The Sicilian wine making tradition dates back as far as four Saracene bridge sicilythousand years. Over those millennia the Sicilians, named after the settlers who introduced agriculture on this sunny island, have raised viticulture and vinification to the level of Italian Renaissance art.
Their masterpiece, the Mazara Valley, is nestled among the rugged Gibellina Mountains in the far west. Larger than Tuscany or Piedmont, the grapes that ripen under the hot sun are often used to fortify the weaker wines made in northern Italy.
The heart of the region lies between Marsala and Salemi, the former giving its name to the traditional hearty wine which originated there. There, because of the combination of warm temperatures, hilly terrain, rich soil and sea breezes, conditions rival the best found in California.
Gifted with such terroir, the country produces more wine per year than the total of Australia and New Zealand. Merlot, Sangiovese and Chardonnay are grown, naturally, but there are also indigenous varieties such as Catarratto and Insolia.
Of course, a major portion of Sicily’s wine output is the dessert wine Marsala, actually created by English merchant traders two centuries ago. Scorned in the past for its association with cooking wines, there are now connoisseurs who favor its complex flavors in the form of Marsala Vergine and Superiore Riserva. In some years, Sicily has provided fully a third of Italy’s total production of this sweet drink.
But far from having only one specialty, the Sicilian artisans in one of the world’s oldest winemaking regions also produce delicious white wines made from a blend of Insolia, Chardonnay and Damaschino. And the red wines, once ridiculed as overbearing, now count among their number such delights as Nero d’Avola. Sometimes compared to Syrah, they age well and sell for as much as sixty dollars a bottle in the finest restaurants in London and New York.
Such works of fine art derive from techniques developed over centuries. The sophisticated viticulturists may prune the grape vines by as much as 35% to concentrate the flavor, then harvest the fruit at night to avoid the searing Sicilian autumn sun. The grapes are then placed in cooled vats to avoid premature fermentation to produced the high-reputation vino da taglio grape must.
Grapes run the gamut of Grillo to Malyasia and Carricante to Chardonnay. One can also find the Italian version of the Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, as well as the traditional Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Among the reds, the mainstay Cabernet Sauvignon is grown everywhere, but Negrello Cappuccio and Gamay— from the foothills of the Etna volcano — form part of an vast variety of vines.
Only 15% of this enormous output, however, is bottled on the island, with only 2% controlled under the Italian Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) appellation system.
The majority of the vineyards reside on the west side of the island in the Trapani province, where more than 70% of Sicily’s wine is produced. Unexpectedly, the largest portion of this output is white wine rather than red. Among these is Alcamo, Which is enjoying a renewed advance in quality.