Sicily, Rising

Paul Blow

If it were its own country, Sicily would be the fifth-largest producer of wine in the world. This island—the size of Massachusetts—produces as much wine as Australia. But whereas Australia’s history of winemaking only goes back several hundred years, Sicily’s goes back thousands. Strangely, though, its wines have none of the cachet of Australia’s—there is neither a famous cult wine such as Penfolds Grange nor a massive, low-end brand like Yellow Tail. How could a region so prolific labor in such obscurity?

For hundreds of years, most Sicilian wine was shipped off the island, either to be sold for cheap or to be blended into lighter wines for structure and color. But with renewed interest in southern Italy’s artisanal food, olive oil, and, of course, wine, Sicily is getting more attention. The south will rise again.

Wineries like Feudo Arancio and Corvo have shown that high-quality wine can be made in vast quantities. Corvo produces 2.5 million bottles, about the same production as all of Burgundy’s Premier Cru whites, of its basic white wine—a blend of Inzolia and Grecanico (native to Sicily). It’s available in the United States for under 10 bucks. The wine is fresh and crisp with fruity, floral components and a mineral edge—a perfect pairing with fresh grilled sardines with olives, tomatoes, and capers.

Feudo Arancio has only been around for about six years, but I was impressed with the quality it gets at such a high production level. Its basic red, from the Nero d’Avola grape, is a medium-bodied, easy quaffer. And despite the fact that I’m not much of a fan of Chardonnay—especially the insipid, often manipulated wines that are typical of high-production wineries—the Feudo Arancio Chardonnay is surprisingly tasty and luscious.

On the boutique side, serious vintners are beginning to understand and take advantage of Sicily’s terroirs. In the town of Vittoria there is an official wine style called Cerasuola di Vittoria, which is always a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato. Some of the best versions I tasted came from the Cos winery. Its winemaker/owner, a former architect named Giusto Occhipinti, is getting all the sweet fruit and dusty earthiness those grapes have to offer. He makes a couple of single-vineyard wines from Nero d’Avola, called Scyri and Contrade Labirinto, that are graceful and complex—almost Burgundy-like. He also makes a wine called Pithos in ancient terra-cotta vessels known as amphorae. According to Occhipinti, the vessels breathe like an oak barrel (which is good for a wine during maturation) but impart no additional flavors.

On the far east side of the island is a place altogether unique: the wine region of Mount Etna. Etna has been a prized winegrowing location for hundreds, if not thousands, of years (and it’s been an active volcano for longer; its last major eruption was in winter 2002). The dark volcanic soil is rich in minerals and drains well, while the climate up at 2,600 to 4,000 feet allows for lots of sun exposure during the summer along with plunging night temperatures to retain acidity. Thousand-year-old terraces run along the sides of the mountain, supporting gnarled old vines. It’s a show of new confidence in the region that America’s most famous importer of Italian wines, Marc De Grazia, who knows Italian wine as well as any living human, chose Etna as the place to begin his own wine project, after 30 years of helping others improve and sell theirs. His estate, Tenuta del Terre Nerre, produces a white and several reds from the grape Nerello Mascalese. The reds, especially, will open eyes with their red berry fruit and mineral core.

“I tell you,” de Grazia said to me, “in the next several years, we’re going to be releasing wines from Mount Etna that will rival the best wines in the world.” And that sentiment goes for the whole island, which, after 5,000 years of wine production, is about to have its day.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.