Surpassing Expectations: New Releases from Sicily


I must give credit where credit is due. After many years of tasting Sicilian wines, I take significantly more pleasure in the work than ever before. Granted, tasting 500+ wines from even the world's greatest regions is daunting, but that work becomes less taxing when the wines excite your palate and your imagination. However, it goes beyond that because, in this case, I get the feeling that Sicily has grown up. It has matured. Almost as if the proverbial rowdy kids, represented by the vast number of smaller wineries with quality levels all over the board, have started to get their acts together. Producers began taking inspiration from the combination of elder statesmen, represented by the larger wineries that push the envelope of quality, or artisanal producers that shone the spotlight back on Sicily after so many decades of negative stereotypes. I remember tasting through portfolios five or ten years ago that failed to move the needle or left me nonplussed. Now, revisiting that same producer’s wines, I often find myself overly impressed, which provides a level of satisfaction that’s hard to explain. 

Planeta's Buonivini's vineyard in Noto.

The modern-day Sicily has learned to communicate much better than in the past. It has listened to what consumers have been demanding: cleaner practices, a focus on the vineyards, more serious wines, organic or biodynamic principles and less dependence on over-ripe fruit and overuse of oak. Yet, at the same time, the wines haven’t lost their Sicilian flavor. A zesty and fun Grillo can still be found at a remarkable price point, but now it’s more complex and with a better balance of minerality. A dark and rich Nero d’Avola still pairs perfectly with a slice of sfincione (traditional Sicilian pizza). Yet, that same bottle can now be taken away from the dinner table and still impress with its ability to communicate terroir or even placed in the cellar and allowed to mature for years to come. These are just two examples, but there are many more. The fact is that when tasting through a portfolio of Sicilian wine today, there is so much to like. The diversity of varieties alone is thrilling to consider, exciting, resetting and invigorating the palate in a way that few other regions can match. Not to mention Sicily’s success with international varieties as well. Sicilian Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah can stand shoulder to shoulder in blind tastings of Bordeaux, Super Tuscans or the Rhône, as well as Chardonnay that I’d place next to White Burgundy or some of my favorites from Oregon. The best part is that no matter how well the wines have emulated the qualities of these varieties from other principal regions, they remain uniquely Sicilian. 

Plainly stated, modern-day Sicilian wine has become one of the world's most interesting, high-quality, yet value-driven categories. That’s not to say there aren’t still wines that leave me unimpressed or scratching my head. There are plenty, but their numbers seem to diminish with each passing year. And let’s face it: every wine-producing region on Earth has lackluster producers or those that don’t seem to get it. Today, however, there's significantly less risk in buying Sicilian wine, and the reward is a world of tremendous diversity. 

The complex soils of Gulfi's Bufalffi vineyard contain limestone, gravel, fossils, black and red clay, iron and volcanic rocks.

Sicily’s Extreme Diversity

The only thing that holds Sicily back as a whole is the size of the island itself, which can present a daunting task to consumers who seek to understand its culture, wines and varieties better. The island is 9,927 square miles, larger than several smaller European nations. Many Sicilians will refer to the island as a continent because of its diverse geography, multiple climatic zones, plains, beaches, mountains, volcanos and even smaller islands, including Pantelleria, Salina, Lipari and Vulcano, all which present a unique terroir. In some years, such as 2014, a region like Mount Etna can have a great vintage while the rest of the Island can suffer. 

In general, the top regions to look to (in no specific order) include the highly regarded Mount Etna, which has been a driving force behind Sicily's recent surge in popularity. Etna, located on the eastern end of the Island, is one of Europe's most active volcanoes, and its high-elevation vineyards, 1,000 meters and even higher (as producers continue to look up for cooler climates), provide winemakers with a diverse mix of soils of volcanic origin. Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio and Carricante are the principal grapes that feed the Etna Rosso and Etna Bianco DOCs. However, many producers have recently chosen to use the lesser Terre Siciliane IGT, which allows them to take advantage of a myriad collection of old vineyards (often 100 years or older) planted as field blends instead of single varieties. These are often very exciting wines and worth seeking out. (Readers will find quite a few in the notes that follow.) Etna also has a mix of wines from single vineyards, known here as Contrade. It’s satisfying to compare one producer’s Contrada Guardiola or Feudo di Mezzo to two or three others. The number of single vineyards has grown significantly, yet each provides a unique experience. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring the non-vineyard designated wines, which often offer a level of unparalleled quality, usually higher than what you’d expect from a village-level Burgundy. Many Etna producers use Etna Rosso and Etna Bianco to showcase the variety of their vineyards, not just an “entry-level” wine. 

