It is the most difficult Italian region to write about – so heterogeneous that you cannot make any general statements about its wines. With over 97,000 hectares under vines – equal to three times the vineyard surface of New Zealand – and more than eighty indigenous grapes planted from the Mediterranean shores to the foothills of the mountains, Sicily is even more than a nation on its own. It is, as producers often say, a “miniature continent”.
To make a complete report on the wines of Sicily, one should spend weeks – if not months – surfing through vineyards that vary in soil composition, exposure, and climate conditions at every turn. Tracking everything that is going on on the island is far from easy. However, Sicilia En Primeur allowed us to have a broad overview of the main Sicilian wine-growing areas through the wines of a handful of top-tier producers – in terms of volumes and/or prestige – that are part of Assovini Sicilia.
Now in its eighteenth edition, Sicilia En Primeur, an annual event run by Assovini Sicilia with the support of public relations agency AB Comunicazione and Just Sicily, took place this year in the magnificent Erice, a medieval village located 750 meters above sea level. Erice offers breathtaking views over the West Coast of Sicily, ranging from the cliffs of Riserva Dello Zingaro and San Vito Lo Capo – world-famous for the white sand beaches and crystal clear, Maldives-like waters – to the salt marshes south of Trapani, with the island of Favignana standing on the horizon like a giant butterfly*. Assovini, an association founded in 1998 that gathers over ninety producers from the region, including all the largest and historically most relevant ones, chose Erice as a location because of its symbolic meaning – it is, in fact, one of the cradles of Sicilian culture. The town was born as a Roman settlement and then went through the Arab-Norman domination, before becoming one of the strongholds of Federico II di Svevia, the most enlightened monarch of the Middle Ages. Moreover, ever since the 1960s, Erice has been the headquarters of the Sicilian scientific community, thanks to the establishment of the Centro di Cultura Scientifica Ettore Majorana, named after the Sicilian scientist who made remarkable discoveries in the field of nuclear physics before mysteriously disappearing. Over the years, the institution has hosted more than 150 Nobel-winning scientists who have held conferences in the halls of the medieval monasteries of San Rocco and San Domenico.
* The Romans used to call Favignana “Aegusa”, which means butterfly.
The good news we should acknowledge before breaking everything into details is that, over the last twenty years, the perception of Sicilian wine has radically changed. That’s what a group of scientists tried to highlight in the inaugural conference at Sicilia En Primeur. Surveys carried out in the early 1990s showed, that, at the time, Sicily was famous for its food, landscape, nature, art, and culture, but not for the wines, which were considered heavy, jammy, rustic, and short-lived. The poor reputation was the result of a mixture of poor winemaking, high yields, focus on wrong varieties and wrong clones, and bad marketing. Pioneering wineries such as Duca di Salaparuta, Tasca d’ Almerita, and Donnafugata had already started producing the first Sicilian high-end wines in the mid-1980s, but it was not until the late 1990s that the region finally overcame a system dominated by large cooperatives that flooded the market with cheap bulk wine. Credits for starting the revolution – which is still going on, with many areas having not shown their full potential yet – go to some of the founders of Assovini, including Lucio Tasca d’Almerita, Diego Planeta, Francesco Benanti, Diego Cusumano, and Donnafugata’s Antonio Rallo.
Today, the key concepts associated by consumers with Sicilian DOC wine are high quality (39% of the respondents), strong and distinctive (36%), full of history (35.4%), genuine (33%), and valuable (24.7%). This is mainly due to remarkable improvements in agronomic and winemaking techniques, marketing, and communication. Other factors that play a role include the emphasis on sustainability – 40% of the region’s vineyards have been converted to either organic farming or lotta integrata, the Italian equivalent of “lutte raisonneè” – and the rediscovery of mountain viticulture, which proved essential for the production of more precise, less stereotypical wines. Just think about the exploit of Etna DOC, the wines of which are currently among the most sought-after in the world. The rediscovery of Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio, and Carricante – all grapes that grow at high altitudes and give medium-bodied, refined wines – is only the apex of a larger trend that has been strengthened by climate change. Grillo, Catarratto, Inzolia, Perricone, Nero d’Avola, as well as Chardonnay, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon, all give excellent results when they are planted above 500 meters. Higher temperature variations and less fertile soils result in wines that are balanced and focused, while still showing the juiciness and plumpness you would expect from a southern Italian wine.
