I fell in love with Sicily a long time ago, not as you might imagine by visiting the island, but after reading a book. John Julius Norwich’s “The Normans in Sicily” is the story of how the Norman House of Hauteville, under Robert Guiscard, conquered Sicily in the 11th Century, and how, under King Roger II this kingdom became perhaps the greatest centre of culture in 12th Century Europe. The book certainly paints a picture of the ruthless, bloody, and very possibly psychopathic, knights who subdued the island, but it also paints a picture of a beautiful landscape and the wonderful architectural legacy left by those early Norman rulers (Roger II, whose father spent much of the time away fighting, grew up in a court dominated by Greek culture and he effectively had a Greek education).
Sicily is big! It’s a large island, measuring around 130 miles east to west and, on its eastern shore, around 90 miles from Faro at its northern tip to Pachino in the south. Almost every article you read calls it “a continent in itself”. It certainly possesses almost every microclimate imaginable, from the baking plains where vast fields of wheat attracted the Greek and Arab invaders and colonisers who were there long before the Normans, to the snow and freezing cold on Etna, not only in the depths of winter. Sicily, lest we forget, is in places further south than parts of North Africa, yet Mount Etna rises to over 3,800 metres above sea level.
So, if we are going to talk about wine on Sicily, perhaps we should limit ourselves. There are lovely wines throughout the island, in the far west where the late Marco de Bartoli’s son, Renato, carries on his father’s great work, to the offshore islands, especially Pantelleria, where unctuous passito wines of the highest imaginable quality are fashioned from wind tormented vines, to mention but two examples. Sicily first became associated, for many, with bulk wine, at best weighty reds of high alcohol, at worst, plonk to beef up weedy northern juice. Yet it is now considered among Italy’s finest wine regions, and rightly so. The part of Sicily which appeals most to me, at least viticulturally, is the east. It’s the bit which has gained today’s fine wine reputation, in an age where fortified Marsala only now retains its appeal among a few well informed connoisseurs. So I am going to talk about Etna, Vittoria and Faro.
There are vines on the slopes of Etna as old as over a hundred years. Old bush vines in scattered plots climbing as high as 1,000 metres in some places, once tended by local farmers for home consumption. Many of these have been revitalised, although there are modern vineyards too, with modern trellising. The renaissance in Etna winemaking took place in the early 1980s, when local families like Tasca d’Almerita and Benanti began to bottle wines from the slopes of the mountain. The Benantis were aided by the region’s most famous wine personality, Salvo Foti. His deep knowledge has since allowed him to consult for a number of growers, as well as producing the I Vigneri range of wines, which I’ve sadly not had an opportunity to try. No one has done more than he to put these wines on the map.
The main red grape here is Nerello Mascalese. It’s often the main constituent of a blend including other local eastern Sicilian varieties like Nerello Cappuccio and Nocera, and it is increasingly bottled on its own. Comparisons with Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo are tenuous, but it is unquestionably a fine grape. But like those two noble varieties, it does seem capable of illuminating terroir, and I think that’s what those writers using this comparison intend to convey. The terroir here, especially on the northern slopes of the volcano around the towns of Randazzo, Passopisciaro and Solicchiata, is often covered in ash from minor eruptions. The soils are naturally volcanic for the most part. It is often pretty cold too. As producers always stress, these are mountain wines blessed with the sunshine of the South.
Producers often start their range with a generic Etna Rosso (or Bianco), and then release a number of single vineyard wines. The latter can be magnificent expressions of this unique location, though at suitably magnificent prices in some cases. Whilst the reds are gaining most of the fame, the whites have been sneaking up behind. Carricante is the main local white variety. At altitude these wines seem elegant almost to the point of being delicate when young – tangy, with a dry mouthfeel. As they age they don’t lose texture, but can fatten up a bit. Of course, that’s a broad generalisation, but these wines certainly show a capacity to age. So who to look out for?
Benanti – of all their wines, it’s the Etna Bianco Superiore “Pietramarina” which I have drunk most of, but as with all these producers, try any, no all, of their wines if you can.
Passopisciaro – from the town of the same name. You may recall I took the 2008 to the Oddities Lunch last week. Complex Nerello Mascalese from very old vines is the hallmark of this estate.
Terre Nere – from Randazzo, directly north of the crater. They are famous for their single vineyard wines which require age for them to express themselves fully. But I love their entry level white too. The first Etna wines I got to know really well.
Frank Cornelissen – this now famous Belgian began making wine here in 2001. He was a pioneer of sulphur free natural winemaking on the island. His wines are often mindblowing, from the simpler Contadino, through the majestic Munjabels, to the monumental Magma. I’ve also had disappointments, but I’m convinced this has been when retail storage was poor. Don’t display them under hot lighting, please.
Vino di Anna – I first came across Australian Anna Martens’ earliest vintages of “Jeudi 15” via UK importer Caves de Pyrene, of which her partner, Eric Narioo, happens to have been one of the founders. Anna also makes wines in terracotta, or qveri in this case. More natural wines, and if you like this philosophy you’ll like these. Based near Solicciata.
Also look for Pietradolce (Solicciata) and Girolamo Russo (Passopisciaro). I want to try more of the Russo wines, they seem to be quite unique, more restrained and elegant than most, in a DOC not exactly known for the big and flabby.
