Sicily: The Island Nation


As a country – or as its inhabitants would say, a continent – unto itself, Sicily is the most truly unique and also diverse of Italy’s regions. It was dominated and oppressed over the course of thousands of years, and each group of unwelcome occupants left their own cultural mark, whether it be food, wine, art or language, all of which Sicilians take great pride in. The landscape is as diverse as the people, yet also quite extreme, from the scirocco-swept island of Pantelleria in the southwest, to the arid, sandy vineyards on the shores near Noto and Vittoria in the extreme southeast, to Mount Etna in the north, where the climate is cool, moist and nearly continental and the soils turn to volcanic stone and lava flows. Still further north, we arrive at the Mediterranean-influenced and picturesque Aeolian Islands, between the shores of Sicily and mainland Italy. Finally, back to the heart of Sicily, wrapping around the northwest horn of the island, we find Palermo, Marsala and Menfi, where soils shade more to clay, but under the unrelenting dry heat and light that the entire island's agriculture thrives in. 

Palermo's Cathedral.

As amazing as this all sounds, and as ingrained as wine has always been in Sicily, it has not been an easy road to where we are today. 

The path that led me to Sicily was food, but not in any restaurant or book. Instead, my introduction to the region and its incredible culture, history, food and wine came from the family that moved in next door to us in Queens, New York, when I was only three years old. Even though I was raised primarily with a southern Italian leaning, our new neighbors’ ways, their language and the amazing aromas that would emanate from their kitchen were both alien and irresistible. Oftentimes, their conversations would take place without a single spoken word, instead using hand signals, facial gestures and eye movements, as they were quite guarded and protective, as well as suspicious of anyone they didn’t know. It was through their children, around the same age as I was, that I learned so much about Sicilian pride and their unparalleled devotion to family, friends and elders. Spending countless days playing in our yards and snacking on the unique array of foods that would emerge from their kitchen window created many of the happiest memories of my life. Red sauces were made through a flash in the pan, not over the course of a day. All vegetables, of which there were many, were fresh and often from their garden. I doubt they ever heard of boxed pasta; instead, freshly cut strands of their own making would be left out hanging to dry. Then there was the sweet tooth, something I wasn’t accustomed to, which came in the form of all kinds of cookies, sweetened ricotta-filled pastries and citrusy sorbetto. All of this ultimately resulted in me finding my way into their kitchen, to learn at the hip of their mother and nonna (grandmother), as they cooked all day long. As for wine, it flowed, but from large jugs that were kept in the refrigerator or under the sink. I was always welcome to have a small cup (no stems were found in this house) of that heady, intense, rich juice. 

These were my first impressions of Sicily and its culture, foods and wine. However, when fine wine became a study of mine many years later, Sicily wasn’t on my list of regions of focus, but it certainly would be on that list today.

With a vine-growing history that predates the arrival of the Greeks on its shores, Sicily has always been an island that places tremendous importance on the production of wine. Through numerous occupations, invasions, world wars, poverty and multiple failed attempts by the Italian government to improve their agriculture systems, the island endured. Oftentimes, this happened at the expense of farmers and families who would tend their parcels of land to fill the coffers of the large cooperatives, of which there were many. For decades, the quality-minded growers and winemakers of Sicily worked hard to rise above stereotypes of overproduction and substandard wines, but there was simply too much quantity to contend with. Finding a good bottle of Sicilian wine, versus one that was produced through a system of lowest common denominators, was nearly impossible. In fact, there was a time when it seemed that wine lovers and collectors were about to write off Sicilian wine – that is, of course, until the rediscovery of Mount Etna. 

An aerial view of Planeta's vineyards in Capo Milazzo, one of Sicily's northern-most winemaking regions.

