Posted on | September 27, 2014
Written by | Margaret Shakespeare
Diverse terroirs, unusual grapes and modern techniques put this prolific Italian island on the rise
Sicily lies in the Mediterranean at the toe of Italy’s boot, an ancient crossbreed, geographically and culturally, of Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Vineyards and the business of exporting wine have flourished here for millennia. Arabs, Greeks, Romans and others arrived with grapevines that, variously, loved the hot climate, persistent winds, sandy seaside soils and volcanic ash of Mt. Etna, the island’s still-active volcano and its most prominent physical feature. They still do.
Yet in the nascent 21st century the Sicilian wine industry is still emerging—rediscovering ancient native grapes by the handful, matching those as well as international varietals with terroirs, experimenting with blends and introducing new technology to the vineyard and winery. And finding an identity in the marketplace.
Multiple Wine Personalities
Make that identities, for there are about two dozen DOCs and a remarkable range of growing conditions: From arid terraces of bush vines on Pantelleria, where wind-dried Zibibbo grape berries are fermented with fresh must to create Donnafugata’s distinctive Ben Ryé passito. To the salt-splashed sea-front of Favignana, in the Egadi Islands west of Trapani, where the Di Gaetano family recently re-planted (after a century’s absence) five hectares of Perricone, Nero d’Avola, Grillo, Zibibbo and Catarratto to make under their Firriato label. To intense 950F early-August days that make night harvest in 600F imperative to preserve aromas. To Etna’s wild weather swings and 3,500-plus-foot elevations which contribute to making some of the most flavorful complex and exquisite wines in today’s competive world.
For decades Sicily hid its bounty as a ghost producer, a prolific growing region nonetheless shipping much of its harvest to the north of Italy and shores beyond—to be bottled, labeled and sold ambiguously. It was a land of co-ops, with a few families—notably the Tasca d’Almerita clan at Regaleali for over 200 years—as standard-bearing producers for what the wines could be, particularly with their flagship Nero d’Avola, Rosso del Conte. Now with five estates, they continue to produce over 3 million bottles annually.
Etna Leads The Way
Giuseppe LoCascio, brand management director at the importer and distributor Winebow, has seen the Tasca influence, followed by that of Planeta, Cusumano, Spadafora and other new-generation families, in shedding the anonymous co-op image and expanding quality production. “And thank God for Etna,” he says, “because it was an important force behind [quality] growth.” Mt. Etna has become both a sexy symbol of Sicilian wine with the press and a tourist draw—helping drive all Sicilian sales.
“Sommeliers have really gotten into it, even in smaller markets,” LoCascio says, “but retail is more fuzzy. The wines are not so much misunderstood…but hard for the consumer to grasp, when there are at least four distinct styles from Etna alone.”
Steven McDonald, wine director at Pappas Steakhouse Houston (previously with Altamarea Group and Mercer Kitchen in New York City), says Sicilian products are frequently misunderstood by wine drinkers, “except maybe in Italian restaurants in New York. Sicily, still, in some ways, is struggling to figure themselves out. Etna is the most exciting. As long as the focus stays on what they have—quality, nuanced wines.” He sells those on his list (10 out 3,500 selections) by relating them to Piedmont or Tuscany.
That kind of comparison works elsewhere, too. Hristo Zisovski, beverage director for the Altamarea Group, says, “All of our lists [at 11 restaurants worldwide, including Marea in New York] have Sicilian wine, which is an important dimension to lists for value and individual styles. It’s one of our crossover regions for people who like Burgundy or Côtes du Rhone but don’t want to spend big bucks. It has quality, but I am happy I can offer it for $50 or $60; but some of the best from Etna go for $150. We introduce it as higher acid, more aromatic. There is finesse and freshness in these wines. Well, it’s one island with so many options.”