The shift toward mountain viticulture not only improved the average quality of Sicilian wine but also favored the rebirth of inland areas that suffered from depopulation ever since the end of World War II. Two striking examples are those of Sambuca di Sicilia, in the province of Agrigento, and Castiglione di Sicilia on Etna, both historical towns that suffered abandonment to the point that governments were forced to sell decaying properties for just one euro. Today these towns are resurrecting thanks to the presence in the immediate surroundings of top-notch vineyards and wineries that have favored the development of wine tourism.
The white wines of Sicily
You’ll be surprised how good Sicilian white wines are – they are better on average than the reds. Don’t get me wrong: there is still plenty of uninteresting Sicilian white wine sold for cheap, but the variety of options on the peak of the pyramid is getting wider and wider.
Among the indigenous white grapes of Sicily, stands out Carricante, the main variety of Etna Bianco, a wine whose popularity has skyrocketed over the last decade. Etna Bianco is often compared to Chablis and Mosel Riesling for its piercing acidity, steely mineral character, and remarkable aging potential.
Carricante does especially well on the eastern and south-eastern slopes of the volcano – with Milo, the only township where you can bear the “Superiore” tag on the label, being its “Grand Cru” village. However, the popularity of Etna Bianco is such that producers are also planting it on the northern side of the mountain, where you normally find the highest concentration of red grapes. “The problem with Etna Bianco is that there is way less Carricante than Nerello Mascalese – explains Salvino Benanti, who represents the second generation of the family that kick-started the renaissance of Etna in the 1990s – as a result, we might fail to satisfy the demand for Etna Bianco while having an excess stock of Etna Rosso”. Salvino firmly believes that this trend is going to affect the outlook of the production on the volcano in the medium run. Put simply, in the future Etna is going to look closer to Chablis and Cote de Beaune than to Cote de Nuits.
Grillo and Catarratto, the key grapes of Marsala, also deserve special attention. Grillo is the youngest among Sicily’s indigenous grapes – it was born in the second half of the 19th century from a crossing between Zibibbo and Catarratto. The origins of Catarratto, instead, get lost in the mists of time, with the first mentions appearing in manuscripts from the beginning of the sixteenth century. Being close relatives, Catarratto and Grillo have many similarities, the first and most important being the presence of thiols in the grapes that give life to distinctive aromas of mowed grass, green citrus, and wild herbs. However, whereas Grillo has been used for many years for the production of premium wines, Catarratto has only recently come to the fore, after having been the region’s main bulk wine grape for over a century. Luckily the gap between the two grapes is narrowing, also thanks to extensive research on Catarratto carried out by the University of Palermo. On this specific occasion, it is Catarratto that offered the widest range of above-average wines – crisp, mineral-driven, with good palate weight and subtle herbal aromas – whereas wines made from Grillo are quaffable and pretty on average, but often speak more of the winemaking techniques – i.e fermentation with selected yeasts that push the vegetal and tropical notes to the extreme, giving the wines a Sauvignon-like personality – than of terroir.
Other varieties worth seeking out include Inzolia, Zibibbo, Moscato di Noto, and Malvasia delle Lipari. The equivalent of the Tuscan Ansonica, Inzolia gives delicate, medium-bodied wines with aromas of Mediterranean herbs and stone fruit that progress toward honey and flint with bottle aging. Unfortunately, there aren’t many 100% Inzolia wines available on the market – most producers blend it with other varieties to boost the aromatics. Zibibbo and Malvasia delle Lipari, instead, never need an aromatic boost – they are Sicily’s aromatic grapes par excellence. The key varieties to some of Italy’s best Passito wines, Zibibbo and Malvasia delle Lipari also give interesting results when fermented to dryness. Dry Zibibbo wines are usually easygoing, uncomplicated, quaffable, and affordable. These wines pair especially well with raw seafood. Malvasia delle Lipari is similar to Zibibbo when vinified alone – but more restrained and even savorier. It also takes part in the Salina Bianco blend with Catarratto and minor grapes such as Rucignola, giving saline, crisp white wines with subtler aromatic nuances.