Through the efforts of a handful of forward-thinking and inspired winemakers who were willing to gamble on the potential of the location and its two main local varieties, Nerello Mascalese and Carricante, Mount Etna suddenly became the new catchphrase for Sicily. How sudden? For someone like myself who was an active collector at the time, it almost seemed like overnight, but the reality is that it took years for word to truly get out. Wineries such as Benanti, Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Passopisciaro–Vini Franchetti and Frank Cornelissen began operation in the early 2000s and paved the path for a wave of interested winemakers, not just from Sicily but from all of Italy, who were eager to stake their claim on a patch of Etna’s volcanic soil. Word spread of ancient vines and the old-timers who farmed them, unearthed stone palmenti (with wooden presses still intact), high elevations, lava flows and a mix of soils so diverse that every swath of land would reveal something unique. These stories filled the wine magazines and message boards of the time. As for the wines, they were good; they were very good. The reds were pure and delicate yet structured, reminding many of the great Nebbiolos of the north and Pinot Noirs from Burgundy. As for the whites, they too were compared to many of the greatest and longest-lived wines of the world. The best part is that Mount Etna was not just a fad, and it went on to prove its importance and prestige over and over again. 

What this did for Sicilian wine is unparalleled by anything else over the last 20 years, because now Sicily had the attention of the wine-loving public. Suddenly, collectors were willing to sort through all of the bulk wines and sauced-up plonk to find the hidden gems throughout the island. Those passionate producers who had been working so long and hard to prove the potential and importance of Nero d’Avola, Frappato, Catarratto and Grillo now had an audience, and one that was open-minded and experimental. Wineries such as Arianna Occhipinti, COS, Marco De Bartoli, Donnafugata, Feudo Montoni, Gulfi and Planeta could tell the histories of Menfi, Marsala, Noto, Pantelleria, Vittoria and the Aeolian islands, and wine lovers would actually listen. Like a chain reaction, this new interest in Sicilian wine did exactly what we hope it will do yet seldom does: it inspired producers to do better. And so here we are today, in the new Sicilian wine landscape, where the odds have swayed in our favor and great wines are abundant. 

An overhead view of Terre Nere's Bocca d'Orzo cru, an island of vines left unscathed by the lava flow that destroyed this vineyard in 1981.

A Litany of Grapes, Where to Find Them, and What to Expect

The diversity of Sicilian terroirs means many sites are able to succeed with a wide range of grapes in a warm-climate style. The north side of Mount Etna, which also receives cooling currants from mountains in the north, is a notable exception. It’s on Etna alone where the red Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, as well as the white Carricante, thrive; and while the warmer vintages can turn out larger-scale and richer wines, more often than not, these aren’t expressions that the average person would associate with Sicily, comparing them more to Burgundy in style. It should come as no surprise that a small number of producers are trying their hand at Pinot Noir on these volcanic slopes. Speaking of Pinot Noir, prior to the rise in Sicily’s success with indigenous varieties, many locals believed that the best way to prove the importance and potential of the island was through international varieties – and so Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot and Chardonnay found their way into the clay-rich soils of the island’s northwest. Similarly, Syrah thrives, planted next to Nero d’Avola, in the arid and sandy southeast. The reason this is so important is that even as Sicily has proven the worth of its native vines, the international varieties continue to excel. I must admit to having been highly impressed by a number of large-framed yet beautifully balanced Chardonnays, as well as Syrahs that found a happy middle ground between the richness of Australia and the smoky meatiness of the Northern Rhône.

However, ask many of Sicily’s winemakers what they think is the most potentially important variety outside of Etna, and they’ll tell you it’s Nero d’Avola (also known as Calabrese). I can’t argue with that. All you need to do is taste through the range of Gulfi’s single-vineyard wines, the COS Contrada, Feudo Montoni’s Vrucara, or explore the portfolios of Gueli or Marabino to see what I mean. The dark, rich, intensely fruity yet structured Nero d’Avola in varietal form may one day receive the attention it deserves, but until then, it remains firmly under the radar. More popular is its use in blending with Frappato to create Sicily’s pride and joy, Cerasuolo di Vittoria. This is a wine that takes the power and dark depths of Nero d’Avola and mixes them with the fresh, floral and mineral tones of the lovely Frappato. If it's a pure Frappato that you crave, then look to Arianna Occhipinti for an education on the variety. Also worth mentioning is the red Perricone, which is almost always used in blends, but now turns up alone from time to time. It displays searing and sometimes bitter tannins, yet many are willing to experiment with taming this wild variety.

