Jeroboams Education is a new series on our blog providing you with the lowdown on the most iconic wine producing regions of the world. Led by our super buying team, Peter Mitchell MW and Maggie MacPherson will introduce you to the key facts and a little history of all the regions you recognise but perhaps don’t know too well. To help really further your education, why not drink along? Browse our Sicily selection.
Sicily, the Mediterranean’s largest island, often feels little to do with mainland Italy and is one of the most fascinating places to visit in all of Europe. Evidence of different cultures is visible throughout, with Greek temples, Roman villas, Byzantine remains, not to mention the influences of Norman and Spanish rule. Its position and size has made it strategically important over the ages and the legacy of this is a wide range of native wine varieties.
Few wine regions have changed as much as Sicily over the past 30 years as EU subsidies have helped the island move from producing lakes of bulk wine to lower yields and higher quality. In the 1990s Sicily regularly produced more wine than any other Italian region, now it is in fourth place and produces barely a third of the volume made in the Veneto. This is not to say that all is well, but that the situation has improved dramatically and Sicily should now be on the radar of all wine enthusiasts.
Mention of Sicily (to the resignation of its citizens) conjures up the Mafia to most outsiders and whilst wine has certainly not been immune, historically the involvement cantered more around protection money than anything else. A certain amount of land, mostly around Alcamo near Palermo, was owned by the clans and 1400 hectares has been confiscated by the state and handed over to an innovative winery project that produces wine from former Mafia estates. There have been worrying signs over the past 20 years that the Mafia have become more involved, but now the involvement centres around land deals and defrauding EU regeneration funds rather than extortion. As recently as March 2020, the government seized €70 million of assets from the giant producer Feudo Arancio who are alleged to be involved in money laundering for Cosa Nostra – charges they have denied.
International varieties have been quite widely planted on the island, notably Syrah, Chardonnay and Merlot, but the best and most interesting wines are made from the indigenous varieties and the rising fame of Etna has given a new confidence to the island as a whole, that focussing on what is unique and can on occasion be brilliant, is where the future lies. Although Etna wines are now commanding relatively high prices, this region still remains a source for some of the best value quality wine made in Italy.
In antiquity, Sicily was renowned for the quality of its wine. Colonised by Greeks and Phoenicians perhaps 12,000 years ago, there is evidence of wine production from the 5th century BC – the first in modern day Italy. Sicily was central in the Punic wars between Rome and Carthage and a stepping stone to the dominance of the Roman Empire. It is likely the first vines on the mainland came from here and the vines around Pompeii and modern day Campania and Lazio are documented as having come from near Etna in the 2nd century BC. In this era, Sicilian wines were noted for their exceptional sweetness – highly prized at the time.
During Byzantine rule and the following 300 years of Moorish Muslim rule then Norman rule, wine lost its significance, although it was still made for local consumption.
The rise of the Kingdom of Sicily began in the 12th century under King Roger II and it became the wealthiest state in the world, attracting scientists, architects, poets and artisans. Wine began to gain in importance again and by the 14th century was being widely exported again. Palermo was now the third biggest city in Europe and with a huge domestic thirst, vineyards in the west of the island began to be developed. Exports were of strong sweet wines which were able to stand the sea journey to markets in the north.
From the late 18th century until the latter half of the 20th century, Marsala, a fortified wine made around the town of the same name in the far west of the island, was one of the world’s most sought after wines and made fortunes for the merchants who made and shipped it. The peak vineyard area was reached at the end of the 19th century at around 325,000 hectares (it is now around 100,000) however greed, declining quality and a change in international tastes saw this once great vineyard area near destitution and led to the production of vast amounts of bulk wine, often destined for EU distillation. The regional government also encouraged this production, knowing there was no market, as it attracted EU subsidy The 1980s saw some enterprising producers, notably Diego Planeta, often aided by outsiders, planting international varieties and installing modern winemaking techniques and this attracted some new exports and paved the way for the improvements seen since. Investment did come from locals, but was mostly from producers in the north of Italy, attracted by cheap land, the easy climate and a lack of stringent production rules. The majority of Sicily’s wine production is now IGP, with the amount of DOC wine growing dramatically over the past decade (helped by the creation of a region wide DOC Sicilia in 2011.)