The Vittoria and Noto regions define the south-eastern horn of Sicily. The Ionian Sea borders Noto with its own DOC and the Moscato di Noto DOCG that create passito-style wines. At the same time, Vittoria is more affected by the Mediterranean Sea, with the DOCG Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Sicily’s other DOCG (there are only two). Both regions excel with Nero d’Avola, Sicily’s most planted red grape. Speaking of a rise in quality, Nero d’Avola is one of the varieties where consumers can see the most improvement. At one time, these were oversized, oak-infused beasts that often came across as rustic with extremely high alcohol. However, in the last five years or so, I’ve witnessed a drastic increase in quality and purity. Nero d’Avola can not only communicate a stamp of terroir but also age beautifully over time. The Gulfi wines are a perfect example of both. Located in Noto Valley, Gulfi has pioneered single-vineyard Nero d’Avola, and in testament to how the wines age, the winery often releases back vintages (several 2002s and a 2003 showed beautifully recently). Circling back to Cerasuolo di Vittoria, producers here blend Nero d’Avola with the floral and lifted Frappato. Sadly, I believe there is not enough Cerasuolo di Vittoria that makes it out of the region to taste. The blending of the two varieties creates a red wine of impeccable balance and depth of character. Luckily, several of the region's larger, quality-minded, and well-distributed producers have a Cerasuolo di Vittoria in their portfolio, including COS, Planeta and Donnafugata. The Cerasuolo di Vittoria of smaller producers like Paolo Calì and Arianna Occhipinti are harder to find but worth hunting for. For Syrah fans, Noto has also become a hotbed of activity. 

Alberello-trained Frappato vines in the Contrada of Bombolieri are used to produce Arianna Occhipinti's SP68.

In the central and more northern part of the island is Contea di Sclafani, close to Palermo. This mountainous area drastically differs from the south, with a Mediterranean climate and is heavily affected by ventilating wind currents and significant diurnal shifts. Producers here also benefit from higher elevations and soils that are a mix of volcanic, limestone or clay-based. And while Nero d’Avola is their primary grape, Contea di Sclafani also excels with an extensive array of other varieties, including Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as white grapes like Chardonnay, Grillo, Inzolia and Catarratto. That diversity within portfolios makes for some exciting tastings, as each range features multiple grapes and styles. Moreover, some of Sicily’s top interpretations of international varieties hail from this location. Look to Tasca d'Almerita’s Regaleali estate or Feudo Montoni to explore the character of the region. 

This leaves Marsala and Menfi, which make up the western-most wine-producing regions of Sicily. Menfi, which is further south, is a more diverse region highly affected by its proximity to the Sea. However, as you move inland, elevations rise, and the climate becomes more continental. Its soil also changes quite a bit. They are sandier and more alluvial near the coast and more clay and limestone in the hilly interior. Menfi (with its own Menfi DOC) is also home to one of Sicily’s largest and most highly regarded wineries, Planeta. The region excels with many indigenous and international varieties, yet for me, one of the most iconic wines remains Planeta’s Menfi Chardonnay. The port city of Marsala, on the other hand, at one time played a pivotal role in introducing Sicilian wines to the world through their fortified Marsala wine. Going back to the 19th century, fortified Marsala was shipped north to the courts of Europe. Today, while Marsala has fallen out of favor with many consumers, a small number of producers still follow tradition. Any reader looking to experience the magic of these wines should look to the Marco de Bartoli portfolio. Moreover, with the current generation in place, the de Bartoli winery has also begun to create a mix of compelling dry wines from Zibibbo and Grillo. I believe the history of Marsala is not yet entirely written, and we may one day see significantly more activity from like-minded producers in the region. Ultimately, the one thing that holds the region back is its name, the same as its iconic wine, which is no longer in favor. 

Capofaro's seaside vines on the island of Salina.

