Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and thanks to its location at the Southern most point of Italy, it has always been the first port of call with seafarers from around the world.
Thanks, at least in part, to these geographical attributes, Sicily is well known for its Greek temples, Mediterranean beaches, the Baroque architectural style and rich culinary culture – all made up from a blend of influences and worldwide origins.
As well as having a rich culinary legacy, Sicily is also exceptionally well known and respected for its wine production. In fact, Sicily has taken the lead, ahead of Tuscany and Piemonte, to be the largest wine producing region in Italy – boasting an impressive 98,000 hectares of vineyards spanning the breadth of its ashy, volcanic terrain, clay and limestone.
Due to the island's heterogenous geographic composition, there are a number of microclimates and a mosaic of different terroirs.
Why are Sicilian Wines so Popular?
There is no doubt about it; Sicilian wine has its own distinct flavour. Whether it’s a Nero d’Avola or an Etna Bianco, there is always a fresh, fruity yet elegant undertone that makes Sicilian wine instantly recognisable. Its almost as if the wine wants to set itself apart from its counterparts, carrying with it an air of class and superiority.
But what makes Sicilian wine different from other wines and why has the region become such a prominent location for viniculture?
The answer: its almost written in the stars for Sicily to be a centre for wine making. Everything about the island makes it ideally suited to the task. First, its rich history as a stopping point for ships travelling from around the world means that Sicily has always benefited from the latest technologies and methods that are used for wine making – with influences from Greece, Lebanon, Asia and of course, Italy.
Whist the Greeks were largely responsible for bringing some of the more advanced wine making techniques to Sicily, the island has been involved in the production of wine since 4000BC – but more notably so, in the past 2500 years.
Sicily owes much of its debt to its fortunate climate as well – the typical Mediterranean conditions with constant sunshine and occasional and light rainfall make it an ideal environment for the cultivation of grapevines.
The costal breeze from the relatively small island also means that the vineyards are naturally well-ventilated and thus kept free from disease and other ailments found in less fortunate climates. The result is that Sicilian winemakers have little need for chemical sprays and can instead produce organic grapes for their wines.
If we’re talking about the growing conditions found in Sicily, we must also mention the islands stratovolcano – Mount Etna. It is the higher and most active volcano in Europe, Etna regularly rains lava and minerals down on the vineyards giving the islands wines an unmistakably aromatic flavour and a beautifully romantic story to go with it.
The result of these attributes are extremely rich harvests typically lasting around 5 months and at the end of it, elegant and fruity wines with a somewhat lower alcohol volume than other regions.
The Renaissance of Sicilian Wine
Giving the conditions present in Sicily that lend themselves so naturally to viticultural pursuits, it is somewhat ironic that Sicily was failing in its wine making ventures up until the end of the 20th Century.
This failure has in fact been attributed to the very conditions that make it an ideal wine-growing region. Because Sicilian vine growers found it so easy to produce and harvest their vineyards the temptation to mass-produce wine was just too strong.
Coupled with subsidisation lead by the Sicilian Government the quantity of wine produced in the region went up significantly, whilst the quality (as it so often does) went down. As the quality of the wine weakened so did consumer confidence and before long, Sicily started to garner a reputation for low-quality, wishy-washy wine.
Thankfully, as we made our way through the 21st century, the new wave of Sicilian winemakers have realised the importance of the country’s heritage and 70+ indigenous grape varieties on offer to them. Going back to their roots and employing the traditional viticultural techniques the quality of wines have skyrocketing.
Today Sicily has the balance just right – with most wines typically being produced from the native grapes found on the island (Nero d’avola, Carricante, Frappato, Catarratto, Grillo, Inzolia, Nerello Mascalese and Perricone to name just a few). Some wines are also made from a blend of these traditional grapes and the more internationally recognised varieties such as Chardonnay, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc – a balance that has helped to bring wine connoisseurs from far and wide to sample what Sicilian wine has to offer.
Grillo is an hybrid, very recent genetic analysis confirm that it is the result of a crossing between Catarratto and Zibibbo, an indigenous biotype of Muscat of Alexandria.
The Sicilian Wine Classification System
Of course, we can’t all be expected to take all of this on face value but fortunately the Italian government have thought of that and as such, introduced a system of wine classification similar to that of the French model (Appellation d’origine controlee or AOC).
The Italian system is called Denominazione di Origine Controllata but is typically abbreviated to DOC. This system serves to outline and uphold a strict set of requirements for winemakers in order to ensure the quality of both the grapes, and the resulting wines are held to a high standard.
The specification includes strict requirements for both the methods used to produce the wine as well as the regions in which the grapes can be grown.
