An Introduction to Sicilian Wines
Living in Sicily
If the idea of walking up to a sage-scented ocean breeze sounds alluring, what about sipping coffee in an ancient fruit orchard while looking out over the crystal-blue Mediterranean? The Sicilian countryside seems to exist in another timeline.
A magical place, to be sure, but can any place be a paradise for long? The only thing rarer than a GPS signal is a street sign. The shepherds and their sheep are quaint only the first time they block the road for twenty minutes. And what to do with that herd of cows that keeps breaking into your pasture, trampling your garden?
A Short History of Wine in Sicily
In the 8th Century BCE, Greek colonists became the Island’s first winemakers. Ancient texts describe Dionysus, the God of Wine, dancing as he planted the very first grapevine in Sicily. Thanks to archeologists, we know these vineyards were located in the black hills under Mt. Aetna, a still-active volcano.
In time, the Romans conquered the island, and that opened Sicily to the world. These wines were traded as far away as modern-day France and Germany. Production boomed. A notable ancient wine was Marsala, a fortified wine made on the western coast. The wine was popularized by a British merchant in the 18th century and soon started to be compared to Portugal’s Porto wines.
The history of Sicilian wines would likely have continued apace. However, in the late 19th century an invasive parasite invaded the vineyards, killing most vines. This was the Phylloxera epidemic, and it drew a stark red line between the 19th century and today.
It was only in the last half of the 20th Century when Sicily recovered it’s winemaking mojo, thanks to wineries like COS, Planeta, and Ceuso.
Sicilian Wine Regions: Province of Ragusa
Ragusa is the most southernmost province of Sicily, situated in the Val di Noto. It is a place of rolling hills, dramatic shorelines, and ancient towns. The region’s namesake city dates back to Greek times, but was completely destroyed by the earthquake. It was and completely rebuilt in the baroque style in the 17th century.
Other important towns include Scicli and Modica. Like Ragusa, many of the buidlings are in the Late Baroque style. The other key component of these cities is their culinary and winemaking traditions.
The Wines of Cerasuolo di Vittoria
Cerasuolo di Vittoria is the most important appellation in Ragusa, dating back to the 7th century BCE. The name refers to an elegant refreshing style of wine. Cerasuolo refers to the light red hue of the wine. Vittoria is a city west of Ragusa and the center of the wine region.
The wine is an odd –but brilliant– coupling of two native varietals, Nero d’Avola and Frappato. Nero is an intense hulk-ish red that tends to produce angry and magnetic wines. Frappato makes a light, nearly pink, wine that is all about roses and ocean breezes.
The wine produced within an even more restricted area will have the term “Classico” appended to the appellation. The region was awarded DOC status in 1974. In 2005, it was upgraded to DOCG, the highest level of classification in Italian wine.
Featured Ragusa Wineries: COS and Arianna Occhipinti
COS is the acronym of the surnames of the Winery’s three founders: Giambattista Cilia, Giusto Occhipinti, and Cirino Strano. In 1980, these young men leased a small winery and vineyard from a family member. The first vintage produced a meager 1470 bottles.
Year by year, the volume increased, but so did the quality and international acclaim. By 2000, they brought back an ancient Sicilian tradition: using amphorae (clay vessels buried underground) to age their wines. It’s a technique that has now been adopted across all of Italy.
Their finest Cerasuolo di Vittoria is the “Delle Fontane”. It is red ruby in color, with aromas of cherry, blackberry and currant. The flavors of fresh roses and toasted spice are alluring, and the palate is fresh, elegant and Mediterranean..
The Arianna Occhipinti story is more recent addition to the Sicilian wine scene. Arianna is the niece of the Giusto Occhipinti, of COS fame.
She opened her eponymously named winery in 2004 in Ragusa. What began as a tiny one hectare operation now spans over 22 hectares, mostly Nero d’Avola and Frappato, but also Albanello and Zibibbo, two local white varieties.
Her top-level is the Cerasuolo di Vittoria ‘Grotte Alte’ i s aged a minimum of 32 months in massive Slavonian oak buttes. The wine is an intense ruby red color with garnet shades. The nose is fragrant, with details of sea spray, sour cherries and oriental spices. The palate it is intense and elegant, soft and round with a persistent and salty aromatic finish.
Sicilian Wine Regions: Province of Trapani
Trapani is a Bronze-age commune that is still thriving in the modern era. Located on west coast of the island, it has been a major port for two Sicilian products, wine and salt, since the beginning of recorded history.
A naturally protected inlet, Trapani has the capacity to enforce naval superiority over a vast section of the Mediterranean. Over the past two thousand years, this sickle-shaped port has been the focus of countless wars and occupations.
From the Punic Wars of Ancient Rome to World War Two, this port drew dozens of ancient cultures into Sicily, only to be absorbed into the island’s culture. Phoenicians, Arabs, Romans, Normans, and Spaniards all have contributed to the food and wine traditions within Sicily.
The Wines of Marsala
Long before a wine bore its name, Marsala is an ancient city built on the ruins of and even more ancient city, Lilybaeum. The town’s economy, like much of Trapani, was based on their salt ponds and vineyards. By the 17th Century, the world’s economies were recovering from the centuries-long medieval depression.
Times were good, but the local winemakers had a problem: there was a growing market for wine, but their white wines spoiled too quickly to ship. They had started using large oak barrels to store the wine, which helped. Then they heard of a new technique developed in Portugal: fortify the wine by adding spirit to the fermenting must. About this same time, bottled wines became a status symbol. A new wine was born.
The wine rose to fame in the early part of the 20th century, only to come crashing down just as quickly. In America, Marsala was the only wine available during Prohibition (doctors were allowed to write a prescription for it). It wasn’t too long before there was more counterfeit Marsala than the real thing. That fact, sadly, continues through today: most Marsals in American shops still authentic.
To seek our true Marsala, look for the term “Superiore Riserva” on the label. Your mind will be blown with the flavors of toasted almonds, fresh figs, and chocolate-coated raisins. They make for great aperitifs.
Sicilian Wine Regions: Catania
Catania is defined by the heart of Sicily: Mount Etna, the still-active volcano that the entire island is balanced upon. Located on the North eastern shore, the region is famous for it’s black volcanic soils. It’s building are built of the same stone, and it’s roofs are blackened by centuries of volcanic plumes.
The largest city is also named Catania, and has been rebuilt dozens of times since its founding in 729 BCE. The town has not only been destroyed by lava flows, but also earthquakes, wars, and social unrest.
How did a region so unlucky survive so long? It comes down to the lava flows: they are the cause of so much despair, but also why Catania thrives. Over centuries, lava rocks evolve into black volcanic soils that are fertile and life-sustaining. They are why Sicily is an agricultural wonderkind
The Wines of Etna
The specialness of this region can be inferred by the fact that was the first recognized wine appellation in Sicily (it earned its DOC in 1968), a full nine months before Marsala. The essential red grape varietal of this region is Nerello Mascalese, crafting a complex but wild wine that often feels like a confluence of wild-grown fruit and a core of intense core of minerality.
The whites of the region include native varieties include Carricante and Catarratto. The former produces light and ethereal wines that are simple and perfect with summer fish dishes. Cattaratto is lush and intense, going toward tropical fruit infused with tarragon.
This is also a place that attracts crazy European winemakers with a zeal for eccentricity. Just spend a few minutes with the wines of Frank Cornelissen and you’ll understand.