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A Sicilian Wine renaissance

In 2015, I took off on a 3-month long, world traversing trip that ultimately led me to Sicily. I had been to Italy a few times before but not to the island of Sicily. The reputation of the island with its capital city of Palermo has been shrouded in mystery for centuries, mainly fueled by the romanticized notoriety of Mafia crime “culture” whose origins date back to the Middle Ages. With its geographic positioning in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea straddling Southern Europe and Northern Africa, Sicily carries a rich history and both cultural and ethnic diversities. In that context, the island stands out from all the other regions of Italy’s mainland. The earliest records of human inhabitance date back to 10,000 years BCE. The Greeks, Phoenicians, Arabs, Romans and Normans were all inhabitants of what would be modern-day Sicily at some point in the history. 

Viticulture and winemaking have always been an intrinsic part of the island’s history. Ancient civilizations are believed to have produced wine there as far back as the 17th century BCE. The Greeks settled the island between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE. Mamertino, a type of ancient Sicilian wine, was said to have been Julius Caesar’s favorite. During the Byzantine Era between the 6th and 9th centuries, wine production flourished before ultimately falling into decay once the Muslims took over the island between the 9th and 11th centuries CE. Production again rose during the Aragonese Empire which ruled till the 16th century.

The weather conditions in Sicily are ideal for viticulture. Its abundance of sunshine balanced by moderate rainfall, hilly landscapes and soils enriched by the ashes of the Etna Volcano benefit grape farming. For centuries Sicily’s wine industry has gone through the pendulum of ups and downs. 

In 1773, inspired by Port and Madeira wines, a British merchant named John Woodhouse introduced Marsala wine. A fortified concoction usually made from local grapes of Grillo, Catarratto and Inzolia. Its popularity and production exploded, significantly contributing to Sicily’s economic boom. Then, in the late 19th century, Phylloxera came causing island-wide vineyard devastation from which it did not recover until the 1950s. To rebound from the crisis, the government encouraged very high yield vine farming, which led to the production of bulk, inferior quality wines, which blemished the reputation of Sicilian wines for decades to come. The change did not occur until the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Inspired by other Italian wine regions whose wines started to gain international recognition, an insurgence of new, ambitious wineries ensued. Local and foreign winemakers found inspiration and saw potential in the region’s climate, its unique selection of indigenous grape varieties, as well as an introduction of some international grapes.

A friend of mine and I flew from Tangier Morocco to Palermo in late July 2015. It was scorching! Temperatures were in the high 90s and low 100s. The city was bustling; the cars were honking, the hustlers were hustling, the street vendors were yelling and wildly gesticulating, the tourists were sweating, the street dogs were barking; practically everybody was there. Two full days in Palermo in that heat were enough. We dined at a few recommended restaurants, walked the charming streets of the old town, took a historic, scenic bus tour and ate tons of gelato. Most importantly, I tasted a lot of local wines, and I was hooked. We rented a car, appropriately a two-door Fiat, and hit the road, heading for Catania, a city on the east end of the island at the foot of Etna Volcano. 

There are three key red grapes in Sicily: Nero d’Avola, Frappato and Nerello Mascalese. Primitivo and Nocera are noteworthy, but their presence is limited. The leading whites are Grillo, Inzolia, Carricante, Catarratto, Malvasia and Muscat. In the international camp, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah have acclimated the best.

Here are some regions of note.

Cerasuelo di Vittoria DOCG: The only DOCG region in Sicily, the highest denomination in Italian wine classification, is Cerasuelo di Vittoria, located on the south of the island. It makes only red wines from a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato. The wine must contain 50 to 70% of Nero d’Avola and the remainder of Frappato. Cerasuelo means “cherry-like” in Italian and the wines exhibit, among other things, warm flavors of cherries and sour cherries. The marriage of the two grapes is of a complementary, symbiotic nature. Nero is a vibrant, spicy, tannic and earthy grape where Frapatto comes in with a delicate, soft structure and rose petal, raspberry aromatics result in a complex, flavorful wine of impressive aging potential. Many wineries make 100% Nero or 100% Frappato wines, but these cannot be labeled Cerasuelo di Vittoria DOCG.

Etna DOC: Some of my favorite wines in all of Italy come from here. The highest active volcano in Europe, Etna, is a formidable force of nature and a blessing to Sicily’s agriculture. The rich in minerals, volcanic soils reach far beyond the slopes of “Mama Etna” as the locals endearingly call it. Its presence changes the climate of the area from Mediterranean to almost Alpine, with intense sunlight and double the rainfall of other regions. Green pistachios, legendarily flavorful strawberries and grapes constitute most of the farming here. Driving up the narrow, steep roads of Etna, you enter an eerily beautiful landscape where dark grey, nearly black rocks and gravel of the mountain are the dominant building material used by the locals for their house walls, roads and driveways.

