Sicily, ‘the new Bourgogne’
Winemaking on this iconic island has been common practise for many a millennium. As far back as the Phoenicians and the Greeks, vine growing, and cultivating was part of the lifeblood of the Sicilians. But to classify it as quality production would not have always been true. It’s transformation into this dynamic industry today, was slow and sometimes lost. However now wine critics all over the world are flocking furiously to try these volcanic wines that are setting the industry alight right now. There is so much excitement surrounding these wines, that Sicily has now been nicknamed ‘the new Bourgogne’. Wines of great structure and finesse are fast becoming a calling card for this island, that was once known for mass produced bulk wines.
Legend has it that Dionysus, aka Bacchus was the first to bring wines to the region. Anecdotally it is believed the Sicilians have been producing wine as far back as 4000BCE. However, there is evidence that Mycenaean traders grew grapes in the Aeolian Islands as early as 1500 BCE. These were quickly succeeded by the adventurous Greeks who settled in Sicily and began their oenological domination in the 8th century BCE. Before the Greeks, vines were untrained and wild. Sicily is a natural utopia for Vitis Vinifera. But without proper training and pruning, vines overcrop and produce fleshy, bland grapes. The practise of ‘alberello’ (vines trained low to the ground) was introduced by the Greeks and is still used today. Wine volumes then increased under Roman rule. They continued to cultivate vines and produce quality wines in much greater quantities, exporting them all over Europe, including the eponymous Gaul region, and Spain and Germany. They often traded Sicilian wines based on their alcoholic power and their unique qualities.
The dry, warm climate in Sicily defines the successes of the industry. When vines are trained accordingly, they can benefit from the long dry growing season. Grapes can bask in the summer days and increase their sugar levels and ripeness capabilities. It is regular sunshine and moderate rainfall that suits quality wine production so well. This combined with the arid conditions of the nutrient rich volcanic soils, allow for a lower propensity for rot and mildew. Thus leading to healthier soils and the reduced requirement for fungicides and pesticides. All these elements allow Sicily to spearhead a trailblaze to become one of the world’s leading regions of ecological and sustainable winemaking. They are prime candidates for organic farming. In today’s industry many of the producers have garnered wide praise for their organic, bio-dynamic and natural wines. A far cry from the previous high yield, bulk production wines that were overly sweet and loaded with alcohol.
Sicilian vines now account for almost 18% of the Italian total. They account for the largest producing region in the country. But this time great care is taken to produce wines of quality with better balance and structure. It is more of a concentration on innovation and skill, rather than volume and quantity. Paradoxically, 70% of the wines produced are white. Generally quality white production occurs in cooler regions. But many of the indigenous white grapes are uniquely suited to this warmer climate. Furthermore, white vines are being planted further and further up in the foothills of Mount Etna to achieve the long summer days, but the cooler nights and more moderate temperatures. Truthfully though it is the reds that are causing the international stir, with many believing this is the ‘golden era’ for Sicilian reds. The major string to their bow is their treasure trove of indigenous grape varieties are their disposal. Indigenous varieties that have had time to adapt and mellow to the micro climates and therefore less intervention is required, again. Currently there is abundant research and development of their local grapes to further enhance the individuality and uniqueness of Sicilian wines. In their research centre found outside of the main city Palermo, local grapes like Inzolia, Grillo, Nero d’Avola and Frappatto are studied and cross examined to hone and perfect the local grape to suit the local climate, all in the quest of synergy and exceptional terroir elements.
Nero d’Avola is arguably the most important red grape in Sicily. Deeply coloured, yet fresh cherry, spicy like wines are made from this now ubiquitous grape. Such is its popularity and recognisability, that every restaurant wine list in the country is rushing to add a Nero d’Avola to their menu. Not alone are they trendy, but also incredibly suitable to so many foods due to their generous acidity and tannins.
Inzolia was traditionally a grape used in the blending for the infamous local fortified wine known as Marsala. Produced in a range varying from dry to sweet and everything in between, these wines were traditionally in the market competing against the likes of Madeira, and Sherry. As the trend of sweet wines continues to decline, Inzolia is now cultivated to produce crisp, dry whites in line with consumer preferences. However, they are considerably more interesting than the bland and often over produced Pinot Grigio. Laden with citrus fruits and herbal notes, these are delightful on a hot summer’s day.
Grillo is the other most prominent white grape of the island. This was also included in the blend for Marsala, but thankfully now is cultivated to produce fresh whites with aromas and flavours of white melon, grapefruit, green apples, and hints of pineapple. In terms of fruit driven whites these are top class. And generally cropped in lower yields to give better quality wines. These Grillo’s are continuing to pop up more and more on shop shelves thankfully to quench our summer thirsts.
And finally, Frappato. This was originally used to blend with Nero d’Avola for the only DOCG on the island Cerasuolo di Vittoria. It is believed it is a clone of Sangiovese. They produce light and tangy reds, that exude red berries, rhubarb, and violets. And stylistically are not a million miles away from a well-made Beaujolais, which again makes them an ideal summer red wine.