Mythology & Wine Making
Ever since classical times, Sicily has been well-known for it's agriculture, food and wine. Wild grape have grown on the island of Sicily for thousands of years, however it was the Phoenicians who first began to cultivate the vines to produce wine and brought well established grape varieties with them from the middle east to plant on the island. The Phoenicians were followed by the ancient Greeks, who brought with them grape crushing and wine making techniques and more well known grape varieties such as Greganico. The wines of Sicily are often quoted in Greek mythology, the cult surrounding Dionysus and his maenads (latterly called Bacchantes by the Romans) were spread by the poetess Sapho, who is said to have cultivated vines on the isle of Sicily after she was expelled from her native island of Lesbos.
Later on in the days of the Roman empire, Sicilian wines were considered as a pleasant change from the wines of Falerner and it is also claimed that the emperor Caesar's favourite wine was the Mamertino wine of Capo Peloro in Sicily. Even later, Arab rule had little effect on the Sicilian wine culture, despite the Koran's ban on alcohol, not only did the Arab rulers tolerate Sicilian wine production they even developed new techniques of distilling and maturing wines. Under Spanish rule in the 1500's however, many Sicilian vineyards where dug up to make way for wheat and it wasn't until 1773 that Sicily managed to re-establish it's vineyards and it was later in 1880, when many of France's vineyards were decimated by the Phylloxera that the worlds wine merchants turned to Italy, Germany and Spain for wine. Sicilian wines have always had a tough time when it comes to global acceptance, even in today's market the wines of Sicily rarely make an impact outside Sicily itself, but nevertheless over the last few decades the quality of Sicilian wine has gone from strength to strength and it is known commonly found on supermarket shelves and restaurant wine lists.
Modern Sicilian Wine
Today, Sicily is probably one of Italy's most amazing wine regions, not only does Sicily share the lead with Apulia for the extent of it's planted vineyards and the size of it's harvest (each year some 2.4 to 2.6 million gallons of wine are produced from vineyards extending well over 321,000 acres of vineyard) - but for more than two decades now Sicilian wine has been developing in quality and is now well established as one of Italy's finest wine producing regions. The regions most distant outposts of Pantelleria and Lampedusa are nearer to Tunisia than Italy and boasts the perfect conditions for wine production, barren soils, lots of sunshine and warmth and low rainfall all create Sicily's perfect climate. The slopes of the central mountains rise up to 3000 feet and give the perfect area to plant vines and also help give the island its sharp swings between daytime and night time temperatures, which is a key factor in successful vine growing and grape production by allowing the vines to rest in the cooler night time temperatures. Sicily's most famous wine region is situated in the western province of Trapani, where Marsala (Sicily's most famous wine) is produced. The countryside on both sides of the island are also major production areas for edible dessert grapes. Due to the significant improvement in Sicilian wine quality a number of outstanding wine producers and vintners now are exporting high quality, outstanding wines all over the world.
The main grape varieties grown in Sicily are not just native grape varieties such as the white Catarratto, Inzolio and Grillo or the red Nero d'Avola and Nerello Mascalese but also more well known International grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay which are all being planted and used by Sicilian wine makers and producing some very good single varietal and blended wines. Catarratto and Grillo, which are mainly grown in the Trapani area and also used in the production of Marsala, but can also be used to make some interesting dry and fairly robust white wines. The white Inzolia variety has even greater potential for producing quality wines in regions of high altitude. The ancient Greek variety Malvasia, or rather the whole varietal family of vine stock with an endless number of different varieties which can be found in nearly every region of Italy, is used to produce the rare, top-quality dessert wines native to the Lipari islands. Of all the native red varieties used in Sicilian wines it is Nero d'Avola, also known as Calabrese, has the greatest potential for quality wine production in Sicily, where it produces full-bodied, well balanced elegant but powerful wines.
The key to success in the future is Sicily's continued developments in wine making technology, many wine makers are now dispelling traditional wine making techniques in favour of more modern techniques of both making the wine but also growing the grapes. Modern techniques of planting, training, pruning and harvesting grapes are producing some very high-quality grapes, the key constituent of a high-quality wine. In Sicilian winery's there is now much use of old and new oak barrels to age and add character to wines and also modern blending techniques and a greater awareness of balancing a wine. Nowadays, some of Sicily's best vintages are being compared with the great wines of Tuscany and Piedmont in terms of quality.
Alcamo or Bianco d'Alcamo is the name given to wines produced in one of Sicily's largest DOC regions, covering some 5200 acres in the province of Trapani. For many years this area only ever really produced run of the mill, everyday drinking wines, over the last ten years modern wine making techniques have led producers to a much higher quality wine being produced. Many wines are made using the native, but alas rather neutral, Caterratto variety. Modern day winemakers are now balancing this neutrality by blending with both native and non-native (international) varieties to make some often stunning wines.
Cerasuolo di Vittoria
These red wines are from Sicily's southeast corner and are produced largely using the native Frappato variety, which is often used on its own or blended with Nero d'Avolo. These wines are often quiet high in alcohol and at their best have a pleasant, fruity aroma which many drinkers say reminds them of sour cherries.
Malvasia delle Lipari
The grapes with this DOC label of origin have experienced a dramatic comeback over the past ten years as some producers have taken to planting this variety on the volcanic slopes that run along the Lipari island, just off the Messina straight. A variety of Malvasia, called Corinto Nero form the base of a wonderful dessert wine produced on the island. Malvasia delle Lipari has an alcohol content of around 8% but is also produced as a 20% fortified Malvasia delle Lipari Liquoroso and Passito, which is made from straw-dried grapes.
Moscato di Pantelleria
The Moscato di Pantelleria which comes from the Island of Pantelleria, just off the coast halfway between Sicily and Tunisia is produced for the Moscato di Alessandria variety, known better as Zibibbo on the island. Moscato di Pantelleria is a golden dessert wine, which is only ever produced in small quantities, has become a very popular and highly sought after wine, breathing new life into Pantellerias once flagging wine industry. As with the Malvasia delle Lipari, Moscato di Pantelleria is also made in a fortified Liquoroso style which is powerful and has an almost oily sweetness to it.