Most major international varieties are grown on the island, but its strength lies in a handful of indigenous varieties listed here:
The most planted red grape on the island and sometimes known locally as Calabrese, Nero d’Avola has a dark cherry fruit character and requires warmth to fully ripen its tannins. It maintains good acidity, even in very hot micro climates which makes it ideal on the island and it is grown over the whole island, although it is not dominant in the north-east. It has a good affinity to oak and can age well in bottle as well as working well in blends such as Cerasuolo. Much of the Nero d’Avola made is workmanlike and no more, but it has shown it is capable of making great wine.
Although only around 800 hectares of this variety are planted, it deserves to be more widely known. Relatively pale in colour, it gives wines with relatively low tannins and alcohol, good acidity and really lovely aromatics, with wild strawberry and violets. Mostly blended with Nero d’Avola, varietal examples are becoming more common.
Historically Perricone was more important than it is now, bringing perfume and structure to blends, mostly in the north-west of the island. It also made fine full bodied single variety wines that aged better than most. Recent years have seen it staging a small comeback as a single varietal, notably in the DOC’s of Monreale and Eloro. It has a high polyphenol content and acidity can fall off quickly at ripeness, but when the balance is right, it produces a quite rich and tactile wine, with floral notes and some power.
An offspring of Sangiovese and Mantonico Bianco, this grape is the signature of Etna and as it has become more fashionable, is now being planted throughout the island with varying degrees of success. A late ripener, it produces wines of relatively pale colour and good acidity that have a sour cherry character, mingled with herbal and tobacco notes. Like Pinot Noir, it has a fine ability to translate differences in terroir and with some age it has many of the characteristics of mature Burgundy or Barolo.
Much deeper in colour than Mascalese, with a sweeter fruit profile, chunkier tannins and a floral aspect to it, it is a perfect foil for its sibling in the blends on Etna, softening the acidity and bringing higher fruit tones. Single variety wines are made, but are very rare. The grape is also used in blends in several other DOCs and in Calabria as well.
A potentially world class white variety which was once widespread on Sicily but is now mostly confined to the slopes of Etna, thriving in the poor soils at altitudes of up to 1,500 meters. It is capable of producing high yields, but when these are controlled it has a minerality and intensity to match any variety. This structure is married with honeyed notes and white peach fruit, green apples and, with age in bottle, a kerosene-like note similar to aged Riesling. It is by far the main constituent in Etna Bianco and is also grown in pockets elsewhere on the island with moderate success.
It is thought that the best grape used for making Marsala was only introduced to the island in the late 19th century, yet where it came from was not recorded. It seems likely it is not actually an ancient variety as recent DNA profiling has shown it to be the offspring of Zibibo and Catarratto,two natives of Marsala and more remarkably that it is genetically identical to Rossesse Bianco in Liguria. Whatever its origins, it is undoubtedly a high class variety, but it lost favour in the late 20th century as it is not as productive as the inferior Onzolia or Catarratto. It has seen a resurgence as a varietal wine and it has a pleasant herbaceous cassis note, a floral character, flavours of passion fruit high acidity and full body and can resemble a ripe, high-class sauvignon blanc.
Sicily’s most planted variety and the second most planted variety in the whole of Italy, it is most important in the western provinces of Sicily where it was the main grape used in Marsala production – now used to make lakes of bulk wine. It has shown, especially on hillside sites and with careful handling, that it can make good if not great wines that bear a resemblance to Chardonnay, with some tropical notes and a creamy texture.
