A Wine Offer You Can’t Refuse

(Originally published November 2007)

Having sampled this month a couple of shockingly good wines from Sicily and subsequently realizing that Hanes has only tasted one other Sicilian wine during all of 2007, seems like a good time to outline for you a quick overview of Sicilian wines. Maybe this shall address this entirely inexcusable avoidance of Sicilian wines this year. Please, don’t whack Hanes, please.

As most people know, Sicily (aka Sicilia in the native tongue) is the large island off the southern bottom of Italy, across from the region called Calabria. As with most of Italy, there is a long and storied history of wine production. Them crazy Greeks colonized it way back in the 8th Century BC and started the wine ball rolling. Lots of other folks decided to pass through Sicily over the ensuing centuries, bringing with them all kinds of grapes and viticultural techniques. As a result, it’s somewhat difficult to say what grapes should be considered “indigenous” to Sicily and which considered “modern” transplants into the wine scene there. But Hanes is never afraid to make the tough calls and this shall prove no exception.

In terms of white grapes you see a lot more indigenous varieties used, for dry, off-dry and dessert quality wines. The grapes which produce on the whole the highest quality wines are Inzolia (aka Ansonica), Catarratto, Grillo and Grecanico. Often you’ll see Inzolia and Catarratto blended together or blended with the non-indigenous hellspawn grapes of Europe. Grillo and Grecanico more often get bottled as single grape wines. In broad strokes, the white wines have tropical fruit flavors, big and round textures and often a noticeably floral character. The acidity can be all over the map, depending more on the blend or vintage characteristics. The best attribute here is that prices remain firmly under $20 for even the most distinctive wines so Sicily can be a source of value for white wines.

The grapes Zibibbo, Malvasia and Moscato usually get made into sweeter wines. Zibibbo is a variety of Muscat of Alexandria but Zibibbo sounds much cooler to say. Sicily was actually first known for sweet wines, no surprise given its warm Mediterranean climate and the fact that, as a major area of port cities, sweet wines can travel for export better under less than ideal transport conditions for wine, particularly when fortified. The wines called “Passito di Pantelleria” are considered among the best. They are made by using the Passito method and are from the Pantelleria island. Hence the name, duh. “Malvasia delle Lipari” wines are also good.

The Chardonnay, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc grapes are the usurpers making the most inroads in Sicily, especially Chardonnay since everyone knows it’s the best grape in the world next to Merlot. Chances are high the U.S. market sees more Sicilian Chardonnay than any other in the world since we’re so lame we are afraid to say Zibibbo in public.

While Hanes can’t say it’s on his radar often, Sicily is very well known for the wines called Marsala. Marsala is a fortified wine created by the Brit John Woodhouse in 1773 to compete with Port, Sherry and Madeira. Marsala is a town in western coastal Sicily. Most production is by large commercial entities and there’s three basic types, Oro, Ambra and Rubino. Grillo, Catarratto and Inzolia grapes make up much of the Oro and Ambra types with Pignatello and Nero d’Avola grapes making the Rubino (“ruby”) type. No one drinks Marsala so there’s no need to say anything more.

When it comes to red wine one can say confidently that Nero d’Avola is deservedly king of the hill. It makes for the richest, densest wines with the most structure and complexity. There, Hanes said it. Now it’s out. Nero d’Avola is produced at all price points with the least expensive wines being the most fruity while the most interesting usually being among the most expensive. Wow, that’s a surprise. Sicily has very poor soils, plenty of mountainous ranges and gets lot of sun with little rain. This can produce positive stress on the grapevines and a more earthy, ashen character to the wines. This is a good thing. If you like sturdy red wine some of the higher end Nero d’Avola wines are a must try.

Frappato is probably the second best native red grape grown in Sicily. It makes for less dense wines than Nero d’Avola and wines emphasizing more “red fruit” such as raspberry, strawberry or red cherry fruit. While it is bottled on its own, Frappato is often blended with Nero d’Avola and called “Cerasuolo di Vittoria,” this blend being considered one of Sicily’s best reds.

The next most popular red grapes include Nerello Mascalese, Nocera, Cappuccio, Galatena and Corinto Nero. All of which you surely recognize. “Etna Rosso” from the Mount Etna area is mostly Nerello Mascalese with some Nerello Mantellato and the volcanic soils can make this wine among Sicily’s most distinctive. What’s more appealing than a wine that tastes of volcanic ash?

Sangiovese and some Primitivo are grown in Sicily. Now, Sangiovese is mostly grown throughout mainland Italy and Primitivo mostly in Apulia. Are these grapes interlopers or indigenous? Ouch, it hurts just thinking about it.

The main invaders, though, are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. These grapes are increasing very swiftly in popularity with Sicilian winegrowers. The wines taste just like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah from anywhere else in the world.

It should be noted that Sicily is usually first or second annually in overall production of Italian wines. They make a lot of wine. A lot. Yet, as is oft noted, they curiously consume less wine than any other Italian region. That’s messed up.

Given the Mediterranean clime of Sicily it will be interesting to see if the higher elevations and soil types will prevent global warming from making the grapes grown here overripe, or necessitate shifting from certain grapes to other grapes better suited for the newly emerging climatic conditions. As Hanes has said, the most distinctive Sicilian wines have excellent structure and are able to reflect the unique terroir of the local soil compositions and micro-climates. For the time being, given the large quantity of wine produced and exported, there’s no reason to not drink more Sicilian wine, particularly taking into account the relatively fair prices. Please, don’t whack Hanes, please.