Carricante is the main white grape that produces mineral-laced wines with flavors of honey, citrus, anise and a touch of saline. Nerrello Mascalese and Nerrelo Cappuccio are the red grapes of the area, with the latter being a filler grape allowed a maximum of 20% in the mix. Nerrello is a finicky grape with high sensitivity to terroir and microclimate variations, making it analogous to Burgundian Pinot Noir. Generally, the lower altitude reds tend to be denser, fruitier with a more masculine structure. The high elevation vineyards with cooler temperatures and poorer soils produce wines of more ethereal structure, with earthy flavors and nuanced complexity. These wines can offer a primal sensory experience of visceral austerity sprinkled with the mountain’s ash itself.

 Marsala DOC: Briefly mentioned earlier, still remains as one of the world’s great fortified wines along with Port and Madeira. Since its inception in the late 18th century, the region has gone through many ups and downs. The downs which dominated were a result of decades of unregulated yield restrictions and winemaking practices. In 1969, the region was granted DOC protection, and in 1984 the production conditions were revised with the focus on quality over quantity. The wine has since improved dramatically, and strong efforts have been made to return it to its original glory. 10 grape varieties can make the Modern Marsalas, including the original trifecta of Grillo, Inzolia and Catarratto. Marsala has five aging-related categories: fine, Superiore, Superiore Reserva, Vergine/Solera, and vergine stravecchio from the youngest to the oldest.

DOC Noto: The region is named after the beautiful, baroque city of Noto situated on the southeastern side of the island, one of the hottest parts of Sicily. Two sun-loving grapes dominate in this arid climate, Nero d’Avola and Muscat.  Still, overripe grapes are a clear and present danger here, and harvesting at the right time is crucial to the wines’ quality. The region offers white, red, sparkling (spumante) and dessert (passito) wines. This is one of the most recent areas exposed to modern and innovative winemaking. The influx of ambitious and quality-oriented wineries has been slow but steady. One has to be careful when selecting wines from Noto because of inconsistent quality. “The old school” wines can be disappointingly high in alcohol, excessively ripe and jammy. 

Mamertino di Milazzo DOC: Hailing from Northern Sicily, Mamertino wines date back to antiquity of the BCE era. The wines come from both white and red grapes ranging in style from dry to sweet. Catarratto, Grillo and Inzolia grapes are used for the whites. Nero d’Avola and Nocera go into reds.

 “Without Sicily, Italy leaves no image in the soul. Sicily is the key to everything”, Goethe once wrote. Today the quote may sound like an exaggeration but be that as it may, Sicily’s uniqueness in comparison with other Italian regions is undeniable. The island’s landscape has a certain frozen-in-time feel. Mountains and hills dominate the scenery with sporadic, arid flatlands spotted with random stone farmhouses and dusty country roads with donkey pulled wagons. The people give out an aura of welcomed isolationism and stubborn integrity. They are beautifully raw in their appearance carrying both an external and internal no-nonsense intensity. The island inspires historical awareness and exposes humanity’s painfully duality; the ugly and evil side of ignorance filled with unspeakable atrocities, and the noble side, full of love, creativity and compassion. Yet the battle of the two will never stop, and there will not be a winner because in the realm of cosmic justice; there is no room for the minutia of human morality and self-righteousness. So, stay healthy and true to yourselves, my friends.

A few of my favorite Sicilian wineries:

PLANETA: One cannot talk about modern Sicilian wines without mentioning the Planeta family and their island-wide contribution to the elevation of the quality and reputation of the Sicilian wines. Their project, which spans five different wine regions with impressive winners in each, is the brainchild of Diego Planeta. Diego, the founder of the company, planted the first vineyards in 1985, and ever since, he and his family have been tirelessly striving and succeeding to put Sicily on the world wine map. They offer a wide range of wines in all colors and styles from both local and international varieties. Despite the size of the production, the quality remains their main focus.

AZIENDA AGRICOLA TORNATORE ETNA DOC: One of the oldest winemaking families in Sicily offers an eclectic lineup of whites, reds, a Rose and a sparkler.

TENUTA DELLE TERRE NERE: Tenuta Delle Terre Nere produces white, Rose, and red wines. The lineup of the reds is particularly impressive with their single-vineyard bottlings. The rare, small production Prephylloxera Calderara Sottana is spectacular if you can find it.

BAGLIO BAIATA ALAGNA: This one is a relatively small Marsala house that offers high-quality wines. It is also a great place to visit and partake in a very educational tour.

AZIENDA AGRICOLA COS: A winery in Cerasuelo di Vittoria founded in 1980 that farms biodynamically and is known for using ancient winemaking practices, including aging in terracotta amphorae buried in the ground.

MAZZEI ZISOLA: A winery in Noto OC in the province of Syracuse offers some impressive reds made from Nero d’Avola grape as well as import grapes Syrah and Petit Verdot

VASARI: Vasari winery in Mamertino di Milazzo DOC offers some delicious whites and reds.

By: Cezar Kusik


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