Sicily: Welcome to the Revolution


Sicily has suffered a great deal throughout history, as producers have had to fight tooth and nail to overcome worldwide stereotypes of a region with massive cooperatives, low quality, overproduction, bulk wine, high alcohol, corruption, government control… you name it. For decades, I’ve watched with anticipation, following the works of my contemporaries, looking to the day that I could experience the wines that, we all somehow knew, Sicily could produce, yet simply didn’t. Rumors of Etna’s potential began to break internationally in the mid-2000s. The new wave of wines were released and suggestions were made about the potential here, yet there was still an overwhelming black mark that followed the entire island, lumping it into the greater “Southern Italy” category. Luckily, those initial views were correct, and Etna continued to win the hearts of readers and critics with the one-two punch of Nerello Mascalese and Carricante–Sicily’s answer to red and white Burgundy. With that, interests were piqued, and, luckily, several of the island’s top producers’ work, not just on Etna, started to get noticed again. Quality continued to rise. New producers became inspired. Old producers began to shake off the cobwebs and start anew. Young winemakers, who were willing to travel the world to learn their craft, joined the mix. Experimentation was welcome. Research into clones became relevant. Terroir was recognized as important. And do you know what happened? Sicily, to a large degree, completely turned around their wine industry, and it is now one of the top producing regions in all of Italy.

Granted, readers still need to be very selective; as with any sudden rise in popularity within the wine world, there will be producers that still create an inferior product. Those that ride the wave of trends consider marketing and flashy labels to be more important than what they place into the bottle. The good news is that those wines no longer make up the bulk of what's available in today's market. In my current tasting lineups, I seldom see the repeated overuse of oak, Nero d'Avola that smells of coffee grinds and chocolate, sweet yet thin Catarratto, or just plain dirty wines. In fact, it’s the opposite, as I find myself inspired by so much of what I’m tasting from a purity standpoint, a varietal standpoint and a focus on terroir. Sicily is going through a Golden Age. The best part is that, overall, the wines are still an amazing value.

The Sallier de la Tour vineyards of Tasca d'Almerita.

An Entire World to Explore

Sicily really has something for everyone, from the most quaffable reds and whites to the more important wines, spanning both international and local varieties, as well as some truly cerebral expressions. Sicily also has is the perfect growing conditions to allow these grapes to come to ideal ripeness in an environment that suits them best. Many Sicilian winemakers will tell you that there’s simply no reason not to be organic. The combination of warm temperatures, abundant sunlight and the dry and ventilating Scirocco winds blowing up from north Africa means that it can often be too easy to make big, ripe wines–which is part of what got Sicily in trouble in the first place.

The island's success with international varieties may surprise readers looking to explore further. My eyes were opened years ago as I started tasting Chardonnay from the likes of Planeta and Tasca D’Almerita. These aren’t quite Old World in style, nor are they New World, instead finding a very happy balance in between the two. Excellent examples of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot can be found in the clay-rich soils of the island’s northwest, while Syrah thrives, planted next to Nero d’Avola, in the arid and sandy southeast. However, as much as international varieties played a huge role in Sicily’s modern success, it’s in the indigenous varities where readers can really find the flavor of the region.

Nero d’Avola (also known as Calabrese) ranks at the top of the red varieties, along with Nerello Mascalese. It is also one of the varieties where I witness the least consistency. Nero d’Avola is suited well for the sandy, limestone and clay soils of the southeastern coast, where it finds a happy blending partner with Frappato to create Cerasuolo di Vittoria, one of Sicily’s most traditional wines and its only DOCG. That said, the future of the variety rests more on the success of mono-varietal expressions, especially further west along the coast around Noto. The problem is that for all of the high-caliber Nero d’Avola being made by producers such as Gulfi, COS, Feudo Montoni, Gueli and Marabino, there’s an ocean of wines that are barely worth our attention or that are best enjoyed alongside a slice of sfincione (Sicilian pizza). Speaking of Frappato, another southern favorite, I’m seeing more varietal expressions as well. However, don’t expect the deepest and most riveting experience from the majority of them. Frappato’s fresh, floral and mineral tones make a great match with Nero d’Avola’s power and acidity when blended, yet they can fall flat on their own. Granted, there are producers that continue to try and follow the lead of Arianna Occhipinti, who makes varietal Frappato that can stand on its own–but few succeed. 

