Thursday, June 15, 2023


The following posting is an impression of my visit to Sicily a few years ago and those of my son, Sean, co-owner/winemaker of Sightglass Cellars in Washington, who spent two weeks there with his wife, Kristin, in May.

Sicily is an island of many contrasting natural features, from the snow-capped Mt. Etna volcano, to the tempering presence of the Mediterranean.  

Resting between the toe of Italy and North Africa, Sicily is about the size of Massachusetts and is unique among the 20 regions of Italy for its diversity of vineyard sites and grape varieties, making it second only to Veneto in production.

Many Americans think of Sicily as a hot dry land where life is controlled by the Mafia.  Crime is a problem in Sicily, as it is everywhere else, but the presence of a criminal element is mostly behind the scenes and doesn't intrude in the daily activities of the wine tourist.                                  


For years, Sicily was known for making oceans of bulk wine and, with the exception of Marsala, little bottled wine. All of this production led to expansion of fine wine in numerous sub-regions throughout the island.  Today, there are 23 DOC sub-regions, with Cerasuolo di Vittoria, in the southeast, the only DOCG wine. 

White and Black Grapes

Sicily is a dynamic wine region that holds on to the sweet fortified Marsala and a wide variety of indigenous grapes like Nerello Mascalese, while promoting the increasingly popular red Nero d'Avola and widely planted Catarratto and Grillo white grapes. 

Far and away, Nero d'Avola is Sicily's best known red wine, made by 84 wineries at last count. A lot of Nero goes into blends, especially with Frappato, a more delicate wine but one that works well in blends.  Although Sicily grows more white wine grapes than red, American wine drinkers are most familiar with Nero d'Avola.

Grillo, a popular Sicilian cross of Catarratto and Muscat Alexandria, is a dry wine with the orange zest and floral flavors of Muscat wine, but is more muted than a full Muscat, a wine that is too much for some tastes. Grillo is building interest in Sicily and may soon challenge Cataratto for white wine dominance.

Sicilian winemakers recognize that, to compete in an international market, a winery needs to have a more diverse portfolio than just Nero d'Avola and Catarratto.  Thus, international varieties, like Syrah and Chardonnay are gaining interest, as are indigenous grapes like the dark black Nocera and the red twins Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, in vineyards across the island, but notably on the slopes of Etna and in the Faro DOC. 

Sicily Region by Region

The regional focus that follows is on Vittoria DOCG and Etna DOC, two of Sicily's most important sub-regions.  Other noted sub-regions include Marsala DOC, Faro DOC and Sicilia DOC, but they are for another time.
Reflecting on his time in Sicily, Sean said, "We had wines in restaurants, at wineries and we took wine back to our room to sample and enjoy. I was impressed by the history and the decades of planting and knowing what grapes worked best."   
Vittoria was officially recognized as a DOC in 1973 and upgraded to DOCG in 2005. Today, Vittoria is Sicily's only DOCG, mainly on the strength of Cerasuolo di Vittoria, a red blend of Nero d'Avolo and Frappato. "Cerasuolo" is Italian for "cherry-red," the color of the blended wine. 

Some wineries in Vittoria mature their wine in terracotta amphorae, a unique technique that eliminates oak influence.  "Before I went to Sicily," Sean recalls, "my impression of Nero d'Avola was that it was bigger and fuller, but the ones we tasted during our visit were lighter, nicely balanced, with a less broad palate."  He says that the Nero d'Avolos he tasted, specifically from Vittoria, were most like a Washington Cabernet Franc or Syrah.
Amphorae similar to those at Cos
Cos and Occhipinti, were two must-see Vittoria wineries Sean and Kristin, for different reasons. "Cos was using amphora to age their red wine, a technique I had read about but hadn't seen before. And there was this incredibe view of Mt. Etna from the winery.  Occhipinti had a range of red wines at different prices, based mainly on Nero d'Avolo and it was the place that Stanley Tucci visited in his television show about wineing and eating in Italy. "
Etna DOC stands in the shadow of 11,00 foot Mt. Etna, an active volcano that is both a contributor and a threat to the sub-region's grape growing and wine making. Etna's volcanic soil provides grapes with special nutrients and a characteristic minerality.  But Etna could blow at any time.
The quality of Sicilian white wines were unexpected discovery for Sean.  "It was surpizing that the white wines were so crisp and clean, coming from such a warm area. I enjoyed the Catarattos, especially from the Etna sub-region. But I didn't find Grillo as complex as Cataratto, more like Pinot Grigio."
Terra Costantino, in the Etna DOC, is Sicily's first organic winery. The philosophy of the winery is steeped in Greek mythology and head-trained vines rooted in volcanic soil.  As an owner of a small winery in Washington, Sean felt a kinship with Terra Costantino.  "I liked the hand-on attitude at Costantino and thought the Contrada Blandano, a blend of Cataratto and Carricante, was the best Costantino wine I tasted. It was so clean and crisp."  Costantino also makes Grillo. 
Another Etna favorite was Biondi, a small winery on Etna's slopes, with vineyards rich in minerals from the volcanic soil. Biondi grows Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio, Catarattor and Carricante. "The Biondi San Nicolo, made from Nerello Mascalese, was an excellent wine that was new to me," Sean says.
"On reflection, I felt the quality of Sicilian wines and the dedication of the winemakers was very high," says Sean. "One thing that puzzled me, though, is that every winemaker I spoke to claimed they only picked their grapes on flavor (phenolic) ripeness. And yet, all of the wines we tasted had listed alcohols around 12% to 13%.  I asked how that could be, with the high summer heat, temperatures and humidity, but I never got a good answer."  

Still, white wines were a pleasant part of Sean's Sicilian wine experience. While touring around the island, Sean and Kristin had many opportunities to taste Sicilian foods with the local wines. "The crisp acidity and clean fruit flavors of the  whites were really good with the local cuisines, like fresh fish." 
Sean can now check Sicily off his bucket list.  "People I talked to before our trip said Sicily is a must-see for the history, food and wine...and they are right. And Sicily is less touristy than other parts of Italy and less expensive." 

Look for Sicilian wines in your local wine shop. Better yet, go to Sicily this summer and taste the sun-washed flavors of Sicilian wine and food. 

Next blog: The first in a series of personal experiences titled "California Wine Adventures."

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Also, one of my favorite people to books and wine education has a website and here page on Sicily is worth reading.

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