Thursday, July 15, 2021

Sicilian Cornucopia

"He opened a bottle of black wine, a heady, molten wine that situated us immediately in the center of the universe."   Henry Miller


Today, it has become a cliche among wine fans to say that Italy is one continuous vineyard from the cool hillside vineyards at the top of the boot to the warmer expanses scattered near the toe and heel.  

Often ignored is Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean and the source of a wide range of wines. 

Sicily is just off the toe, separated from the Italian mainland by the narrow Strait of Messina.  Fact is, the island is closer to Africa than Italy, a  reflection of the character and heartbeat of the island and the Sicilian people. Palermo, the capital city, is a pulsating chaotic blend of Italian, Spanish, French and Arab cultures that somehow seem to have found a way to live together.                                  

Aside -- On my last trip to Sicily, I stayed in a grand old pile of a hotel in Palermo, purported to be where the German composer Richard Wagner composed his opera "Parsifal."  As far as I could tell, though, the guests were not aware that the hotel was also the residence of a Mafia don, who was fond of making grand entrances and exits. 

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Was this the mysterious don?

While waiting to go to dinner, I stepped outside and noticed a large black Alfa Romeo sedan, motor running, backed up to the hotel on one side of the ornate portico and a Palermo police car sitting quietly on the other side of the entrance. 

Back in the spacious lobby, all eyes were turned toward the sweeping grand staircase.  I asked a bellhop what all the excitement was about.  He shrugged and murmured something about the don going out for the night.  

Then, the don appeared at the top of the staircase, overcoat draped across his shoulders.  With a nod that he was ready, the don descended the stairs, flanked by four beefy bodyguards. They moved quickly through the buzzing crowd, across the lobby and out the door to the waiting Alfa, which sped into the night with the police car following behind.    


Sicily is Italy's third largest wine producer, behind only Veneto and Emilia-Romagna. Until the 1980s, Sicily was best known for the sweet sticky Marsala and oceans of deeply colored robust bulk wine, much of it (86% today) sold to large wineries on the mainland to give their lighter wines a boost. 

Except for the warmest central parts of the island, the majority of the vineyards benefit from a warm Mediterranean climate.  As a general rule, native varieties, such as Nero d'Avola and Grillo, are the most common, although continental grapes like Chardonnay and Merlot have become very popular.  Like most other wine regions, the push is to find micro-climates where non-indigenous grapes will grow, supplying the wines popular in the international markets. 

Prior to 2011, most Sicilian wine was labeled IGT, a catchall designation similar to Vino da Tavola.  The change elevated Sicily's two most popular wines, the black Nero d'Avola and white Grillo to the newly designated Sicilia DOC. The former IGT was changed to Terre Siciliane IGT, one level lower than Sicilia DOC. 

Aside -- Italy's complicated DOC system, a cousin to the French AOC, deals with geography among other things, but is only an implied indication of quality. However, a few labeling terms will help make more informed buying decisions. 

IGT stands for Indicazione Geografica Tipica, the category of wines that does not qualify, for one reason or another, under Italian rules for DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) status. IGT is the bottom rung of a pyramid, with DOC wines in the middle, topped by a small number of wines designated as DOCG (DOC e Garantita).  Portugal and Romania also use the initials DOC to identify their labeling systems.

Volcano Vineyards: The wines of Mount Etna - Wine & Philosophy
The vineyards of Mt. Etna

When shopping for Sicilian wine, look for both appellations and grape names.  The most popular appellations are Terre Siciliane IGT, Etna DOC and Faro DOC, plus Marsala DOC if you hankering for sweet wine.  

Nero d'Avola is everywhere today, especially from Etna DOC and Siracusa (Syracuse) DOC.  Other native grapes to look for on labels include Grillo and Cataratto for whites, and Nerello Mascalese,  Nerello Cappucio and Nocera for reds.

In 1968, Etna DOC was designated as Sicily's first DOC. The most popular wine is Etna Rosso, based on the two Nerello grapes.  And there is an Etna Bianco.  Similar in style, and based on the same native grapes, is Faro DOC, from the eastern corner of the island.

Finally, although the number of DOC wines from Sicily is low, the movement for more DOC wines is encouraging, especially moderately priced wines carrying the Sicilia DOC designation. 

Sicily produces a cornucopia of lively fruit-forward wines and more are appearing now on the shelves of your local wine store. 

Next blog: My Life in Wine Episode 16

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