My most recent discovery from Etna has been the wines of Fattorie Romeo del Castello, such as the Allegracore, below. Based in Randazzo, this is an old estate, rejuvenated by Rosanna Romeo and her daughter, Chiara Vigo. Their oenologist is Salvo Foti, so they are in good hands. On the basis of just two bottles, I’m very much keeping my eye on this mother and daughter team. They have around 14 hectares of vines, with some over 100 years of age (which just missed destruction in an eruption of 1981).
There are, of course, plenty of other producers around the mountain worthy of comment. But as we are on the eastern side of Sicily, I’d like to talk about some more of her wines. Wines occasionally hidden in the publicity shadow of the volcano, but which are every bit as exciting. The wines of Vittoria, a town on the Southeastern bulge of the island, have been made famous by one producer, COS. Note the capitals, which distinguish them from the nickname of one of Bordeaux’s finest addresses. The three letters stand for the surnames of the estate’s three founders – Titta Cilia, Giusto Occhipinti and Pinuccia Strano. These three young men were at a loose end the summer before they went off to university, so Titta’s father gave them two metric tons of Nero d’Avola and prodded them towards the palmento, the old stone-floored winemaking hut. COS was born.
COS produce a range of wines now. The wine they rejuvenated is Cerasuolo di Vittoria, now Sicily’s first DOCG wine. It’s made from Nero d’Avola blended with a lovely local grape, Frappato. The wine which made them famous perhaps, is Pithos. It’s a Cerasuolo fermented in terracotta giare, or amphora. It has amazing texture and is a fickle wine capable of true sublimity. But COS also bottle a varietal Frappato, among others. It’s bright and pale in colour with light strawberry fruit, and has become the COS wine I look forward most to drinking. In some ways simple, yet in other ways, not.
The Occhipinti family has another star in the region, Arianna (a cousin of Giusto from COS). I only know three of Arianna’s wines – a red and a white called SP68 (white = Muscat of Alexandria blended with 40% Albanello, red = Frappato with 30% Nero d’Avola, both IGT), and the most beautiful expression of the Frappato grape I know, bottled as a single variety. There are another three wines I need to try, but so far they all exhibit true purity.
As an introduction to Cerasuolo you can always seek out Planeta’s version. Planeta are a large producer, with wine farms in several locations. For many, they are Sicily’s highest profile wine family. They are often accused of making wines in an international style, and indeed some are, though their ability to fashion wines from International varieties which could match some of their more famous iterations did more than anything to put Sicily on the wine map back in the 1980s/1990s. Their Cerasulo di Vittoria is a very decent expression of the DOCG and may be easier to find than COS. Planeta have also invested on Etna, and have an interesting and relatively new white, Euruzione 1614, made from Carricante with 5% Riesling. Even cheaper, and very much cheaper than the versions by COS and Occhipinti, is a Frappato which UK supermarket Marks & Spencer sell for £8, made by Stefano and Marina Ginelli (though if you are there, I’d recommend their Perricone made by Caruso e Minini at the same price). M&S have an adventurous range which explores Sicily further, including red and white Etna wines.
It feels as if time has almost run out, but if I can hold your attention just a little longer I’d like to take you to the extreme northeastern tip of Sicily, overlooking the Straits of Messina. Here, on steep slopes, is a tiny, 6 hectare, DOC called Faro. Its only major producer is an estate called Palari, run by architect Salvatore Geraci. Caves de Pyrene reckon these wines the island’s “most elegant”. Italian Wine Guide Gambero Rosso named the 2005 Faro as its red wine of the year, and Palari hasn’t looked back. As with Etna, Nerello Mascalese is the main grape, with others taking a minor part. There’s more of a nod to cherry fruit in these wines. The Faro DOC cuvée is very concentrated and ageworthy, but the less expensive Rosso del Soprano, which also includes some bought in grapes, is almost equally unique, especially after a few years in bottle. It seems, on its own terms, to combine elegance and richness. Wines worth going out of your way for. Not as fashionable as the Etnas, perhaps, but the fairly consistent tre bicchiere keep the prices in line with the best of that DOC.
There seem no be no shortage of articles about Sicily in the wine press, but there is a little known book on the island’s wines and winemakers, which I have enjoyed enough to read three times. It’s a few years old now, first published in 2010, but as a cross between a wine and a travel book, anyone interested in Sicilian wine may find it worth seeking out. It’s Palmento – A Sicilian Wine Odyssey by Robert V Camuto (University of Nebraska Press). He visits most of the iconic producers as well as soaking up the food culture of Sicily, and the descriptions of his visits, and often the journey to get to them, are evocative enough to transport you there.
As usual, the photos are my own, but there are small glimpses in a couple of those photos of photographs from an article on Etna by one of my favourite wine writers, Max Allen, which appeared in Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine, August/September 2015. Additional facts were gleaned from the Palmento book mentioned above, Hugh Johnson/Jancis Robinson’s World Atlas of Wine (7th edn, Mitchell Beazley) and from the various highly informative, book-like, catalogues of importer Les Caves de Pyrene.
All comments on the wines mentioned, and other opinions (and errors) are my own.