Then comes Chardonnay, the most diffuse international grape variety in Sicily, which has fostered the rediscovery of the island’s white wines between the end 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s. Sicily is home to at least a couple of the best Italian Chardonnays, but the average quality is far from impressive. The fact is, most Chardonnay from the region is either overoaked, downright flabby or too ordinary to deserve attention. Even in this case, planting vineyards at higher altitudes helps a lot, with all the best examples coming from inland vineyards that peak at over 500 meters above sea level.
All in all, during Sicilia En Primeur, I tasted more than 100 Sicilian whites. Here is a list of the most interesting wines I encountered:
Cusumano – Lucido 2021
The most consistent Catarratto with a production north of 20.000 bottles, made from 100% Extra Lucido grapes planted 500 meters above sea level (the bio-type owes the name to the lack of bloom on the skin). Lucido has a quintessential profile, with scents of white almond, lemon zest, and medicinal herbs. It is bright, linear, and medium-bodied, with a fine bead of ripe acidity, and subtle herbal undertones that complicate the saline and slightly almondy finish. Excellent for the price point (around 7 euros in Italy).
Di Giovanna – Sicilia Grillo Helios 2019
The wine that best represents the above-mentioned trend – 100% Grillo from vineyards planted 830 meters above sea level in the township of Sambuca di Sicilia. Pale in color, Helios offers vibrant, pristine aromas of hawthorn and nectarine, botanical herbs, and flint. On the palate, it enters bright and sappy, with hints of candied citrus, ginger, and sage. Taut, refreshing, and mineral-driven on the medium-long finish, this Grillo is positively similar in terms of finesse and balance to white wines from Northeastern Italy.
Vivera – Terre Siciliane Bianco A’ Mami 2019
A wine that connects the east and west sides of the island, produced by Loredana Vivera with Carricante grapes from Contrada Martinella in Linguaglossa (Etna) and Chardonnay from the family estate in Corleone (Palermo). A’ Mami mixes the tension and vibrancy of Carricante with riper aromas deriving from Chardonnay. Yellow peach, capers, sage, and broom frame the medium to full, creamy mouthfeel. Smoky mineral hints echo along with herbal flavors on the juicy, balanced finish.
Barone di Villagrande – Salina Bianco 2020
One of the best producers of Etna Bianco, Barone di Villagrande also owns a 2-hectare plot in Salina, the second largest of the Aeolian Islands. The Salina Bianco consists of equal percentages of Malvasia delle Lipari and Catarratto (around 80% in total) plus tiny bits of relic grapes such as Rucignola. The wine bursts with alluring scents of apricot, orange blossom, yellow rose, and Mediterranean herbs. Noteworthy saline balances the intense aromas and flavors deriving from terpenes. Hints of bitter almond and spicy herbs echo on the sexy floral finish. Perfect for pairing with fish tartare.
Tasca d’ Almerita – Sicilia Grillo Mozia 2021
Not a high altitude Grillo, but a refined one from the Island of Mozia, located right in the middle of the salt pans of Marsala. It has an unmistakably marine profile, with hints of capers and wild fennel, grapefruit, salted anchovies, and sea breeze. Similar aromas and flavors echo on the medium-bodied mouthfeel, lifted by zesty acidity and complicated by a herbal twist. Another perfect match for raw seafood.
Benanti – Etna Bianco Contrada Cavaliere 2020
The winery that revolutionized Etna, believing in its potential as early as thirty years ago, continues expanding its business under the supervision of Salvino Benanti, who returned home after having worked for twelve years as an investment banker in London. Contrada Cavaliere is one of the most recent additions to a product range that counts more than fifteen different labels. Sourced from Carricante vineyards planted at almost 800 meters above sea level in Santa Maria Licodia – on the southwestern slope of Etna – Contrada Cavaliere displays suave aromas of lemon zest and wisteria, white peach, and rosehip, with just a hint of petrol on the background. Bright, streamlined, with a laser-like progression centered around Riesling-like acidity and complicated by flavors of dried herbs, this is a wine that will benefit from medium-term cellaring.
