Sicily: Where Great Wines and Lava Flow

BY IAN D'AGATA | AUGUST 06, 2019

Sitting down and writing my annual Sicily report has never been so exciting. I don’t remember the last time I tasted through so many world-class wines, both white and red, from Sicily; probably never, in fact. In a nutshell, that’s what you need to know about the state of Sicilian wine today: while the potential for memorable wines has always been there, it appears that at long last many of the island’s estates (though certainly not all) are finally starting to harness that potential.

As the days wore on (there weren’t exactly a small number of wines to write about), I began to worry that I might actually be underestimating the quality of some of the wines I was tasting! Call it a vinous Stendhal’s syndrome if you like (that condition when people are overwhelmed from taking in too much beauty, as might happen in a museum). Nevertheless, the bevy of fine wines I saw - white and red, dry and sweet - is a testament to the positive changes implemented in vineyard and winery practices all over the island in the last ten years. Visit any good to very good Sicilian estate today and you can’t help but come away with an impression of palpable energy, pride and hope. The number of wineries where I saw this much passion was far fewer twenty or thirty years ago. People seem to realize they are on the cusp of something special, and that the wines really do have something to say on the world stage.

True, this report might be slightly skewed in that it covers the wines from two vintages (2016 and 2017) that were both above average in quality. Two thousand-sixteen especially appears to be one of the greatest Sicilian vintages ever. Broad vintage generalizations are difficult with as large a region as Sicily. At 27,662 square kilometers, it is Europe’s seventh largest island, and it boasts myriad different mesoclimates, exposures, soils, wind currents and more. That fact recognized, 2016 really does appear to have delivered the goods in most of the island’s production zones. AS for the 2017s, they have turned out much better in Sicily than they did in the rest of Italy.


This vineyard on Etna is part of Planeta's vast holdings

Turning the Tide

Most people associate Sicily with a history of mostly cheap bulk wine, but in fact the island has a long and distinguished pedigree of very fine wines too. However, the late 19th century and most of the 20th were not kind to Sicily’s viticulture and winemaking, with the likes of phylloxera, the world wars, sharecropping, and abject poverty causing wines to suffer in the process. A spike in quality was finally registered in the late 1980s, but that was nothing compared to the upward surge that is taking place on the island today. The current scene is a very different one from that of even the recent past. Sicily’s most highly touted wines, those that were making all the headlines only 30 years ago, were hardly anything to write home about, and reports of Sicily being the “new California of Italy” were greatly exaggerated. It is true that in the late 1980s and 1990s there began an encouraging, even exciting, move toward better viticulture and cleaner winemaking, but the fact is that many of those wines, despite all their positive press, carried almost caricatural amounts of new oak and high alcohol levels; others were clean but nondescript. Even worse, many offered no tie to either the land or the grape variety they were supposedly being made with. For example, legions of Catarrattos brought Chardonnay to mind; Moscato di Noto wines (which should be made with Moscato Bianco) tasted of Zibibbo more than anything else (Zibibbo is a different Muscat variety from Moscato Bianco, better known outside of Italy as Muscat of Alexandria); and Nero d’Avola wines reeked of coffee and chocolate (descriptors you ought to associate with Merlot wines, not those made with Nero d’Avola – unless a huge amount of toasty new oak is lavished on the stuff). Back then, the wines of Etna (nowadays the hottest wine area not just of Sicily but of all of Italy) were nowhere in sight; there was only one Faro and only one Malvasia delle Lipari of any commercial significance; wines labeled Cerasuolo di Vittoria and those made with Frappato (two of Italy’s biggest wine success stories of the last 20 years) were then mostly forgettable; and much-hyped Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay wines of those times were, compared to the best from Bordeaux and Napa, extremely poor. In other words, there really wasn’t that much to get excited about, though I suppose, given the situation, that finally just making cleaner wines was cause for jubilation.


One of the igloo-like case matte that gives the estate its name

Only with the turn of the new century did Sicilian wine really begin to change for the better. It is only fair to recognize the important role played by the Istituto Regionale Vino e Olii di Sicilia (IRVOS), an agricultural research center that employed some of Italy’s brightest wine minds and carried out a great deal of the research (both viticultural and enological) that ultimately led to huge improvements in Sicilian wine (see Vinous, December 2015: Sicily: The Challenge of Turning Great Potential Into Great Wines).

