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D - 37: Wines in Sicily

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Having talked about corks and bottles yesterday, I won’t be able to avoid the topic of wine – as you will discover, the islands and coastal regions we sail along this year all have their own traditions – we are traveling in one of the oldest wine region of the world. The types of grapes are different from the ones you know. You may have heard of Nero d’Avola since it made it to the shelves of your supermarket around the corner. But hand on your heart, who has heard of Frappato, Nerello Mascalese or Catarratto. Today, you definitely will. Sicily always clung to its historical grapes – so please stay with me. Want to go wine shopping with you when on shore. I plan to have a different wine list every week!

Nero d’Avola grapes just before harvested

Wine in Sicily has a long history and goes back to the bronze age. When the Phoenicians and Greeks arrived around 800 BC, they brought their sophisticated viticulture to the island. We are thus talking about 3’000 years of wine making. Looking at the map below, you will notice that the area of the Greek (south east) and the Phoenician colonies (western tip) overlap with today’s DOC wine regions. The colonists must have known where wine grows best and settled there. Tried to find out whether the Sicilian varieties are genetically related to Greek and Middle Eastern grapes but found nothing in the vast literature. There is, however, a large volume of research on how Sicilian and Italian grapes are related. Totally - of course. The wines made their way up the Italian peninsula. The Garganega grape that mostly grows in the region of Verona and Vicenza in Northern Italy and yields the delicious white Soave, is apparently genetically identical with the Sicilian Grecanico Dorato. Am not an oenologist but it sounds kind of logic. If anybody has more specific information on this topic, I would love to hear. It will make a fabulous topic for our evening conversations on the AFAED.

Sicily’s DOC areas (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) as of today

Until way into the 19th century, people believed that wines owe their characteristics to the soil they were planted on. The French were first in developing protective labels (AOC - Appellation d’Origine Contrôllée). The Italians followed soon with the DOC nomination. But as we know today, the quality of wine has more to do with producing less volume, keeping the grapes shaded for as long as possible, pressing just the grapes – without the stems – and applying high hygienic standards during the wine making process. The DOC denominations in Sicily are thus not too meaningful when you look for good quality wines. You need to look closer and check the producers.

Vineyards in the hills south west of Palermo

Together with Puglia Sicily is Italy’s biggest wine producer accounting for 17% of total annual production. 70% is white wine but red wines had a remarkable debut over the last three decades and is now all the hype. More about this a bit later.

If Sicily is known for one wine, it is Marsala. This fortified wine is comparable to the Spanish Sherry and the Porto from Portugal and was made for centuries. With 15 – 20%, it has twice the alcohol level of ordinary wines and is often sweet. The high alcohol content makes it stable and suitable for long sea travels - an important quality during the age of sails. For decades, the Royal Navy was a big customer of Sherry and Porto. It is no coincidence that they also discovered Marsala. After the Napoleonic wars, Marsala was introduced to the English and America market and from there to the rest of the world. It was a big success story then and still is today. Marsala is mostly consumed with cheese before desert is being served. Myself, I love to cook with it. Using Marsala for making reduced red wine sauce is just heaven!

The vineyards of Marsala

As already noticed, 70% of Sicily’s wine production is white. Most of it is ok table wine that is sold in bulk. It was the result of a deliberate policy, which boosted volumes rather than quality. Cheap Sicilia white wines can be found everywhere. They made it even to Asia.

Here, we are going to talk about the more exciting reds. Luckily, I could look them up on vivino.com where they come not only with a price tag but also with a customer ranking. To keep this blog within its designed wordcount, am going to focus on five types only:

1. Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico from the south of Sicily. It is a blend of Nero d’Avola, which provides weight and body, and Frappato, which gives the wine the fruity personality. With its soft tannins and fruity display, the smooth Cerasuolo goes almost with any food. It has a ranking of 4.0 (out of 5) and sells for GBP 23.-

2. Solcanto Rosso from Alcamo, to the west of Palermo is made from Nero d’Avola blended with Sangoviese, Frappato, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, grapes you already know. The Solcanto is strong and solid, spicier than Cerasuolo and goes well with salty dishes like cured meats and pasta. It has a ranking of 3.9 and costs 10 pounds. A good bargain!

3. Tornatore - Etna Rosso, is from the Aetna region as the name indicates. It is made from Nerello Mascalese, a grape we hardly know, and grows on the volcanic slopes. Etna Rosso has notes of dark fruits, is spicy with well balanced tannins. It thus goes well with delicate dishes like vegetable-based stews or fish. It has a ranking of 3.7 and costs 17 pounds.

4. Palari is from the Faro DOC region, on the north-eastern tip of Sicily at the Messina Strait. Produced from Nerello Mascalese and blended with Nerello Cuppuccio and Nocera, Palari is fully bodied and has firm tannins. I would call it intense. It goes very well with meats, stews and all sorts of salty cheeses. Ranked at a high 4.1 it is the most expensive of all the five and costs GBP 34.15

5. Nero d’Avola is the most widely sold red from Sicily. This is a single grape wine high on tannins, dark (hence the name) and full-bodied. Some people say it has a hint of chocolate and cherry. I would say it is robust. It is excellent with meat whatever way you cook it. With 3.6 it has the lowest ranking of the five and is seriously affordable at twelve pounds.

Vineyards just west of the Aetna volcano

This gets me to the end of this virtual wine tasting tour. Some of these wines I have not had since my student years. Will definitely get a bottle of each before we sail. Happy tasting!

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