As well as the popular DOC classification there is also a higher DOCG counterpart which also comes with a direct guarantee from the Italian government as to the quality of the wine behind its label.
Although there are 23 DOC classifications and 1 DOCG classification in Sicily, there are a handful that you really should be familiar with in order to recognise a good quality Sicilian wine.
This is a broad appellation that spans the entire breadth of the island. It was launched in 2011 by a collective of wine producers whose view was to promote the existing Sicilia IGT to a DOC.
This was an important move as it backed up the view that Sicilian wine should be produced with quality over quantity in mind and as such, all of the wineries participating in this move agreed to adhere to strict production guidelines as well as to promote the islands popular native grapes such as Grillo, Nero d’Avola, Frappato, Catarratto, Inzolia, Grecanico and Perricone. This move re-instilled the fact that Sicilians were taking wine making back to its roots and it had a hugely positive impact on the brand that is Sicilian wine.
The two most important native grapes to fall under the Sicilia DOC umbrella are Nero d’Avola and Catarratto. These two varieties make up 16 and 32 % of Sicily’s vineyard area respectively and are responsible for some of the most loved wines to come out of the island.
As its name suggests, this appellation can be found in the region surrounding mount Etna on the East coast of Sicily. An area much loved by wine makers and drinkers alike, its fertile and volcanic soils help to produce a unique experience for the taste buds.
The primary grapes to carry the Etna DOC label are Nerello Mascalese for red and Carricante for white. Nerello Mascalese is a very popular grape and is often compared to both Barolo (Nebbiolo) and red Burgundy (Pinot Noir).
Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG
There is only one wine produced in Sicily that currently holds the Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG classification. Located in its Southern most corner of Sicily, the higher temperatures and lower altitude make it perfect for growing excellent quality grapes.
The DOCG zone includes some central and the Eastern parts of the Island down to the South coast.
The Must Try Sicilian Wines
Nero d’Avola is one of the most famous red wine grapes grown in Sicily. “Black of Avola” in Italian, Nero d’Avola is named after the small town that concentrated on cultivating this particular grape since the 15th century. Despite that fact, Nero d’Avola is not native to Sicily — the Greeks (Siceliotes) imported it before the common era.
Nero d’Avola is a thick-skinned grape that grows well in hot climates. It has a rich plum, cassis, or black cherry flavour and is used to produce beautiful, full-bodied wines. Nero d’Avola can be used in DOC and IGT wines, including Marsala, Eloro, Bivongi, Sambuca di Sicilia, Alcamo, and Contea di Sclafani.
Catarratto is a large white grape that can produce full-bodied white wines that are easy to drink. It has been cultivated in Sicily for centuries but rose to popularity in the 20th century because of its exceptionally high yield. Around 30% of Sicily’s vineyards produce Catarratto today.
Catarratto produces medium-acidity wines with intense citrus and resin flavors. Floral and nutty hints may also be present. Catarratto usually serves as a blend and is used in Etna DOC, Alcamo, Menfi, Santa Margherita di Belice DOC, and IGT wines. Although Catarratto has a reputation for being a lower-quality blending ingredient, the grape is increasingly used in unique wines, with refreshing results.
Grillo is a versatile white grape commonly grown on Sicily and the Aeolian Islands. The grape is most well-known for the fact that it is used in Marsala wines, but its rich range of aromas, which include floral, herbal (thyme), and citrus, makes Grillo attractive in a range of wines.
Grillo can be used to produce wines with high alcohol content, and the grape requires an expert hand to prevent it from becoming bland. Beyond Marsala wines, Grillo is most frequently used in Monreale, Alcamo, Delia Nivolelli, and Contea di Sclafani wines. Grillo may be the only grape in some IGT wines, but blends are also often produced with this grape.
Etna Rosso wines are produced to the North, East, and South of Mount Etna, where the grapes that go into these red wines are nurtured by the soil surrounding Europe’s largest active volcano. Nerello Mascalese, characterized by deep berry, herbal, and floral flavors with a distinct mineral taste, is the primary ingredient in Etna Rosso DOC wines. Nerello Cappuccio can make up 20% of these wines.
Etna Rosso wines pair well with rich tomato sauces, and these sensual wines have become a popular accompaniment to the dinner table. They remain one of Sicily’s most famous types of wine because of their bright acidity and subtle tannins.
Etna Bianco, grown in Sicily at the foot of Mount Etna, is often produced with 100% Carricante. This white grape offers delightful fruity flavors that include hints of lemon, lime, grapefruit, and orange while adding touches of spices and herbs like mint, anise, and chamomile. Carricante is high in acidity.