“It’s interesting to see this concentration from one island,” says Sebastian Zutant, co-owner/sommelier, The Red Hen, Washington, DC, who puts Sicily “at the forefront” of his eclectic list. “They are producing stuff the world hasn’t seen.” And he doesn’t mean just unknown grapes but the flavor profiles—from the workhorse signature Nero d’Avola and chameleon-like Grillo to Carricante, Catarratto, Grecanico, Nerello Mascalese, Nerollo Capuccio, Perricone, Frappato…. “The wines are not as lean as Burgundy. They are flavor-packed. Earthy, bright fruit, intense minerality. Many are organic or biodynamic,” says Zutant. And, above all, “balanced.”
Bill Terlato, CEO of Terlato Wines International, who added Cusumano to his portfolio only a year ago, appreciates that some have tired of Nero d’Avola. “Nerello Mascalese is the darling of sommeliers now,” he says of Etna’s signature red. “Consumers, though, are in the early stages of discovery. There is approachable pricing and good value. But there is still education needed.”
In the 1970s, when the retail shop Pike and Western opened in Seattle, owner Michael Teer says France and Italy were backbone of his inventory and Sicilian wines were “cheap easy-to-drink stuff.” Now he sells to a generation whose palates were trained on Washington wines. “In our corner of the wine world Sicily is not so much misunderstood as not well-known,” says Teer. “But Sicily has been easier to introduce than other [unfamiliar] categories because of the flavors. People may think they are big, heavy clumsy reds—when the opposite is true. Uniqueness of terroir is what we emphasize.”
And, in some ways, the new Sicily pioneers have only started to dig into the terroir of their fertile wine island.
The Range of Sicilian Wines: 9 to Know
Tenuta della Terre Nere Etna Rosso Prephylloxera La Vigna di Don Peppino. When Marc de Grazia, an importer of small fine Italian producers, choose to make his own wine, he went to Etna. At Terre Nere hundreds of thousands of years of volcanic eruptions created a mosaic of nurturing soil variations and old vines maintain phylloxera-resistance.
Bianco di Morgante. This swoon-worthy white wine made from Nero d’Avola has the best characteristics of both red and white—freshness, boldness, mouthfuls of robust tree fruit with the softest hints of vanilla. And balance, of course. Its versatility makes it a go-to for a menu of diverse foods or the indecisive.
Stemmari Baci Vivaci. A new low-alcohol, entry-level (below $10) sparkler with citrusy (grapefruit and lime) flavors and refreshing soft effervescense. Made with 100% Grillo, traditionally the grape for making Marsala, organically grown.
Ribeca (Firriato). Consistently highly rated by many, the 2007 and 2009 vintages were named best red wine of Italy by Annuario dei Migliori Vini Italiani (Luca Maroni). It is 100% Perricone, historically a blending grape (especially for wines released from northern Italy); but with technical advances to control temperatures, etc., stands on its own here.
Tancredi (Donnafugata). The Rallo family has experimental plantings of non-autochthonous varietals at Contessa Entellina. Blending Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat from those plantings with Nero d’Avola, they have created a red that gains nuance complexity with cellar aging.
Spadafora Syrah. Francesco Spadafora says, “To sell Spadafora you have to explain why wines are different from a hot land like Sicily, not that it resembles an Australian Syrah.” He—and the relentless hot sunshine—achieve a distinctive nimble elegance from all-organic plantings. “Organic is the way I live, the way I see life. And the thing that annoys me most is that now it’s become more marketing that reality.”
Quater (Firriato). Exemplary red blend (Nero d’Avola, Perricone, Frappato, Nerello Cappuccio) and white blends (Grillo, Catarratto, Carricante, Zibibbo) that exploit the best from Trapani vineyards.
Cusumano Nero d’Avola and Insolio. Exemplary single-varietal (Sicily’s signature grapes) red and white wines, all estate-grown and -bottled, from high-elevation (snow-covered in winter), low-yield vineyards.
Planeta. Less than 20 years ago terroir drove the choice to establish separate wineries, now six, in distinct growing areas. The Planeta family planted indigenous as well as international varietals, matching Chardonnay, Merlot, et al each to a terroir that would put a Sicilian stamp on the wine. They have joined with the Rallo family to research and revive clones of ancient grapes.