishing at even higher altitudes than Nerello Mascalese! —and the grapevines are prolific in fruit. In fact, the name ‘Carricante’ originates from the moniker given to them by Sicilian farmers because this variety is capable of filling entire carriages (carri). According to the law, Etna Bianco DOC must contain at least 60% Carricante grapes, whereas the minimum requirement for Etna Bianco Superiore is 80%.


The result is magnificent: wines boasting a diverse array of scents and aromas, ranging from citrus fruit and basalt stones to white and yellow flowers. The subtle saltiness is imparted by the sea breeze. The wine exhibits a full and elegant body, making it a perfect complement to the fish and shellfish dishes for which Sicily is renowned.


Where can I try it?

One of the top winemakers is I Custodi delle Vigne dell’Etna. The name declares its purpose, as it means ‘the guardians of Mount Etna’s vineyards’ in Italian. Certainly, you should try both their white and red wines. Particularly notable are their Aetneus (red) and Aedes (white).

Another highly recommended winery is Pietradolce, which translates to ‘sweet stone’ in Italian. This winery is relatively new, embodying modernity in the finest sense, employing progressive methods with a profound respect for ancient tradition. Some of the wines, like Barbagalli Etna Rosso DOC, are crafted from grapevines nearly a century old, and the result is outstanding!


Passito di Pantelleria

Italy, and specifically Sicily, boasts a long and magnificent tradition of dessert wines – alcoholic, opulent wines aged for particularly long periods of time. Passito de Pantelleria, formerly known as Moscato di Pantelleria, originates from the island of Pantelleria, situated near the beaches of Trapani. The production process is simple yet meticulous: after harvest, the grapes are naturally dried, leading to significant water evaporation and an increase in sugar concentration. During fermentation, the sugar is then converted into alcohol. The evaporation process is delicate, requiring proper ventilation to prevent mold and decay. Subsequently, the wine undergoes production and is aged for 15-18 months. This wine perfectly complements Sicily’s exquisite desserts, especially those featuring almonds and marzipan.


The wine is made from Zibibbo grapes, an aromatic variety belonging to the Muscat family, also known as Moscato di Alessandria. The Romans brought this grape variety from Alexandria in Egypt, and it was seamlessly integrated into Sicilian viticulture. So well, in fact, that it appears to have been native to the region. The outcome is a wine characterized by its rich aroma, flavor, and enticing golden color. It’s not surprising it earned the moniker ‘liquid gold’ in the 19th century.

The island of Pantelleria is highly recommended for a visit, not only for its wine. This volcanic island, situated near Tunisia, is ruggedly beautiful and possesses ideal characteristics for producing distinctive wines. Donnafugata operates one of its wineries on the island, where relentless efforts are dedicated to landscaping and cultivating grapevines despite the harsh conditions. Harvesting is exclusively manual, conducted at high altitudes, with grapevines planted on dry terraces reminiscent of Liguria, requiring constant maintenance. The result of this strenuous effort is the absolutely fantastic quality of the wine, akin to other offerings from Donnafugata. Especially recommended is the Ben Ryé, not only for its compatibility with desserts but also its perfect pairing with pungent cheeses like Piccante Gorgonzola.

Speaking of sweet, unique wines, one of my favorites must be mentioned, although it’s worth noting that it’s not easy to find: Malvasia delle Lipari, made from Corinto Nero and Malvasia Bianca grapes.


There are three versions of this wine: Malvasia delle Lipari liquoroso, Malvasia delle Lipari DOC bianco, and Malvasia delle Lipari Passito. Lipari is a volcanic island located among the Aeolian Islands, a highly sought-after tourist destination. Naturally, the terrain and climate play a significant role in shaping the wine.

Marsala

The story of alcohol in Sicily is closely entwined with the arrival of foreigners on the island. The Ancient Greeks introduced grapevines and cultivation techniques, while thousands of years later, the British brought business acumen and networks. The most prominent example of this is Marsala wine: a fortified wine produced around the town of Marsala using a method similar to the production of sherry. The popularity of Marsala is attributed to English merchant John Woodhouse, whose ship was caught in a storm and forced to anchor in the local port. While staying in the town, Woodhouse tasted the Marsala, loved it, and decided to send a large number of barrels to his home country. To prevent the wine from spoiling during the journey, Woodhouse added alcohol to it, thus creating a fortified wine that resembled sherry and was greatly favored by British consumers. Woodhouse realized he had discovered a remarkable method to dominate the market and directly compete with the wealthiest wineries in Portugal, renowned for Madeira wine, and Spain, famous for sherry production.


Where can I try it?

For a fusion of history, drama, and delicious wines, you should visit the historic winery of the Florio family, without a doubt.


A few more wines worth getting to know

As in all the other provinces in Italy, in Sicily too, a considerable part of the most interesting wines do not fall into any official category, or at most meet all the criteria in the broad (and important) "IGT Terre Siciliane" category. Therefore, it is worthwhile and recommended to also try other wines, in quality wineries. Try for example Tenuta Gorghi Tondi, Settesoli winery, and Morgante winery.

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