The island of Sicily has had a reputation as a wine paradise for more than 3000 years. According to legend, Dionysus (Bacchus) was the one who brought pleasure to mankind and wine to Sicily. There is evidence that Mycenaean traders cultivated grapes in the Aeolian Islands as early at 1500 BC and when the Greeks began to settle in Sicily in the 8th century BC, they greatly enjoyed, ‘oinos’ (fermented juice), introducing several varietals.
Though it was the Greeks, who ingrained the idea of methodical grape-growing practices for the purpose of quality winemaking on the island. As the centuries passed, Phoenicians and Romans traded Sicilian wines based on their power and their distinctive qualities. The best vines were propagated, viticulture developed and thus Sicilian wines reputation.
Winemaking continued at an island pace until the next important date in Sicilian wine history 1773, the year John Woodhouse started producing what was to become one of the island's most famous products: Marsala.
Though many things have changed, most of Sicily’s indigenous grape varietals and time-honoured winegrowing traditions continue today. Due to meticulous vineyard management and careful grape handling, Sicilia DOC wines feature the variety of flavours which Sicily has been known for since ancient times and which represent some of the best wines of Italy.
Sicily has a unique mix of innovative producers combining tradition with modern techniques to create wines that are capturing the attention of new wine enthusiasts around the world.
With more than 100,000 hectares planted to indigenous and international grape varietals, each vintage in Sicily produces an array of expressive wines. Winemakers who have found success in the versatility of white wines crafted from Grillo and the bold flavours of Nero d’Avola - along with nearly 50 native grape varietals unique to Sicily.
Today there are 23 DOC wine zones in Sicily:
Alcamo, Contea di Sclafani, Contessa Entellina, Delia Nivolelli, Eloro, Erice, Etna, Faro, Malvasia delle Lipari, Mamertino di Milazzo, Marsala, Menfi, Monreale, Moscato di Noto, Moscato di Pantelleria, Passito di Pantelleria, Moscato di Siracusa, Riesi, Salaparuta, Sambuca di Sicilia, Santa Margherita di Belice, Sciacca and Vittoria. With one DOCG wine: Cerasuolo di Vittoria.
Many grape varietals are grown, used either ‘in purezza’ (producing a single grape varietal wine), or blended. Some have been around for centuries, others are more recent. The following are some of the main varietals:
White Grapes: Cataratto, Grecanico, Grillo, Inzolia, Zibibbo, Damaschino, Trebbiano, Ausonica, Moscato Bianco, Carricante, Corinto Nero and more recently; Chardonnay, Viognier and Fiano.
Red Grapes: Nero D’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Mantellato, Perricone, Frappato, Calabrese and more recently; Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet-Franc and Syrah.
Sicily is also famous for its dessert or aperitif wines. The sugar content of the grapes and the drying qualities of the sun mean that Sicily lends itself well to production of dessert wines. The best known of these are - Marsala: the famous fortified wine, a blend of Grillo, Cataratto, Ansonia and Damaschino with the addition of distilled alcohol. Though it has a reputation as a sweet wine, there are also some excellent dry aperitif varieties. Try chilled Marsala vergine or extra vergine from any of the big producers (e.g. Florio).
Passito di Pantelleria: made from Zibbibo grapes which have been dried in the sun to increase the sugar concentration. Pure heaven from Sicily's southernmost offshore island, Pantelleria.
Malvasia delle Lipari: a blend of 95% Malvasia and 5% Corinto Nero, first produced at Monemvasia, ancient Laconia. Known as Malmsey to Shakespeare in Loves Labours Lost. Malmsey was also well known to Nelson’s sailors (who allegedly drank a great deal).
Passito di Noto: 100% Passito Bianco grapes for a harmonious honey sweet wine.
For most of the 20th century, Sicily produced enormous quantities of grapes, most of which, however, were exported to be added to wine made elsewhere in Italy. The last 20-30 years have seen enormous changes to the island's wine culture and, as the many international accolades achieved by Sicilian wineries confirm, some of Italy’s finest wines are now being made in Sicily. A new generation of Sicilian winemakers are realising the full potential of the island’s enviable climate, its indigenous grape varietals and unique soils. Keep an eye out for quality Sicilian wines spreading across the globe.