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Once upon a time, not so long ago, the entire world of Italian wine was represented by a small handful of established reference points on U.S. wine lists and store shelves. If the past few years have brought an industry-wide renaissance of Italy’s lesser-known, but supremely high-quality, wine regions, among the first to reenter the spotlight was Sicily.
The largest island in the Mediterranean with a winemaking history that extends back to the ancient Greeks, Sicily has quickly ascended to the top of the list of the hottest things in Italian wine, its vibrant, mineral whites and refreshing yet generous reds presenting a completely different narrative about what the island’s wines can be. For those who might have overlooked the area in the past, one thing is clear: the rustic “table wine” stereotypes of days-gone-by couldn’t be further removed from the reality of Sicilian wine today. In recent years, the island has proven itself capable of producing a dazzlingly eclectic array of value-driven styles that perfectly align with the modern fashion for freshness, purity of fruit, and effortless drinkability.
That diversity is due to a variety of factors, not least of which is Sicily’s inimitable grab bag of grape varieties. In keeping with the era’s trends, Sicily first gained recognition on the world stage in the 1980s and ’90s thanks to its knack with international grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Syrah. Today, however, coinciding with growing public interest in the revival of Italy’s treasure-trove of native grapes, producers have increasingly turned their attention to the dozens of indigenous varieties that represent Sicily’s singular contribution to Italian wine.
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Several of these, such as Nero d’Avola and Grillo, have become highly prized, regularly gracing the pages of Michelin-starred wine lists across the globe. But the acclaim these star grapes have received hardly accounts for the full spectrum of Sicilian grapes that are now ripe for rediscovery, from reds like Frappato and Perricone to whites such as Inzolia and Grecanico.
Having adapted over centuries to the specific conditions of their own home turf, they’re the perfect medium for expressing the identities of the island’s various growing regions. From the southeastern plateau to the Mediterranean coast to the northern mountains, each region of Sicily bears its own unique stylistic calling card. While some have commanded much of the recent industry hype, Sicily offers so much more to explore. For a new wave of younger and increasingly adventurous drinkers, there could be no better introduction to Sicily’s astonishing stylistic continuum than the island-wide Sicilia DOC designation. Established in 2012 to represent the entire territory of Sicily, the appellation unites Sicily’s myriad expressions into a coherent whole while respecting the qualities that make each expression distinct.
Given Sicily’s status as Italy’s largest wine region, with an astonishing 98,000 hectares planted under vine, it should come as no surprise that the island’s geography resists simple generalizations. As geologically distinct and climatically varied as any other region in the world, it’s often described as its own viticultural continent. Straddling the Eurasian and African geological plates, Sicily’s unique morphology is the result of a complex series of geological and tectonic events, which have resulted in a particularly varied mix of terrains, soil types (including calcareous, volcanic, and schist), microclimates, and elevations, including the largest active volcano in Europe.
Despite the heterogeneous nature of Sicily’s geography, it’s possible to divide the island into several distinct areas, each of which imparts its own viticultural signature: the southeastern plateau (one of the hottest and driest parts of the island), the hilly central vineyard areas, the Mediterranean coast, the northern mountains (including the Madonie, Nebrodi, and Peloritani ranges), and the volcano of Etna to the east. While hillside vineyards account for 61.4 percent of Sicily’s territory, nearly a quarter of the island can be defined as mountainous. Flatlands cover the remaining 14.1 percent of the island, most of which lie along the coast, including the large stretch of vineyard land in the province of Catania, on the shores of the Ionian sea.
This intricate mosaic of geographic and geological factors directly translates to the vast range of wine styles and expressions that Sicily turns out today. As a broad, island-wide appellation, the Sicilia DOC label provides a comprehensive overview of Sicily’s larger identity as a wine region. As the next chapter of its evolution unfolds, there’s never been a more rewarding time to discover all that Sicily encompasses.
With this mission in mind, the Consortium of Tutela Vini Sicilia DOC works to protect, promote, and enhance Sicilian wine as a whole, with a focus on raising quality standards, preserving the island’s storied viticultural heritage, and deepening consumer education. As a result of their efforts, Sicilia DOC has emerged as a go-to choice for anyone looking to acquire a big-picture view of all that Sicily embodies today.
Sicily’s reputation as a mecca for food and wine spans more than 3,000 years. Situated at the crossroads of Europe, Africa, and Asia, with a history of winemaking that reaches back to Greek antiquity, the island has been influenced over the centuries by a rich succession of different cultures—Greek, Byzantine, Arab, and Spanish, to name just a few. As a result, with its unique blend of culinary and viticultural traditions, it’s impossible to separate Sicily’s modern identity from its ancient past.
Though grapes have been grown on Sicilian soil since Phoenician times, it was the Greeks, who landed on the eastern part of Sicily in the 8th century BCE, that established viticulture on the island in a systematic way, introducing new pruning techniques and enhancing quality. By the time of the Roman Republic, Sicilian wine was being enjoyed across the ancient world, with such famous figures as Julius Caesar and Pliny the Elder (the legendary Roman author and naturalist) numbering among its most ardent fans.
Sicily’s renown exploded at the end of the 18th century, when the English merchant John Woodhouse introduced the fortified wines of Marsala to the wider world. Transformed into a major hub of the budding global export market, the island’s wines were soon being shipped off to destinations as far-flung as England, mainland Europe, and the Americas.