Winemaking in the “New Normal”

In the past, I’ve commented about the extreme differences between Sicily’s weather and the rest of Italy and how the island can be remarkably dissimilar within a single given year from place to place. However, in the 2021 vintage, Sicily suffered through the same extremely arid and warm conditions as most of Italy, with each region having pluses or minuses in their corner, dependent on the unique attributes of each location. However, one thing that all producers can agree upon is that 2021 was extremely hot and dry to the point of drought. Some of the larger producers were able to employ emergency irrigation. In contrast, others mentioned beneficial precipitation in the winter months, such as in Contea di Sclafani, yet all had to face the challenges of the vintage. These included drought, vines that shut down for periods due to the extreme heat, forced early harvests, dehydrated berries, reduced production and even some that reported later-than-average harvests to avoid the rain that finally arrived in the fall. It was a roller-coaster vintage, to say the least. 

That said, 2021 is far from a failure. Anyone who chooses to pass up on these new releases, stereotyping them as warm-vintage wines, would be making a grave mistake. The best example of this was witnessed from Mount Etna, as I tasted through the portfolios of Tenuta Terre Nere and Passopisciaro, two of the region's most important producers who have both just released their 2021s. The wines are wonderfully aromatic, at times exotic, and their fruit is more forward. Yet, there remains a distinct signature of terroir within all the crus and pronounced minerality, along with a level of finesse that makes the wines sultry more than seductive. If anything, the year's warmth can be felt in the wines’ structure. Marco De Grazia of Terre Nere describes the tannins as “Sinewy,” which I believe fits perfectly. They aren’t aggressive or edgy but build slowly and sneak up on the taster somewhere between the second and third sip. They are not immediate, and the balance is there for aging. Granted, the red varieties had the upper hand in 2021 due to the rains that moved into the region in late August and through September, along with more moderate temperatures. This gave the red grapes time to recover from the brutal summer months. On the other hand, whites had a more difficult time on Etna. Winemaker Vincenzo Lo Mauro reported a 40% loss throughout in Chardonnay and an early harvest to maintain acidity.

Arianna Occhipinti, located in Vittoria, also did a fantastic job handling the challenges of the vintage. Vittoria's sandy and calcareous soils help maintain freshness and acidity, which was a blessing in this vintage. Occhipinti reported three occurrences of scirocco winds (a dry air mass that moves up from the Sahara Desert) with temperatures reaching 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit). In her case, both reds and whites were harvested a week to ten days earlier than normal, and production was down by 20%. Occhipinti also commented, “...the reds suffered a little more because they did not reach optimal phenolic ripeness” and explained that the drastic heat in the summer shut the vines down for extended periods. 

Feudo Montoni's barrel aging room.

Feudo Montoni had a very different perspective. The Feudo Montoni winery is located in Contea di Sclafani, between two mountain ranges, the Madonie Mountains (1,979 meters) and Monte Cammarata (1,578 meters). As explained previously, this area is well-ventilated and enjoys extreme diurnal shifts. Montoni reported that precipitation wasn’t significantly lower than in past vintages. It’s just that it was concentrated in the winter and then late summer into fall. The winery reported normal budding and flowering, yet drought conditions did take their toll, and emergency irrigation was used where necessary. Ironically, the rain that moved in from late August into September pushed their harvest dates later than usual, and production totals aligned with an average year. 

It all comes down to the fact that all winemaking regions worldwide are forced to deal with what appears to be a “new normal” in a world of climate change. When temperatures are hot, they are stifling hot. When they are dry, they are dry for months on end. When rain comes, it can last for months or bombard a region with just as much rain in an hour as it would typically receive throughout an entire season. It’s not uncommon that a winemaker will refer to years like 2019 or 2016 as their last “normal” vintage. This is a worldwide problem, and with each year, new techniques in the vineyards and the cellars must be employed. Information must be shared to help combat these challenges, and an open-minded attitude must be upheld. 

Lastly, a brief update on 2020, which, compared to 2021, was a much easier vintage. Several important wines are hitting the market. So far, I like what I’m seeing. This was another warm and dry year with less drastic conditions and sporadic rains throughout. Moreover, the dry and cool autumn temperatures added balance, and areas like Etna and the Island of Salina enjoyed overall cooler temperatures. These are wonderfully elegant wines with vivid fruit and a balance of sweet tannins and elevated acidities. On Etna, the vintage turned out to be fantastic, in line with some of the best of the recent past. While I sometimes prefer the mix of muscle and intense fruit from 2019, the 2020s will likely outperform them over a more open drinking window and with a more significant overall success rate from producer to producer.

All wines for this report were tasted in our New York office in June and July 2023.

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