Known on Sicily as Inzolia, this is the same variety as Tuscany’s Ansonica, the name it carries in the official Italian Grape Registry, although it seems probable that it originated in Sicily and records of it on the island go back to the 15th century. Grown all over the island, although most important in the west, and included in many white blends it can become flabby very easily, but if picked at the right time, it has an appealing zest to it, good floral aromatics and an almost tannic bite (indeed it is one of the few white varieties with notable tannin content in its skins). Modern techniques have made this a good if not great variety, certainly capable of more interest than Catarratto.
Whilst as a general rule the island has hot summers and mild winters, its mountainous nature means there are huge variations to this with, for example, a ski station on Mount Etna and regular snowfall on the mountains of Madonie and Nebrodi. Rainfall mostly comes in late autumn and winter and is low in the west and along the southern coast and nearly half of the vineyards are irrigated to some degree. In the mountains to the centre and north, rainfall can top 1,000mm. The lack of rainfall in vineyard areas and dry southerly winds make the island ideal for organic viticulture which is growing rapidly. Geology is highly variable, with the soils of the north-east mostly volcanic in nature, those of the west sandy and those in the south on chalk.
For wines likely to be bottled, production facilities are generally modern and well equipped. Most white wine is made without oak influence and with the malo blocked to maintain freshness, although for Chardonnay in particular and also for some Carricante, varying amounts of oak may be seen. Red wines were historically strong, slightly oxidised and pretty rustic, however you are now more likely to see clean, well made wines that, for the more ambitious, have seen some ageing in oak. Increasingly, amphorae are being used for ageing, especially on Etna, but also in Cerasulo in the south and pockets elsewhere.
The Sub-regions of Sicily
The DOC & DOCGs of Sicily
There are 23 DOC’s in Sicily that cover defined geographic areas, plus the catch all DOC Sicilia which covers the entire island. The island also has one DOCG. Most of the DOCs are not seen widely and have, at least for now, little value, with many producers choosing to ignore them in favour of using the more recognisable Sicilia name. It is also debatable how many of them have their own unique character and how many are political constructs. Below are summaries of those of historic importance or with over 100 hectares in production.
Note on permitted varieties. In recognition of historic (often unidentified) plantings, many Italian denominaziones allow, in addition to the main proscribed varieties, a small percentage of other varieties that are currently permitted in the region in question to be used in the final blend. These may on occasion also be stipulated as non-aromatic varieties. In the denominazione laws and in the below summaries, the acronyms used are made up as follows; OA (other Authorized) + N (non-aromatic) +W or R (white or red) + G (grapes).
Cerasulo di Vittoria DOCG
Key info: Vineyard area: 169 Ha; Varieties permitted: Nero d’Avola (50-70%), Frappato (30-50%); Production in cases (2017): 87,000.
Located in the south of the island on relatively flat ground around the town of Vittoria, Sicily’s sole DOCG was promoted to that status in 2005 and is a red wine which must have a majority of Nero d’Avola, supplemented by at least 30% Frappato. The DOCG also contains a smaller ‘Classico’ zone which is the original core of the denominazione and which must be aged at least 18 months before release. Wines are full of red fruits and herbal notes and the more serious examples can have quite full tannins and fine capacity to age.
Key info: Vineyard area: 10,695 Ha; Varieties permitted: Red and rosato; Alicante, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignano, Frappato, Merlot, Mondeuse, Nerello Cappuccio, Nerello Mascalese, Nero d’Avola, Nocera, Perricone, Petit Verdot, Pinot Nero, Sangiovese, Syrah. For white; Inzolia, Carricante, Catarratto, Chardonnay, Damaschino, Fiano, Grecanico Dorato, Grillo, Moscato, Müller-Thurgau, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Vermentino, Viognier, Zibibbo; Production in cases (2017): 6.5 million.
DOC that covers any vineyard on the island, this was formerly IGT Sicilia, promoted for the 2012 vintage. Much of the wine made under the DOC is single varietal and could, in theory, use one of the other more local DOCs, however most of these have little recognition, so Sicilia has become by far the most important denominazione. Generalisations about style and quality are impossible bearing in mind the geographic diversity and number of varieties allowed within it and although it should guarantee a certain level of quality it is more of a marketing tool than a true indicator of content.