The Faro DOC, found in the Peloritani hills in Sicily’s easternmost corner, is a location that I expect will gain much more popularity over time. The grapes used in Faro are Nerello Mascalese (45-60%), Nerello Cappuccio (15-30%) and Nocera (5-10%), along with 15% mix of Galioppo, Nero d’Avola or Sangiovese. The higher elevations here and cooling influences of the northern coast make for an ideal location for these varieties, with unfortunately just 15 hectares of vines in the DOC. Think Etna Rosso with a little more meat on the bone. The traditional Nocera grape, which can also be found on the Capo di Milazzo peninsula, where it makes Mamertino, or on the island of Salina, has been gaining serious notoriety amongst winemakers, and it isn't rare to see more and more varietal forms of it, at this time produced under the all-encompassing Terre Siciliane IGT. While resulting in dark and spicy wines with ample tannins, the grape's high acidity also makes it perfect for making Rosato. Rounding out the reds and worth mentioning is Perricone, which is often used for blending, but has the capacity to create deep, earthy, red-fruited wines on its own.

As for the white varieties, outside of Carricante, the island excels at making wildly fresh, sometimes exotic, often flashy wines in dry form, from the likes of Grillo, Ansonica (Inzolia), Zibibbo (Moscato) and Catarratto. The latter is one of the grapes that nearly destroyed Sicily’s reputation decades ago, being one of the most overproduced and undervalued, yet today is enjoying a renaissance. I didn’t mention Malvasia in this mix, often found on the island of Salina in the northeast, simply because it’s the grape that seems the most terroir-transparent and capable of truly communicating importance. It’s both Malvasia and Zibibbo (Moscato) that create many of Sicily’s great dessert wines, such as Malvasia delle Lipari in the northwest, and in the east on the island of Pantelleria, Passito di Pantelleria, as well as in Marsala. I kid you not when I say that these are some of the best dessert wines in the world.

The white wines of Italy continue to impress, even beyond Carricante.

And Then There’s Etna

The race to Etna started in the early 2000s and continues today. Due to the forward thinking of wineries such as Benanti, Frank Cornelissen, Passopisciaro and Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Etna now easily ranks amongst the popularity and quality levels of regions like Montalcino and Barolo. Their work brought to light the names of Giuseppe Russo (Girolamo Russo), Alberto Graci and Salvo Foti (i Vigneri). It also inspired the likes of Tasca D’Almerita, Planeta, Donnafugata and even Gaja to plant their stakes on this still-active volcano. Today the list goes on and on, with new names being introduced to me each year, as everyone wants a piece of Etna’s wild terroir.

There were three things that drew the early pioneers to this location. Firstly, its cooler climate, a mix of elevations up to 1,000 meters (many producers are pushing even higher now), primarily on the northern slope, but also curling down to the east like a crescent moon. What’s more is the proximity to the Nebrodi mountains to the north and their cooling effect. Secondly, it’s the vines, their age and their history: Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio and Carricante, along with a smattering of often-forgotten varieties that were interplanted long ago. The fact is that Etna was not discovered; it was rediscovered. Only two decades ago, a winemaker could literally uncover a forgotten vineyard that was planted over 100 years ago, along with stone palmenti, with wooden presses still intact. Reaching these locations, reviving these vines and rebuilding terraces was the kind of work that often scared many winemakers away, but now, these sights are practically considered holy ground. 