For example, estates such as Planeta and Donnafugata have no trouble acknowledging how much help the Istituto gave them over the years. In the ultimate analysis, the research and guidance the institute provided to many of the island’s estates over the last thirty years, combined with the arrival of new generations at the helm of family wineries (young individuals who completed university studies abroad and traveled the world, becoming exposed to the world’s best wines); the arrival of forward-thinking, knowledgeable new winery owners from elsewhere (for example, Andrea Franchetti of Passopisciaro - now Vini Franchetti - and Marc De Grazia of Tenuta delle Terre Nere); the establishment of future Italian wine stars who understood the potential treasure they were sitting on (Benanti, Feudo Montoni, Gulfi, Cos, Arianna Occhipinti) and had huge pride in their history and their land, coupled with an iron will and the desire to improve (as seen in the highly meritorious investments of Donnafugata on Pantelleria; Planeta’s expansion all over the island in an effort to make wines that speak of the island’s many subzones rather than a nonexistent “generic” Sicily; Tasca d’Almerita’s betting on single-variety wines made with grapes highly typical of the island; and Marco De Bartoli’s dedication to high-quality Marsala and, later, that of his sons to local island cultivars) have all led to an amazing change in Sicily’s wine scene.

These success stories and increased sales have had many beneficial consequences, including other island estates being spurred to improve their game, new investors launching estates, more research being done than ever before (by the estates, at least), and increased production of very interesting new wines made with old forgotten grape varieties that are unlike those made anywhere else in the world. Sicily’s wine renaissance is now based on very solid footing.


The vines at Calcagno

Good News for Sicily

I have written before that Sicily is blessed with an extraordinary set of unique, high-quality wine grape varieties. After years of visiting the area and talking to locals, government officials and university researchers, I can conservatively estimate that there are, at the very least, another 50 cultivars that are not currently being used to make monovariety wines in commercially significant volumes (for the most part, these grapes are added to various blends). For example, Sicily’s Inzolia (the official name of which is actually Ansonica) is not just one variety but many; there are likely several different white grapes known by that same name and at least three or four red on as well. So there’s a lot more Inzolia whose fine wine potential is worth looking into. The song remains the same for many other little-known island varieties that are just waiting for their day in the sun.

Over the last five years, varieties once banished to the periphery of the Sicilian wine empire have returned in full force: witness the resurgence of Perricone, once limited to generic bulk blends and Ruby Marsala and now the centerpiece of many very fine monovariety wines made all over the island. Whereas there was not a single monovariety Perricone wine made twenty years ago (that is, for something other than immediately local consumption), there are now at least fifteen worthwhile bottlings available. (However, be aware that a number of such wines bear a sneaking resemblance to Syrah, so I’m not convinced that all the Perricone bottlings one comes across nowadays are as monovariety as they are said to be). Or consider the island-wide realization that the three Catarratto varieties are not in fact one and the same (despite what the geneticists say), at least with respect to the very different wines that can be made from each. And so it is that some real wine beauties are now being produced with the likes of Catarratto Comune and Catarratto Lucido (and my bet is that that will also happen with the very rare Catarratto Extra-Lucido, or Lucidissimo, as soon as an estate can find enough of it to replant and make wine from).