Etna Bianco wines must contain at least 60 percent Carricante. When blended, they are often paired with Catarratto. In some cases, more aromatic grapes like Minella and Trebbiano may also be added. These acidic wines, which are best consumed with seafood, are not typically aged, but they produce full-bodied flavours when they are.
Cerasuolo di Vittoria
Cerasuolo di Vittoria is a fruity dry red wine. It is the island’s pride and joy as the only Sicilian wine to have attained DOCG status. Nero d’Avola makes up between 50 and 70 percent of Cerasuolo di Vittoria, which is blended with Frappato di Vittoria.
Cerasuolo di Vittoria must have an alcohol content of at least 13 percent. Its flavor is refined — with deep cherries, resin, hints of eucalyptus, algae, minerals, Cerasuolo di Vittoria embodies the spirit of the Mediterranean. When aged, Cerasuolo di Vittoria includes hints of dark chocolate and tobacco. These wines pair well with almost any food but are also delightful to drink on their own.
Perricone is a unique and rare grape that produces beautiful, full-bodied red wines. The grape variety was widespread in Sicily during the 1800s when it claimed around 34,000 hectares of vineyard space, but it had all but disappeared by the late 20th century. However, hard work, including the creation of new clones, has gradually led to its revival.
Perricone is currently permitted in Contea di Sclafani, Delia Nivolelli, Eloro, Marsala, and Monreale wines, blended with other grapes. This grape adds acidic hints of Morello cherries and has a slightly peppery and herbal flavor. Perricone wines are often considered best before they are aged but develop a velvety taste over time.
Nerello Mascalese is a red grape variety thought to have originated in Catania, and that is primarily grown near Mount Etna in the present time. Nerello Mascalese is famous for producing wines with exceptionally rich flavour profiles. These elegant wines offer aromas that range from red fruits, cinnamon, and herbs to earthy volcanic notes.
Nerello Mascalese is the primary grate variety used in Etna and Faro DOC red wines. It may be blended, but Nerello Mascalese shines when it is used to craft varietal wine. Nerello Mascalese is widely considered to be superior to its close relative, Nerello Cappuccio, which also falls within the Etna DOC.
Inzolia is a famous white grape that is mainly grown in the western part of Sicily. The grape is believed to have been cultivated on the island since the Phoenicians arrived before the common era. Historically, Inzolia is most well-known for its use in Marsala wines. That tradition has shifted in more recent times, and Inzolia is now more often blended with Catarratto to produce elegant summer wines. Varietal Inzolia wines may also be found, with excellent results.
This acidic white grape variety produces fruity, nutty wines with nutty and rocky notes. An Inzolia revival movement is in full swing, so connoisseurs may look forward to interesting tasting opportunities in the future.
Zibibbo — or, as it is known in the rest of the world, Muscat of Alexandria — is an ancient vine that originated in North Africa, where the Ancient Egyptians used it to produce wine. The white grape, which thrives in hot climates, is used to make wines with unique flavours popular among connoisseurs. Expect orange, jasmine, peach, apricot, and almond tones.
Muscat of Alexandria is a popular grape grown wherever the climate allows, including Spain and Greece, but its growing conditions make Sicilian Zibibbo one of a kind. Passito wines, made with dried grapes, are often made with Zibibbo grapes, producing intense and well-balanced dessert wines.
Frappato is a red grape variety used to make light-bodied wines with distinctly fruity flavors and aromas. It is mainly cultivated in Sicily and is believed to be native to Syracuse and Ragusa. The fact that Frappato — or Frappato di Vittorio, if you want to be precise — is one of the ingredients in Cerasuolo di Vittoria makes it one of the most important grapes grown in Sicily. Cerasuolo di Vittoria is, after all, Sicily’s only DOCG wine.
These grapes have a complex flavour profile that includes dried strawberry, deep pomegranate, olives, rosemary, white pepper, and clove, and is low in tannins. Frappato makes for gorgeous varietal wines, but becomes more complex when blended with Nero d’Avola, as seen in Frappato di Vittoria.
Carricante is a high-yielding white grape that plays a vital role in Sicily’s wine industry and grows best at higher elevations around Mount Etna. Its name comes from the Italian word “caricare,” which means to load or burden — because this vine is capable of producing shocking volumes of grapes.
Carricante is increasingly used to make varietal wines, but it is most famous for its role in Etna DOC wines, where the grape is blended with Catarratto and Minella Bianca. Wines produced with Carricante have a fresh fruity flavor with citrus and floral tones, and tend to be higher in acidity.
Now that you know the vast, culturally rich history of Sicily and its vineyards you will hopefully have even more enjoyment drinking some of the wines from the beautiful island. As well as being able to identify the different types of Sicilian wine and the grapes from which it is produced, you will have a talking point with your friends about the region’s rich history and proud viticulturists.