Following the phylloxera outbreak of the 1880s, which decimated the island’s vineyards (along with the rest of Europe’s), Sicily’s wine industry entered a bit of a slump. In the past few decades, however, with technological advances, a renewed focus on indigenous grapes, and an increasing commitment to quality, Sicily has staged an epic comeback story, indisputably emerging as one of Italy’s most vibrant and exciting wine regions.
Key Grape Varieties
The blessing of Sicily’s sunny Mediterranean climate makes the area an ideal incubator for the cultivation of perfectly ripe, high-quality grapes. Although the island now boasts a long track record with the international varieties that brought it fame in the 1990s, these days sommeliers, critics, and importers all gravitate toward the island’s enviable roll call of native grapes. To that end, few regions on earth can claim such a unique assortment of materials. In total, 14 different indigenous grape varieties (plus 13 international ones) can be grown within the DOC, but several examples stand out as particularly noteworthy.
Red Grape Varieties
Sicily’s most-planted red, the robust yet supremely elegant Nero D’Avola has fueled much of the hype the island has attracted of late, thanks to its uncanny ability to reach high levels of concentration while still retaining freshness and mouthwatering acidity. Richly colored, full-bodied, and brambly, with notes of strawberry, sour cherry, and spice, Sicily’s signature red grape is capable of a nuanced range of expressions, from lighter, easy-going reds that pair perfectly with charcuterie and antipasti dishes to complex, structured versions, often aged with a touch of oak, that reward time in the cellar.
The ultimate “chillable red,” Frappato has acquired a small but rabid cult following among the latest wave of sommeliers, who swoon for the juicy, light-bodied grape’s ethereal structure, perfumed aromatics, and bright red fruit. Think of it as Sicily’s answer to Beaujolais, but with an herbal streak and grippy smack of tannins that instantly conjure the island’s southeastern coast (where most of it is grown).
Yet another one of Sicily’s ancient grapes to be rescued from near extinction (thanks to the latest generation of winemakers who have recognized its potential), Perricone primarily functioned in the past as a little-known blending grape. As winemakers have increasingly discovered, however, it’s charming on its own, yielding aromatic, savory, ruby-hued wines that draw comparisons to Barbera for their food-friendly appeal.
White Grape Varieties
If Nero D’Avola is often called the king of Sicily’s native grape varieties, Grillo would be the queen. One of the three varieties historically used in Marsala production, the grape has emerged as Sicily’s star white, proving to audiences across the globe that the island can do much more than big, ripe reds. Showcasing the versatility that is Sicily’s hallmark, Grillo lends itself to a vast spectrum of styles. These range from light, zippy, and citrusy versions (imagine grapefruit and fresh-cut grass) that pair perfectly with the local seafood to unctuous, mineral-rich, and textured expressions that acquire serious depth and complexity from prolonged aging on the lees.
Other White Grape Varieties
Although Grillo tends to steal the spotlight when it comes to Sicilian whites, the island is home to several up-and-coming whites that have started gaining in stature as varietal wines. Among the most promising, the ancient Inzolia grape—otherwise known as Ansonica across the Tyrrhenian Sea in Tuscany—is admired for its round body and a fleshy, nutty character that finds balance (like all Sicilian whites) with a fine spine of acidity.
It’s often combined with the vigorous, high-yielding Lucido (commonly called Catarratto) or Inzolia to form the basis for many popular Siclia DOC whites. When vinified on its own, however, with dedication and care, Lucido transcends its longstanding reputation as a Sicily’s great white workhorse, yielding crisp, coastal-influenced wines that combine floral aromas with notes of citrus, melon, and herbs (think fresh thyme and lavender). Finally, the late-ripening Grecanico deserves a special mention. Most popularly known as Garganega, under which name it stars in Italy’s Soave region, the grape assumes its own unique profile in Sicily, with richer flavors of honey, apples, and chamomile, and its signature tangy acidity.
What’s Happening in Sicilian Wine Today
As a symbol of Italy’s 21st-century enological renaissance, Sicily remains at the industry’s cutting edge, positioning itself for a future that promises to be every bit as bright as its ancient past. With that vision in mind, the island’s winemakers have discovered that the key to building that future lies in the responsible stewardship of their land, increased environmental awareness, and striving toward greater sustainability.
Like so many of the world’s wine regions, Sicily’s growers increasingly feel the effects of climate change. According to Antonio Rallo, the president of the Consortium, harvest typically starts 10 days earlier than it did 20 years ago for most varieties, and four to five days earlier for varieties with shorter maturation cycles.
Fortunately, Sicily’s natural endowments give it certain advantages in that struggle. With its warm, largely dry Mediterranean climate, the island benefits from being particularly well-suited to organic viticulture. In fact, it boasts the largest organic vineyard area in Italy, accounting for 34 percent of the country’s total surface area of organically-farmed vines.
While Sicily has long been a green leader when it comes to sustainable farming, more recently the Consorzio di Tutela Vini DOC Sicilia has deepened its commitment to the cause of eco-responsibility through the creation of the SOStain Sicilia Foundation. Established with the mission of measuring and actively reducing the impact of enological practices upon the land, as well as helping growers share best practices to respect the island’s holistic ecosystem, the SOStain project serves as a powerful example of Sicily’s dedication to sustainability, helping to ensure that its incredible diversity will be on full display for generations to come.