Part I of this report concentrated on my short tour taking in several of Etna’s producers and wines. At the end of this trip I took the hydrofoil from Messina in the northeast of the island, over to the island of Vulcano. Here I would attend ‘Sicilia en Primeur’ as guest of an association of Sicilian wine producers called Assovini, whose members are responsible for 80% of the island’s bottled wine production. Right: sunset over Stromboli from the beach on Vulcano (click image for bigger version).
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean. Along with its minor islands (like Vulcano) it constitutes an autonomous region of Italy. Dotted with still active volcanoes, it is a dramatic place, with a typical Mediterranean climate of mild and damp winters and hot, dry summers – sometimes extremely hot. Proximity to the sea, and more importantly, elevation are keys to the best wine growing regions of Sicily. Though its winemaking history stretches back for centuries, Sicily historically meant quantity rather than quality. A few famous names did exist, notably the fortified Marsala and the Moscatos of Pantelleria, but otherwise Sicily developed a reputation for churning out big volumes of cheap, bulk wine. The last couple of decades have seen real change, led by estates like Donnafugata, and today Sicily produces some of Italy’s most exciting wines. These appear under one of over 20 DOCs (wine appellations) or broader IGT appellations. Sicily also has one DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, with red wines made from Nero d’Avola and Frappato. On Vulcano I had the opportunity to taste widely from all across the island’s appellations, as Assovini’s 70 member estates are scattered across Sicily. There are over 70 wines tasted below from dozens of estates, and I have grouped these by province, including a small introduction to the wines of each.
The tastings by province
The Palermo region in the northwest can boast three DOCs. The most commonly seen is Contessa Entellina which produces both indigenous blends as rosso, bianco and rosato, and varietal wines that include Syrah and Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The smaller DOCs, Monreale, Alcamo and Contea di Sclafani, use a similar mix of local and international varieties, and all can appear at Riserva level with longer ageing in barrel and bottle. Many wines from the Palermo province will appear under the DOC Sicilia – an island-wide DOC, or IGT Terre Siciliane – an island-wide IGT. Sicilia DOC, introduced in 2012, is controversial as it is allowed even for wines that are shipped in bulk and bottled in other countries – highly unusual for a DOC wine. However it has also given the island’s producers the opportunity to create an island-wide ‘Consorzio’ to work on improving and promoting the wines of Sicily as a whole.
Messina, at the point where Sicily almost touches mainland Italy, is the main port for transfers to Vulcano, Lipari and the other islands off of the north east coast. Some of these produce wine, and are administratively part of the Messina province. The mainland of Messina is a historic wine producing region, where mountainous and coastal vineyards grow similar varieties to Etna further south: Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, as well as Nocera. It has two DOCs, Faro for red wines only, and Mamertino with Nero d’Avola reds and whites based on Grillo and Inzolia/Insolia.
This was a nice opportunity to taste not only some extra vintages from producers I had visited on Etna, but to taste from several other estates that farm on the slopes of the famous volcano or in the wider Catania region. Etna is without doubt the star of the Catania region, and its climate, terroir and grape varieties are well covered in part I of this report. Vines grow on northern, eastern and south-eastern slopes, where altitude and the volcanic soils are the key to some of the island’s most interesting wines.
The beautiful towns of Siracusa and Noto are must visits on the southeast of the island, and the province can offer some very good wines. Both Siracusa and Noto have their own eponymous DOCs, with a broad range of wine styles. There are dry whites wines, mostly made from the Moscato grape, though historically the province has been famous for sweet white wines – also made from Moscato Bianco (AKA Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains) – which had their own DOCs. However Moscato di Siracusa DOC was subsumed into Siracusa DOC in 2011 as production of this style fell to negligible levels. The town of Avola is in the province, and gave its name to the Nero d’Avola grape, the provinces major red variety. By law Siracusa and Noto Rosso blends must have a majority Nero d’Avola, though it is often partnered by Syrah. For me, the sweet whites of Noto were the stars of this small tasting.
Ragusa province shares a couple of DOCs that overlap with its neighbours in the shape of Vittoria and Eloro, but it can boast that is also home to the island’s only DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Specially demarcated as a DOCG in 2005 to recognise the superior quality of its wines, Cerasuolo di Vittoria is a large red wine area, its distinctive wines blending the perfumed and cherry-ripe Frappato with the more structured and intense Nero d’Avola. COS winery and Arianna Occhipinti are two of the stars of this province, their organic and ‘natural’ winemaking turning out some terrific wines.
Like Agrigento below, Caltanissetta is a large province covering a variety of terrains from coastal to inland, and almost every style of wine is made including spumante, late-harvest, and Novello, the Beaujolais-like young wine that is popular in several Sicilian regions. Parts of the DOCs Contea di Sclafani and Vittoria lie within Caltanissetta province (see Ragusa above and Palermo below). Caltanissetta has the Riesi DOC all to itself, an area of hills that create a healthy variety of microclimates for the production of whites from Inzolia and Chardonnay, and reds and rosés from Nero d’Avola, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Sweet and sparkling Riesi is also produced, and the Mediterranean influence is felt here and in other southern territories of Caltanissetta.
Lying along the southern coast of the island, Agrigento is a big producer of wine, much of it is white and made from indigenous Inzolia and international varieties. The fame of the area might rest mainly on the magnificent Greek remains, including the Valley of the Greek Temples, but some very good wines are being made, many labelled as Sicilia DOC and Terre Siciliane IGT. Planeta also has its HQ in the province and it is an increasingly important source of quality grapes. Agrigento does own or share several DOCs, including Noto, Sciacca, Sambuca (unrelated to the liqueur of the same name), Menfi, Contea di Sclafani and Santa Margherita di Belice. The large size of the province, and variety of growing conditions from coastal to inland and mountainous, means a panoply of wine styles is made here, including passito wines made from dried grapes.
Trapani is home to some famous DOC names. These include the historic pair of Marsala DOC, also the name of an important coastal town, and Moscato di Pantelleria DOC, from the island of Pantelleria which is officially part of the province. Zibibbo is the local synonym for the Muscat of Alexandria grape on Pantelleria, and increasingly being bottled as such under IGT appellations. The vineyards of Erice DOC, also named after the local town, lie at between 250 and 500 metres and close to the sea. Nero d’Avola for red wines and Catarratto for white wines dominate Erice, but sweet wines are also made, predominantly from Zibibbo. The same two varieties feature prominently in Trapani’s other DOC names, Salaparuta, Menfi and Delia Nivolelli.
10 favourite Sicilian wines
This two-part report includes my tasting notes on 116 Sicilian wines, so I thought a quick run down of my top 10 favourite wines tasted might be a useful recap (in no particular order):
- COS, ‘Rami’ Bianco IGT Terre Siciliane 2012
- Arianna Occhipinti, SP68 Bianco IGT Terre Siciliane 2013
- Pietradolce, Vigna Barbagalli Etna Rosso DOC 2011
- Girolamo Russo, Feudo di Mezzo Etna Rosso DOC 2011
- Graci, Barbabecchi Etna Rosso DOC 2011
- Tenuta di Fessina, Nerello Mascalese Il Musmeci Cru Etna DOC 2008
- Casa Vinicola Fazio, Pietra Sacra Rosso Riserva Erice DOC 2008
- Corvo, Corvo Rosso IGT Sicilia 2012
- Azienda Agricola Rallo, Passito di Pantelleria DOC 2010
- Planeta, Passito di Noto Moscato Di Noto DOC 2012
Go to part I, the wine of Etna