The Mediterranean island is more than just Marsala, says Peter Bourne.
Sicily is the pivot point of the Mediterranean, its ethnicity marked by Greek and Roman occupations interwoven with Arab and Norman invasions. Throughout those tumultuous times, wine was a constant. Sicily’s historic calling card was Marsala, a fortified wine in the style of the great sherries, ports and Madeiras of its Mediterranean and Atlantic neighbours.
But Sicily has undergone a revolution in the past 50 years, moving on rapidly from old fortifieds and its reputation as a producer of bulk table wine (to stiffen the “thin and weak” wines from the cooler climes of mainland Italy). Sicily has 120,000 hectares under vine – that’s about 80 per cent of Australia’s vineyards but on a much, much smaller island.
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The introduction of comprehensive wine laws in the 1960s gave Sicily an opportunity to focus on quality rather than quantity. French varieties such as chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon were planted, yielding credible but unexciting wines. The focus soon moved to the white varieties traditionally used to make Marsala that have been rebirthed as clean, bright whites. Inzolia and catarratto are exciting alternatives to everyday sauvignon blanc, with fresh citrus flavours and an intriguing texture uninhibited by oak.
Sicily’s red hero is nero d’Avola, a bold, flavoursome red grape with lots of juicy mulberry, blackberry and boysenberry flavours. It’s the tannins that set “nero” apart – they’re potent but not harsh or bitter. Nero happily accepts some oak but doesn’t really need it. (As an aside, recent plantings of nero d’Avola in Australia’s warmer regions are very encouraging.)
Despite its location, Sicily is not all hot; snow-clad Mount Etna soars to about 3350 metres and its ice was reputedly used to make the earliest sorbets and gelati. A new wave of quality wines from the Etna region is attracting the attention of hipster sommeliers and wine heads. The whites are made with a citrus-fresh variety, carricante, but the real star of the Etna region is nerello mascalese and its sibling, nerello cappuccio.
Both nerellos are intriguing, sharing the perfumes of pinot noir and nebbiolo with their own unique flavours – abundant red fruits, exotic spices and fine balance between refreshing acid and gentle tannins. Etna reds are hot property and prices are soaring.
Want something a little more mainstream? Try a red from the southern coast under the Cerasuolo di Vittoria appellation. Here, nero d’Avola rubs shoulders with frappato, a red grape close in DNA to sangiovese. Cerasuolo di Vittoria is more structured and refined, with a drinkability that rivals spicy shiraz.
Price points vary but there’s plenty of good-value Sicilian wine on the market and it’s definitely worth trying. ￼
Shop these wines at Qantas epiQure