Grown around – and even on – the slopes of Mount Etna, the grape varieties that thrive in Sicilian soil make some of Italy’s finest white wines. Paul Pettengale investigates…
Wine has been a way of life in Sicily for thousands of years. When the Greeks inhabited the island around 1500BC, they brought with them a variety of vine types and, since then, wine has been produced on the island. Indeed wine is one of Sicily’s most famous exports, in the form of Marsala, its delicately sweet wine made from a blend of four or more grape varieties and fortified with alcohol. It was a British invention, devised by John Woodhouse in 1773 as he imitated the production techniques used to make sherry in Spain.
However, we’re not taking a look at (and a sip of) Marsala – rather, we’re concerning ourselves in what is becoming a burgeoning trade in dry white wines. Sicily is home to around 15 white grape varieties, from indigenous vines such as Catarratto and Grillo to those that have been introduced relatively recently such as Chardonnay, Voignier and Fiano.
The quality of Sicilian white wines has spiked of late with excellent wines being made around Etna and in the Marsala zone around the Trapani salt harvesting area. There is a surprisingly large number of recognised (DOC) wine production zones – 23 in total (plus one DOCG classified region in Cerasuolo di Vittoria) – with a vast array of wines being produced. Unfortunately, as quality has increased so have the prices, with wines from some of the ‘big hitters’ such as Planeta reaching eye-watering prices. But you really do get what you pay for.
Italia! discovery of the month
From Great Western Wine
Although established relatively recently – in 1995 – Planeta is a name that has become synonymous with Sicilian wine production. With six different wineries spanning the island, Planeta may be a comparatively new company and brand, but the family ties with the wine industry go back as far as 1500.
As you’d expect for a company with six locations and a total of over 300 hectares of vineyard, Planeta makes a wide variety of wines utilising both grape varieties native to the island and those that have been recently introduced – it makes a knock-out Merlot, for instance. Cometa is the stand-out white, in our opinion, and is one of the most sought-after wines from Sicily. Made with 100 per cent Fiano, it’s arguably one of the ‘gutsiest’ white wines in the world, easily able to partner rich, demanding food dishes such as roast pork belly or stuffed, roasted chicken. With strident peach and orange aromas, it’s bone dry with a hint of sweetness. It’s expensive, for sure, but then wines of this quality simply are.
From Liberty Wine
With a nod to the Greeks, who brought vines to Sicily in the first place, Borgo Selene is named after the Greek goddess of the Moon. Catarratto and Inzolia grape varieties are grown on the hills around Trapani in western Sicily, and contribute 45 and 55 per cent respectively to this fresh, lively wine that’s rather similar to a good Pinot Grigio. Apples and pears on the nose, crisp and dry on the palate.
A fresh green salad or any number of fish and seafood dishes – prawns, perhaps?
From The Drink Shop
The Coralto range of wines has been developed specifically to show off the talents of distinctive aspects of single varieties of native Sicilian grapes. In this instance, Inzolia is used to make a very fresh, pale- green/yellow wine that has abundant citrus aromas and a lively, slightly acidic attack that mellows to a moreish finish. It’s a great wine to enjoy outdoors in the sun, either on its own or with seafood dishes.
A couple of dozen oysters and a couple of good friends – or on its own.
From Berry Bros & Rudd
Alberto Aiello Graci has only been making wine since 2004, using vines grown on just two hectares of family-owned land on the slopes of Mount Etna. As you’d expect, very small quantities of his wines are released – which in part explains why this is a pricey wine to purchase. Made using a blend of Catarratto and Carricante grapes, its a medium-bodied wine with power and complexity. Citrus flavours combine with a salty minerality, making it ideal with seafood.
Shelled crab, grilled lobster or a traditional mixed seafood platter.
From Great Western Wine
If you’d like to experience the majesty of the wines from Planeta but don’t have pockets quite deep enough to buy the likes of Cometa, a little under a tenner buys you La Segreta, a delightful combination of citrus and tropical fruit aromas and a complex palate of pineapple, pear and apple peel. It doesn’t have the depth of flavour of Cometa, but it comes pretty close at a fraction of the price.
Grilled or roasted fish (bass or bream) or pan-fried chicken.
From The Drink Shop
Like the Inzolia, this wine is made from a single grape variety: in this case Zibibbio, which is another variety that’s native to Sicily. It’s wine with a lovely aroma of summer meadows and gardens in full bloom. Floral but not overpowering, it has delicate herb and white flowers to taste with a zingy acidity and a deep citrus finish. It’s not a common variety, but it definitely makes an interesting and worthy wine.
A plate of smoked salmon with a dill mayonnaise and bread and butter.
From Liberty Wines
Polena, which means fleeing woman (often seen on the prow of a boat), is a marriage of traditional Sicilian grapes (Catarratto) and an imported variety (Voignier). It’s an intriguing combination that makes for a wine utterly packed with tropical fruit aromas and flavours. From peach, pineapple and banana through to spice and mango, it’s all in there, although there’s enough fragrance also to prevent the fruit from becoming overpowering.
Lightly spiced pasta dishes, but don’t mix with tomatoes.
Sicily’s Most Wanted
Sicily’s most famous wine is Marsala, which is rather akin to sherry. It was first made in 1773 by Englishman John Woodhouse. He aped the production techniques being used by sherry producers in Spain, drying out the grapes (originally Grillo, Cataratto, Ansonia and Damaschino grape varieties – a common blend today) prior to fermentation and using added alcohol to fortify the wine so that it would travel well. A massive hit back in Britain, there was something of a Marsala gold rush in the late 18th century with a flock of Brits making their way to the island in order to make their fortune. In the end, however, Italian tycoon Vincenzo Florio bought up much of the land around the town of Marsala and the English domination of the wine’s production was brought to a standstill.