Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, holds a key strategic position and so has attracted traders and invaders since ancient times. Each of these has left their mark, not least where vines and winemaking are concerned. But sadly, for much of the last century, the island’s focus was firmly on bulk wine and, in 2001, barely 2% of Sicily’s output was of DOC or IGT quality, the remainder just lowly Table Wine. (Even now, this figure is only 15%).
Yet, change is definitely happening and some of the diverse range of grape varieties planted in former times are, at last getting the recognition they deserve. To the west of the island, Grillo, Inzolia and Catarratto, once used to produce the sweet, fortified Marsala are now turned into crisp, refreshing dry whites which, given Sicily’s latitude, surprisingly outnumber their reds.
But, for me, it’s the reds that are the main attraction: on the precarious volcanic slopes of Mount Etna, vineyards are planted at up to 3000 feet above sea level where they produce some delightful wines from the Nerello Mascalese variety with its intense herb and red berry flavours (Wine Society have a good example for £9.50).
Towards the south east coast, the island’s only DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, can be found. The most famous producer here, COS, has revived the ancient tradition of fermenting the wine in clay amphorae buried in the ground to make some interesting and distinctive wines. Others, such as Planeta, use more modern techniques.
Their example, a blend of 60% Nero d’Avola with 40% Frappato (£15.50 from Great Western Wines), undergoes a cool fermentation in large stainless steel tanks. This preserves the lovely red fruit aromas of the grapes and gives attractive vibrant and fresh bitter cherries on the palate and a good long savoury finish.
I know £15 isn’t cheap – even though I think it’s worth every penny – (and wines from COS are even dearer), but many Sicilian wines are real bargains, and will remain so until customers recognise the transformation in winemaking on the island in recent years.