Key info: Vineyard area: 950 Ha; Varieties permitted: Red and rosato; Nerello Mascalese (min.80%), Nerello Cappuccio (max.20%), OANWG (max.10%). For white; Carricante (min. 60%), Catarratto (max. 40%), max. 15% in total of Trebbiano, Minella & OANWG. Spumante; Nerello Mascalese (min.60%), OAG (max.40%); Production in cases (2018): 300,000.
The most exciting region on Sicily and the one that has started to capture headlines around the wine world (and investment from outside the region), Etna as a destination for quality wine is relatively recent and owes much to enologist Salvo Fati’s work at Benanti starting in the late 80s. In Narello Mascalese and Carricante, producers have two world class grape varieties to work with, the former producing wines somewhere between Barbaresco and Burgundy in style, the latter capable of a ripeness and steeliness akin to great Chablis. Vineyards are densely planted and surround 3 sides of the mountain at altitudes of 400m to over 1000m and the land is highly parcelated. There are 21 communes (with just one, Milo entitled to make Etna Bianco Superiore) which are in turn subdivided into 133 contradas – this is wine geek heaven. Most producers are fairly small and average quality is high. 60% of production is red, 30% white and the remainder rosato and spumante. The best whites tend to come from the southern and eastern slopes, the most perfumed and dramatic reds from the north. This highly active volcano is sometimes a dangerous place to make wine, but it is currently one of the most exciting fine wine regions in the world
Key info: Vineyard area: 1,616 Ha; Varieties permitted: Ambra & Oro; Inzolia, Catarratto, Damaschino, Grillo, Rubino; Nerello Mascalese, Perricone, Nero d’Avola (min.70%) plus Inzolia, Catarratto, Damaschino & Grillo; Production in cases (2017): 897,000.
Fortified wine made in various styles around the towns of Marsala and Trapani in the far west. Once this was one of the world’s most celebrated wines, but now is found more in the kitchen than at the table. There are three styles and three sweetness levels made,Ambra (amber), Oro (golden) and Rubino (ruby) with sweetness of Secco (up to 40 g/l) semi-secco (40-100 g/l) and sweet (over 100 g/l). Fine is aged a year in cask, Superiore for 2 years, superior riserva for 4 years and Vergine for 5. In practice very little of the higher quality wines is till made with most being cheap and of indifferent to poor quality. The flame is still carried by De Bartoli and Nino Baracco, who are among the last to make ‘proper’ Marsala.
Key info: Vineyard area: 395 Ha; Varieties permitted: Zibibo; Production in cases (2017): 97,700.
This DOC covers the volcanic island located just over half way to Tunisia and exclusively grows Muscat, making dry white, spumante and most famously a luscious passito wine that is amongst the world’s finest expressions.
Key info: Vineyard area: 217 Ha; Varieties permitted: Red & Rosato; Nero d’Avola, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Frappatto, Aglianico, Merlot, Perricone, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Pinot Nero, Nerelo Mascalese. For white; Inzolia, Catarratto, Grillo, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Muller-Thurgau, Grecanico, Pinot Grigio, Fiano, Chenin Blanc, Vermentino; Production in cases (2017): 36,800.
Quite small DOC on the southern coast near to Marsala’s southern boundary that makes red, rosé, white, sparkling and sweet wines. Single varietal wines of international varieties are of importance here. Non varietal Menfi Rosso must have at least 60% Alicante as its base.
Key info: Vineyard area: 106 Ha; Varieties permitted: Nero d’Avola and Frappato for reds, and Inzolia for whites; Production in cases (2017): 27,000.
This DOC covers the same geographic area as that of Cerasuolo, but production constraints are looser, allowing wines to be declassified if not considered good enough by the producer. It is also home to the varietal speciality of Frappatto, which is full of strawberry fruit and lightly peppery and can be delicious lightly chilled. A small amount of decent white is made here as well.