Tasca d’Almerita – Nozze d’Oro
An iconic wine from one of the Island’s most famous producers, Nozze d’Oro consists of a blend of the indigenous Inzolia with Sauvignon Tasca, a mutation of Sauvignon Blanc only found in one vineyard planted 530 meters above sea level in the outskirts of Palermo. I had the chance to taste two vintages of the wine. The 2019 displays refined aromas of orange blossom and hay, dried herbs, and fennel, with a silky mouthfeel that boasts perfect balance between vibrant acidity and underlying creaminess, finishing with repeating notes of white peach and grapefruit. Far more complex is the 2010 – it opens up to honeyed notes that mingle with gasoline, almond paste, and garrigue. It is ample, soft, and luscious, but far from being mature. The lively acidic thrust on the back end suggests it can deliver great pleasure for at least five more years.
2019 – 91/100; 2010 – 93/100
Alessandro di Camporeale – Catarratto MNRL Vigna di Mandranova 2020
Another noteworthy version of Catarratto Extra Lucido coming from a top-notch winery in the surroundings of Palermo. Sourced from high hill parcels (approximately 450 meters above sea level), Vigna di Mandranova offers intense aromas of yellow peach, lemon custard, tea rose, and a touch of boxwood. It enters sharp, citric, and then turns softer, rounder, with flavors of sweet spice and honey deriving from partial aging in 500 liters barrels. Hints of botanical herbs frame a long, silky finish underpinned by saline undertones. Best with fish couscous “alla trapanese”.
Barone di Villagrande – Etna Bianco 2020
At the beginning of the 1970s, Mario Soldati, the father of Italian wine criticism, visited the Barone Villagrande estate in Contrada Villagrande di Milo, tasted the Etna Bianco, and described it as one of the few great white wines produced in Italy at the time. Since then, Etna has gone through highs and lows, but this winery has always stood still as one of the strongholds of great Carricante. Fifty years later, the Nicolosi family’s Etna Bianco is still one of the best Sicilian whites on the market. It comes strikingly close to Chablis with its iodine and flint aromas that intertwine with wild fennel and acacia honey, broom, nougat, and saffron. Fleshier and fruitier than most Etna Bianco you will come across – thanks also to the addition of small portions of forsaken grapes such as Minnella and Visparola – this wine still offers the stony, steely mineral character you would expect, with just a touch of phenolic smoothness on the complex finish prolonged by hints of wild herbs, and iodine. Wonderful!
Tasca d’ Almerita – Sicilia Chardonnay Vigna San Francesco 2019
One of the first Sicilian whites to grab the attention of international critics in the early 1990s, when everyone believed that Sicily could become a new California. From a single vineyard planted in 1985 by Lucio Tasca, at more than 500 meters above sea level in the hinterland of Palermo, Vigna San Francesco exhibits varietally accurate – but not banal – aromas of demi-sel butter and flint, nectarine and pineapple, cinnamon and roasted almond, with a complicating waft of fresh flowers and lavender. On the palate, it shrugs off all stereotypes about Sicilian Chardonnays, offering crisp acidity upfront, invigorating salinity, perfectly integrated oak, and a tantalizing mix of balsam herbs and flowers that dominate the long finish. Best in five years.
Pietradolce – Terre Siciliane Carricante Vigna Sant’Andrea 2017
Over the course of the last fifteen years, Michele Faro built up one of the region’s best wineries, relying on old vines to make some of Sicily’s most complex and refined wines. This is his most ambitious white – a rare example of orange wine from Carricante grapes grown at 850 meters in Milo that spends ten months in 20-hectoliter wooden vats. It has a deep golden color with amber hues, and develops captivating aromas of saffron and white pepper, toasted almonds, wildflower honey, incense and flint. This is a creamy, full-bodied Carricante – almost Cote d’Or like in style – with salivating mineral tones providing lift and piercing acidity cutting through the layers of fruit and honey on the textural, minutes-long finish. A monumental wine!