The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Exploring the Wild, Wonderful Wines of Sicilia

Posted on | April 21, 2014 | Written by IWM Staff | 2 Comments

Summer is coming fast, and there are few red wines we love quite as much for warm-weather drinking as those from the windswept island of Sicilia. This week and last, IWM began debuting a series of wines from our favorite Sicilian producers: COS, Graci, Palari, and more. Sicilia probably has its biggest recognition for its dessert wine category, most notably Marsala. Recently, however, Sicilia has shown itself to be a star in small-production wines of every category. And, frankly, we love these wines for summertime.

In the twentieth century, Sicilia was bound by its cooperatives. While there are many excellent cooperatives, the ones that defined Sicilia privileged quantity over quality. In recent decades, however, the region began to foster small, independent producers, people who were drawn by the island’s natural rugged beauty and rich multicultural background (comprised of Arabian, Norman, and Aragonese influences). The investments generated by the tourism industry inspired the regional pride of wine growers and encouraged independent wine production.

Sicilia’s private labels have given rise to its current fashionable status–well, the labels combined with Siclia’s natural gifts. While the hottest and driest of Italy’s regions, Sicilia’s Mediterranean climate is tempered by the presence of the Apennine Mountains. Its unique climate, in fact, enables it to deliver remarkable consistency across vintages, particularly because it’s dry in spring, one of the contributing factors to vintage variance.

Catarratto, a grape exclusive to Sicilia dominates the region’s whites. A prime constituent in Marsala, when cultivated as opposed to being merely “grown,” it can deliver a rather full-bodied wine accented by spice. It mainly features in blends produced under the Alcamo DOC, which accords the indigenous Inzolia and Grecanico greater presence. While the aromatic and fruity Inzolia and Grecanico, a variety high in acidity, do appear as solo varietals, many producers feel that their individual attributes show best in a blend. Chardonnay, Sicilia’s reigning international celebrity, delivers its voluptuous character in grandiose style in Sicilia’s intense heat. Most bottlings are unabashed New World depictions, offering the concentration that is principally associated with the productions of California and Australia.

The indigenous Nero d’Avola grape leads in the reds category. Like the white Cataratto, it is essentially an exclusive to Sicilia. Although Nerello Mascalese and Frappato have grown in popularity, the seemingly charmed Nero d’Avola has acquired an international following. All of these grapes appear both in monovarietal and blended bottlings, sometimes with Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah. (This international crew grows well in Sicilia.) Probably most famously, Nero d’Avola pairs up with fellow indigenous varietal Frappato to create the potent red Cerasuolo di Vittoria, the region’s only DOCG.

Sicilia may not be only known for its Marsala, but it certainly hasn’t left the wine behind. Marsala has enjoyed a comeback among connoisseurs, who particularly enjoy those classed as Vergine/Solera—the longest aged of the Marsalas—with their complex flavors earning them positioning among the finest fortified wines in Europe. While these are always dry, DOC regulations permit sweet styles as well as various aging parameters. Moscato di Pantelleria, one of Italy’s most seductive sweet wines, comes from  the island of Pantelleria and derives from the Moscato grape, which is known as Zibibbo in Sicilia.

Given the extensive nature of the co-op scene until the 1980s, Sicilia’s fine wine was defined almost solely by two estates Corvo-Duca di Salaparuta and Conte Tasca d’Almerita (Regaleali). They did especially well by Nero d’Avola, and their signature bottlings are now classics. Many producers, such as Spadafora, value its collaboration with the international family, setting it up with several partners in their portfolios (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah). Sicilia’s most lauded wine, however, is a single-varietal expression of an international white varietal—the heady, decadent, and otherworldly Planeta Chardonnay. The late, great Marco De Bartoli’s artisanal renderings of Marsala are without equal, particularly his Vecchio Samperi bottling. His Moscato di Pantelleria, Bukkuram, is also revered.

Sicilia has a long history of making wine—historical records indicate Sicilian wine dating back to the twelfth century, BCE. However, this history has been torn, tangled and rent asunder by conquering, phylloxera, and financial woe. These days, Sicilia is on the rise, in no small part because of small, often family-owned-and-operated estates, who understand the value of this volcanic soil land and its unique microclimates. Estates like COS, a trio of friends who craft traditional blends of indigenous grapes; Palari, who worked to reimagine the ancient wine Faro, one of Italy’s smallest but most important DOC regions; and Montecarrubo, the child of master winemaker Peter Vinding-Diers, have done much to make Sicilian wine great again.

A land this storied, this unusual and this perfect for winemaking could hardly be kept down for long. Still, it’s high time to celebrate Sicilia and all that this island offers.


2 Responses to “Exploring the Wild, Wonderful Wines of Sicilia”

  1. Dian Schafer
    January 15th, 2015 @ 11:58 am

    I am interested in buying some of the Sicilian Reds written up in the Times Wednesday. Do you carry any of them?

  2. Janice Cable
    January 15th, 2015 @ 12:16 pm

    Hi Dian,

    I think you’re talking about the Nero d’Avola, and, yes, we carry the COS; we also carry the Mirabile. However, we’re currently out of stock of all these wines. However, we do have a few Sicilian wines that aren’t Nero d’Avola, if you want to check them out:

    Thanks so much!

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