Key info: Vineyard area: 229 Ha; Varieties permitted: Red & Rosato; Nero d’Avola, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Frappatto, Sangiovese, Merlot, Perricone, Syrah. White; Inzolia, Catarratto, Grillo, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Muller-Thurgau, Grecanico; Production in cases (2017): 115,200.
Originally a white wine DOC, now also making red and rosato. The majority of the wine is still white and from Catarratto. Mostly fairly neutral and simple and rarely seen outside of Italy. The region is also a major producer of bulk wine.
Key info: Vineyard area: 100 Ha; Varieties permitted: Nero d’Avola, Frappatto, Perricone; Production in cases (2017): 9,600.
This small DOC is located on the coastal plains in the far south and is renowned for producing some of the finest Nero d’Avola. The vineyards are cooled somewhat by the sea, but the wines can have real power, given lift by the addition of Frappatto (as in Cerasuolo). Not widely seen outside of Italy, but they can be very good quality for the price.
Key info: Vineyard area: 37 Ha; Varieties permitted: Nero d’Avola and Syrah for reds, and Moscato for whites; Production in cases (2017): 1,700.
Moscato di Siracusa was once a very famous wine but by 2010 had almost disappeared. It has mad a very modest comeback in both dry and passito forms and is a fine example of the variety. Reds can be varietal, or if a blend must be at least 65% Nero d’Avola.
Key info: Vineyard area: 14 Ha; Varieties permitted: Nerello Mascalese (45-60%), Nerello Cappuccio (15-30%), Nocera (5-10%), up to 15% in total from Nero d’Avola, Gaglioppo, Sangiovese; Production in cases (2017): 5,200.
Once this was one of the most important centres of production on the island, being located near the port of Messina. The DOC has clung onto existence over the past decade and although production is small, it is, along with Etna, one of the most interesting regions, producing wines of precision and energy and remarkable lightness of touch. Well worth seeking out.
Other DOCs with potential to become better known include Erice in the far north-east for fine examples of Catarratto, Monreale to the south-east of Palermo for Nero d’Avola and various international varieties, Salaparuta in the higher altitude centre of the island, that can make some particularly elegant Nero d’Avola and Riesi around Agrigento in the south.
Sicily produced 48 million cases of wine in 2019, down from over 70 million cases just a decade ago. Over half is IGP and nearly 30% is DOP (a third of this DOC Sicilia). Not much more than a fifth of the wine produced is sold as bottled wine, the remainder is sold in bulk. White wine was historically dominant, however the balance has been shifting and in 2019, 57% of the crop was white, 43% red or rosé. Exports totalled 136 million euros in 2019, an increase of 39% since 2014.
Generalisations are impossible on such a large island with such varying climates and a harvest that may be in August or in late October, depending on region and variety, however it is worth noting that variations are much less than in more northern climes and that years (such as 2014) that are seen as ‘poor’ on mainland Italy can be great here – it is a triumph on Etna.
2011 – Average across most of the island, but a long dry autumn gave Etna some superb wines, especially whites, with real elegance and longevity.
2012 – Hot and dry, the wines are powerful but lack a little freshness.
2013 – A good vintage but rainfall disrupted Etna and there are some excessively green wines. Elsewhere ripe but not heavy.
2014 – An outstanding vintage, probably the best of recent times. Superb wines on Etna with a long life ahead.
2015 – Warm but wetter than normal with unusual August rains, Sicily was less affected by the extreme heat than the mainland and generally produced excellent wine with the whites especially good. A difficult year on Etna, but with careful selection it was high quality, if small.
2016 – A fine vintage throughout with good balance in the wines. Excellent on Etna
2017 – One of the hottest vintages ever, yet the best wines are surprisingly good, although those from the centre of the island tend to lack freshness. Etna fared better, especially the higher vineyards
2018 – A relatively cool and wet year led to wines with great freshness. Etna had a very late harvest, but the wines are good to very good.
2019 – Hot and dry, yields were 30% down but quality is high.