The black volcanic pumice stones of the Calderara Sottana vineyard.

As for the whites, outside of Carricante, readers will find a wealth of fun, vibrant and perfumed varieties to choose from. Through the many tastings that took place for this report, there was nothing like finishing with a short flight of Grillo. Not only does this variety excel at producing exotic and tropical whites that nearly always seem to be green-tinged in nature, but it does so in an energetic and mouthwatering way. This also happens to be the traditional grape for making Marsala. The Marco de Bartoli winery continues to use Grillo exclusively, and it remains the standard-bearer, upholding and proving the importance of dry Marsala. Catarratto, which was once one of the most overproduced and, as a result, uninteresting whites of Sicily, has witnessed a rise in quality. Today the wines are soft, round, sweetly scented, pure and balanced with bright acidity. You can often find Catarratto mixed with Carricante in Etna’s entry-level Biancos, to add a bit of fruit and body to the blend. Malvasia, found on the island of Salina in the northeast, and Zibibbo (Moscato) from the brutally hot and dry island of Pantelleria, can make some of Sicily’s best dessert wines, but they are also available in dry, crisp styles, and in the case of Malvasia, they are able to communicate a true sense of prestige and cellar potential. 

The reds from Etna keep getting better and better, but picking the right vintage is incredibly important.

The Unruly 2018s and the Darling 2019s

For the most part, my tastings for this report covered two vintages that couldn’t have been more different from each other, which I’ve come to know as the Unruly 2018s and the Darling 2019s. As my predecessor Ian D’Agata has previously explained, the 2017 vintage was extremely warm and dry throughout Sicily, and the wines show it. Yet this is an island that has endured through near-desert-like conditions for its entire existence, and with the help of emergency irrigation, it turned out some thrilling wines that teeter on the edge of balance but provide a lot of pleasure. I will admit to being pleasantly surprised by the odd 2017 Etna Rosso that made it into a flight of 2018s.  

Two thousand-eighteen is a chaotic vintage defined by rain, rain and more rain, something that Sicily isn’t used to. Rain in the late spring, rain in the summer, and rain at the worst time: during harvest. The year itself started out mild, turning a bit cooler during the late spring yet resulting in an even bud-break. Temperatures steadily increased following the first precipitation event in late April/early May. This warmth continued into June, though ironically without any precipitation, which resulted in drought conditions. The summer evened out, but August brought more trouble in the form of abundant rain and unusually cool temperatures. At this point, it was important for producers to work the vineyards to avoid rot. September evened out once again, the weather turning warm and drier, but with October came more rain and, on the southwest of Etna, hail, which pushed producers to harvest quickly. In the end, good timing, long days in the vineyards and strict selection were all necessary to make great wines in 2018. It’s on Mount Etna that I believe we see the worst of it. Many of the best producers struggled, and it’s not uncommon to find drastic swings in quality within just one portfolio. That said, the best wines of this uneven vintage are truly worth seeking out.

Carricante proves its worth over and over again.

Two thousand-nineteen, instead, started cold and wet yet with a healthy and timely bud-break in the spring. Heavy winds and precipitation during flowering naturally reduced the crop by 20–30% overall, while on Etna, Carricante suffered drastic losses (40-50%) due to the combination of moisture and warmth, which resulted in the onset of _coulure_. The summer was hot yet even, and balanced by the buildup of water reserves from the months prior. The weather cooled down through September and the first half of October, accompanied by timely precipitation, keeping harvest on track; and with a slight rise in temperatures and dry conditions at the end of October, even the late-harvested varieties reached peak physiological ripeness. Tasting the young reds and whites from 2019s is a real treat. They are vibrant, sleek, fruit-filled yet focused, and anticipation of what the more important, later-released wines will bring to the table is very high.  

What more is there to say? How about this: There’s never been a better time to explore Sicilian wine.

All wines for this report were tasted in New York City in April and May 2021.

© 2021, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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