The vineyards at Frank Cornelissen's estate

Inzolia wines have never been better than they are today, thanks to better canopy and vineyard management (extreme heat and sunlight are anathema to the low-acid Inzolia variety). Grillo is also now the subject of much better vineyard and enological care, and consequently much better wines are being made; mostly gone are the rustic and earthy wines of yesteryear. (Of course, there are those who might argue that in the name of modern winemaking, there are far too many overly lemony and Sauvignon Blanc–like Grillo wines being made nowadays, and they do have a point.) Last but not least, Nocera, a long-forgotten variety typical of northeastern Sicily, is finally being appreciated for its outstanding potential. Not surprisingly, increasing number of monovariety wines are being produced with Nocera. In fact, this last variety provides a clear example of just how greatly things have improved in Sicilian wine (and local producer mentality) over the last thirty years or so. In the past, everybody in Sicily wanted to make wines with Nero d’Avola or international grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, and consequently proceeded to plant those varieties everywhere, even in places that were unsuitable. And so it was too in Sicily’s very rainy northeast, where it was totally pointless to plant Nero d’Avola, a cultivar that hates humidity. The likelihood of making very good wines with Nero d’Avola here were slim at best, and yet producers persisted with Nero d’Avola and totally ignored the local Nocera, a red wine grape that has always called northeastern Sicily home. Today there’s a far more critical and knowledgeable approach to such matters – so much so that Nocera is finally getting the attention from local producers that it deserves. There are now more and more wines being made with larger and larger percentages of Nocera, not Nero d’Avola, in that part of Sicily – as, quite frankly, there should be.

Clearly, it’s not all roses and violets with Sicilian wine; far from it. For one thing, there is still far too much neutral and insipid wine being made. And frankly, Sicilian co-ops are not exactly of the same quality as those of Piedmont or Alto Adige, for example. But for the most part, the future has never looked better.


Vineyards on Mount Etna

Recent Vintages

Due to extreme heat and especially the lack of rain, the 2017 vintage was one of the most difficult in recent memory, although it was not as challenging a year in Sicily as it was in most of Italy. As everywhere else in the country, 2017 was characterized by sustained higher-than-normal temperatures plus an almost extreme lack of rain, contributing to a 20% drop in production all over the island. However, grape varieties behaved very differently. The consensus was that the island’s native grapes fared best, thanks to their centuries-long adaptation to their respective Sicilian terroirs and to the older average age of native vines as opposed to recently planted international varieties. The former have much more extensive root systems that provide better drought resistance. Generally speaking, the international varieties suffered much more from heat stress. The best-performing viticultural areas were those on the sea or close to the coast, thanks to gentler, less extreme climate conditions. Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Vittoria Frappato, and Pachino Nero d’Avola were mostly quite successful. In the island’s interior, temperature stress was much more of a factor; in general, it was Grillo that gave excellent results there.

By contrast, 2016 will go down as one of Sicily’s all-time great vintages, especially on Etna and in western Sicily. In the southeast and in the center of the island, prolonged drought caused vines to suffer, and some wines display slightly gritty tannins. On Etna, the 2016 vintage was a rollercoaster, beginning with a mild winter that depleted water reserves (never a welcome development in usually hot and parched Sicily). March was characterized by at times truly violent hail episodes that led to an overall decrease in production volumes. The growing season continued with an April heat wave, while May was unseasonably cool; June was even worse, with thunderstorms and humidity. Only in July did the weather settle into a more typical seasonal pattern. September was a little rainier than most estates would have liked, but beginning in the second half of October and all through harvest, days were warm and dry, and nights were cool, leading, for the most part, to perfumed wines of very good acidity and refined tannins. In Sicily’s southwest (for example, the countryside around Menfi), winter was characterized by not much rainfall and slightly below-average temperatures compared to 2015. Spring made up for the lack of water reserves with plenty of rain, especially in March. Summer was cooler than average (and certainly much cooler than those of the hot 2015 and 2017 vintages), resulting in well-balanced, perfumed white wines; among the reds, Nero d’Avola fared best. Sicily’s southeast (where the city of Vittoria is located) endured an extraordinary lack of rainfall during the summer, but temperatures were not especially high and emergency irrigation saved the day. Happily, rain in September provided the necessary liquid refreshment to the vines, and the harvest took place in outstanding weather conditions. Frappato fared especially well, while Nero d’Avola did better around Noto, where it was a great year for Moscato Bianco too. In Sicily’s northeast, there was a very wet November, a dry winter, a rainy and hot spring, and a very cool summer. Generally long hang times led to some marvelous wines, especially Faro, one of the real successes of 2016; simply put, I have never before tasted so many great Faros.

The wines in this report were tasted in my office in Rome and during winery visits in May, June and July 2019.

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Sicily: The Challenge of Turning Great Potential Into Great Wines, Ian D'Agata, December 2015