Lastly, is the volcano itself, still active and looming in its presence, with lava flows and explosions that have been recorded since 1500 BC (yet go back much further). These explosions created a diverse mix of soil types across its surface and surroundings, allowing for a true system of “Crus” or Contrada (a term that is more closely translated to mean ‘neighborhood’, but is interchangeable here). The differences vary so widely that one Contrada can mix topsoil-rich ash and stones, yet within, there can be an island of terroir to be found, mixing volcanic sand with pumice and basalt. This real-world analogy can be witnessed through the Contrada Bocca d’Orzo, with a five-hectare parcel within that wasn’t touched by a 1981 lava flow, and as a result, has significantly older origins. The Terre Nere winery has begun bottling a wine named “Dagala (or Island) of Bocca d’Orzo” from said parcel. Currently, there are 133 recognized Contrade, of which 88 are on the northern slope. It’s pretty easy to see why this is the hottest location in Sicily today, if not all of Italy, and has brought an onslaught of producers looking to cash in. 

The good news is that the classics are still overperforming, and much of the new blood is willing to learn as well as experiment. It was a pleasure to begin tasting the powerful but fresh 2019s and the supremely elegant 2020s; these two vintages are far superior to the 2018s from last year, a vintage where I question why certain producers even bottled their single-vineyard wines. As trends go, there’s certainly more attention being placed upon Carricante, with some producers believing that it will one day be recognized as the true varietal star of Etna. Plantings on the volcano's southern slope are also starting to be taken advantage of. In this warmer and extra fertile location, readers can expect a more fruit focused Carricante, yet one that is still finessed. For me, the jury is still out on whether Carricante can outpace Etna’s reds, mainly because success amongst these wines seems more producer-related than over-arching.

The Chardonnay vines of Passopisciaro-Vini Franchetti planted in the volcanic soils of Contrada Guardiola.

A Multi-Vintage Island

As if it wasn’t difficult enough to begin wrapping our heads around the different results for both red and white varieties, by vintage, within each region of Italy, in Sicily, there’s an added challenge: the diverse conditions from place to place. The 2014 vintage is a perfect example, as Mount Etna witnessed one of its greatest years ever, while the rest of the Island had simply a good year with severely reduced yields. Luckily, with the two vintages currently in front of us, 2019 and 2020, conditions were much more favorable and balanced. That said, as time goes by, more difficult years will warrant a breakdown for Etna (high-elevation north-slope volcanic soils) versus Noto (sandy beaches on the south shore with the hot Scirocco winds) versus Sclafani (the mountainous center of the island with diverse soil types and elevations between 450 and 850 meters), then Marsala, Menfi, Vittoria and, of course, the islands. 

As more wines are released, it will be interesting to see how the 2021 vintage furthers this discussion, as conditions were warm and dry across nearly the entire Island, yet more rainy on Mount Etna and on the Island of Salina in the northeast. The silver lining to all of this is that the likelihood of any given vintage being a total failure is close to zero. This gives many of the bigger, quality-minded wineries that span multiple regions within the island, such as Tasca D’Almerita, Planeta and Donnafugata, the upper hand globally since they always have something in their portfolio worth talking about.

Mount Etna's reds just keep getting better and better.

The Sleek and Fruit-Filled 2019s and the Elegantly Harmonious 2020s

Two thousand-nineteen seemed to be a year from the gods after the rain-drenched 2018 vintage. The year 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. The summer was hot yet even, and it was 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 reds and whites from 2019 is a real treat. They are vibrant, sleek, fruit-filled, focused and ideal for medium-term cellaring.

The 2020 vintage was a nail-biter for producers in Sicily, yet it turned out some fantastic results. In the end, 2020 can be generalized as a moderately warm and dry year throughout the Island with the exception of Etna and Salina, which receive slightly cooler conditions. On Etna, comparisons are already being made to 2014 and 2016, which were marginally cooler in temperature. It was the diverse climatic conditions that caused producers to worry with temperature swings and sporadic rains throughout the season. It was only through the fall that the merit of the year started to become apparent, with a warm September, well-timed rains and a cool and dry October. In the end, both reds and whites were successful, with the whites benefiting from an extended season, and the reds finding a lovely balance through the cooler fall temperatures. Expect elegant wines with vivid fruit profiles, but also a balance of sweet tannins and elevated acidity that promise a steady and long evolution. 

The wines for this report were tasted in our offices in New York through June of 2022.

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