Having been ruled throughout history by the Greeks, Romans, Normans, Muslims, Spanish, Piedmontese, and even a few others, Sicily’s an island with a total mix of cultures. All those cultures had various levels of interest in and production of wine, so Sicily’s indigenous grapes have fluctuated in popularity against international varities.
For most of the 20th century, Sicilian wine was pretty mediocre, much of it grown to be used as the base for other wines like Marsala and vermouth. But there are now 23 DOCs and 1 DOCG (Cerasuolo di Vittoria) that protect the quality of wines in defined areas of Italy, limit vineyard yields, and regulate the winemaking process (fermentation, refining, packaging). And in 2012, the Sicilia DOC was established as one of these DOCs to up the quality, mandating that vineyard yields are limited and that the wines have at least 50% indigenous grapes. As they get more serious about their wines, some wineries are now also mapping vineyards to better understand what grapes will do best there.
Sicilian wines also happen to be some of the best values out there. As it’s the land of fresh fish, both the indigenous whites and reds are mostly on the lighter side which I love. Even though there’s far more white grown than red, the reds are my favorite so let’s start with those!
Many people in Sicily think this is the grape that puts them on the map in terms of quality and drinkability. It’s structured, tannic, and full of blackberry fruit. No wonder it’s the second-most planted grape in Sicily at 16%. I always call this my “pizza wine” because when you’re at an Italian restaurant this will hold up to tomato sauce and is often one of the best values you’re going to find on a wine list.
Because Nero D’Avola gets most of the red attention, Nerello Mascalese is barely even known. Big mistake! This is hands down my favorite grape from Sicily. It’s a very light red with herbal, savory notes and amazing even (or especially) with a little chill on it. It makes up only 3% of all vines in Sicily which is a shame and which is also why I didn’t get much of it on my trip. But those few bottles were highlights, and this Tascante Ghiaia Nera is only about $19!
LOVING Frappato. But I think it helps if you go into it knowing what you’re in for: big gigantic bursts of fresh red cherry. It’s super light and just very fun. We had two and I loved them both, but it’s less than 1% of all grapes planted in Sicily and I might have to hunt around to do a deeper study now that I’m back stateside. Both of the ones below are about $20 and the Planeta was fantastic with these appetizers, which also happened to be the most amazing sundried tomatoes I’ve ever eaten (I actually hate sundried tomatoes!).
Now on to the whites…
You’d think this was the most widely planted grape in Sicily given how much of it we drank. In reality, though, it’s the third most-planted grape at 7.5% but I get why we had so much of it. It was hot out and we were eating fish like the oceans were about to disappear, and frankly Grillo (pronounced GREE-lo) is pretty great with some fresh fish. It’s light and lemony with just a touch of sweetness. You really haven’t lived food-wise if you haven’t had a fresh grilled sardine and a glass of Grillo. Simple perfection.
But trust me, that wasn’t the only time we had Grillo. We also had it with:
With a name reflecting Sicily’s Greek history, this is actually the same grape as Garganega in Soave. With lemon and almond notes and a medium-light body, it’s light and lovely with lunch.
At 33% of all grapes planted in Sicily, this is by far the frontrunner. It’s not, however, the most widely drunk or the most interesting which is why it’s low on my list. Most of it is made to be included in blended wines or as the base for Marsala and vermouth, and is often blended with Carricante to make it a bit better (Carricante on its own isn’t enormously bottled, mostly in Etna Bianco where it has to be at least 60% of the blend). They’re looking to make it a bit better and more interesting (I had one from Caruso & Minini that was organic and had a bit more straw character to it, about $18) but they’re generally still incredibly light and borderline neutral aside from the slightest hint of lemon and white flowers. When it is perfect is when you’re having a light lunch on a hot day, like we did in Taormina.
Even though they’re not dominant, winemakers are starting to experiment with blends of indigenous grapes and international varieties. This very well may be done to entice people to try the wines (you might feel more comfortable buying something with Chardonnay in it rather than just a bottle made with a grape you’ve never heard of or tried). But having tasted some of the results, a lot of this is hopefully just being done because sometimes two grapes make each other taste better. We tried the Mandrarossa Santannella (about $15), a Fiano blended with 30% Chenin Blanc and it was fantastic – the nutty, floral Fiano was rounded out by the woolly, waxy apple in the Chenin.
Firriato’s Quater Vitis is cool because it’s a blend of four indigenous grapes. It’s under $15 but I can’t seem to find it stateside. Love the label showcasing the grapes though.
The Rapitalà Bouquet Bianco is a blend of Grillo, Sauvignon and Viognier and had juuuust enough sweetness to complement this fresh local fish, grilled and spritzed with lemon and parsley (one of the best things you can eat in Sicily). I also can’t find this one stateside, but it’s under $15 and just keeps proving what incredible values these wines are.
I also liked the Inzolia-Viognier blend in Cottanera’s Barbazzale (about $13) – a bit more body but still light, with yellow apple and some florals. Hope to see more great combinations as they keep experimenting to see what grapes work best with each other and where.
Now that you want to head to Sicily to try all these grapes in their natural habitat, check out escapefriend’s post on the non-wine things to do while you’re there!