Sicily’s volcanic explosion

Italy’s southern wine region is modernising fast. Wojciech Bońkowski takes a look at the landscape of Sicily.

Number of vine growers
Number of vine growers; Source: Sicilia DOC

The party, led by renowned viticulturalist Salvo Foti, visited an old vineyard on the slopes of the Etna volcano. They looked at a palmento, a traditional presshouse built of lavic blocks, in which grapes used to be trodden and wine fermented. “But where are the cellars?” someone asked. 

One hundred and thirty years ago, Etna had 30 times as many vineyards as today (850ha). But it had not a single wine cellar. After fermenting in palmenti, the wines were racked and exported in bulk.

French merchants would arrive promptly after harvest to secure a shipment of the rich, flavourful wine to blend with the paler crus in their home country. The English navy was also a top customer. Ivy was put on a house’s door when bulk wine was on sale – a tradition that continues in rural areas. Bottling machines and cellaring space were not needed in a region that for centuries had simply supplied generic wine for others to drink. 

A voyage in time

Sicily was the granary of Ancient Greece and Rome and even in the 19th century, after a reluctant unification with the rest of Italy, the economy was still fundamentally feudal. Swathes of agricultural land were owned by a few baronial families that did not care, as their counterparts in Piedmont or Tuscany did, to bottle and market their own wine.

Then came Marsala. British wine merchants (notably John Woodhouse) launched the white fortified wine as an alternative to sherry and it became a hit. The demand triggered huge vineyard development in western Sicily, based on white cultivars such as Grillo and Catarratto, which dominate today. 

Marsala still sold well when Italian wine was industrialised in the late 1960s and Sicily became a major source of bulk wine, exported north by French merchants to “improve” nobler appellations or contribute to generic table wines. In the 1970s, Catarratto was the world’s second most important cultivar with 100,000ha of vines, more than Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.

One exception was Tasca d’Almerita, founded in 1830 by a local noble family, perhaps the first quality-conscious winery to gamble on Nero d’Avola: its Rosso del Conte bottling debuted in 1970 and remains one of the variety’s best interpretations. Modernisation gathered momentum after Giovanni Rallo returned from California in 1983 determined to upgrade his family operation from bulk to quality wine; he introduced temperature control and night harvest to preserve freshness and fruit flavours and Donnafugata was born. The Planeta family planted a large vineyard in Menfi in 1985 and the wines, international in style with plenty of fruit, were an instant sensation. They were joined by Benanti on Etna, COS in Vittoria, Palari in Faro, Cusumano and Spadafora near Palermo, and Morgante in the south.

Extraordinary diversity

Today, Sicily is a wine powerhouse. The island still has 106,600ha of vineyards according to a 2017 census, even after the EU’s vine pull scheme, making it the world’s tenth largest producer. Exports reached €96m ($109.45m) in 2017, growing 14% in a single year, according to Italy’s National Institute of Statistics, ISTAT. Germany, the US and Britain are the three main markets. 

Commercial success is just one cause for optimism; the other is the sheer diversity of Sicilian wine. Cerasuolo di Vittoria, a red wine blended from Nero d’Avola and the rare local Frappato, has built a faithful following, as have the rich reds of Noto in the south-east. Faro, an appellation near Messina, was on the brink of extinction two decades ago but is now increasingly seen as the next big thing, making elegant, spicy red wines with a true sense of identity.

And then there is Etna, Europe’s highest volcano. High altitudes, old vineyards (some pre-phylloxera), unique grape varieties, and volcanic soils produce arresting whites and reds. Until recently, there were only a handful of wineries including Benanti, Terre Nere, Passopisciaro and Russo, but today every large producer from western Sicily has an Etna in the portfolio (facilitated by easy access to planting rights). Yet Antonio Benanti, president of the local consorzio, believes the market is far from saturated: “We only make 3.5m bottles annually and may reach 6m or 7m. There will be room for everyone as large bottlers and local wineries find their own segments. By global standards, we will remain a high-quality niche.”

Sicily is well placed to benefit from two modern trends: interest in white wines and local grape varieties. Despite its popular image as red wine country, it produces 58% white, and the old dull, oxidative styles have been replaced almost everywhere by crisp, contemporary profiles. The production of sparkling wines is increasing, and the island makes some stunning rosés: in its product mix, it is actually ahead of many New World regions.

Nero d’Avola is the success story of modern Sicilian viticulture. This flexible grape variety can adapt to a range of styles from gluggable fruit-driven softies to ageworthy “icons”. Grillo, formerly a base for Marsala and vermouth, has been reinvented as a dry, aromatic, medium-bodied food white. Catarratto and Inzolia make interesting dry whites while Perricone shows great promise in red, with its peppery, spicy profile. There is Etna’s Nerello Mascalese, dubbed “the Pinot Noir of the Mediterranean”, while forward-looking wineries are already looking at Nocera from Sicily’s north-east. “It has great potential. At the moment, we blend it into our existing wines, but are looking to make a varietal version in due time,” says Pietro Russo, winemaker at Donnafugata.  

Wine politics

Who pulls the strings in such a large market? Sicily remains the land of large producers: the Settesoli cooperative bottles 20m litres a year; Corvo 10m, Pellegrino 7m, and Firriato almost 5m. Confusingly, there is no single promotional body for Sicilian wine. Two large organisations share the task: Assovini, a private club of the island’s top wineries, known for its yearly Sicilia En Primeur event; and the dynamic Consorzio di Tutela Vini Sicilia DOC, headed by Donnafugata’s Antonio Rallo. Other DOCs, such as Marsala and Etna, have their own consorzios. And as elsewhere in Italy, there is a plethora of other official bodies.

Consequently, the politics of Sicilian wine are complex, not least because the region continues to be a fertile hunting ground for producers from mainland Italy and beyond. Ripe fruit flavours, a reliable climate, and a high supply of international grape varieties (according to a 2010 ISTAT survey, 25% of Sicilian wine is made from French cultivars) make Sicily the perfect Old World New World. Sixty per cent of production leaves Sicily in bulk. There is not only commoditisation, however. Bottlers from the north of Italy strive to premiumise, as shown by the Principi di Butera brand, owned by Veneto’s Zonin, which has gradually integrated a premium red blend range. 

The major change of the past two decades, however, has been the emergence of smaller, usually family-owned wineries. Arianna Occhipinti in Vittoria makes ‘garage’ natural wines from Nero d’Avola and Frappato, partly inspired by the trend-setting COS winery founded in 1980 by her uncle Giusto. Marilena Barbera, a notable champion of social media, has revamped her family’s traditional winery in Menfi, making it one of the island’s hippest brands. Serragghia makes cutting-edge dry and sweet Moscato from the breathtaking island of Pantelleria which has taken London and New York by storm. Centopassi makes Nero d’Avola and Catarratto from single vineyard land reclaimed from the mafia, one of the many fascinating stories Sicily has to offer.

Clouds on the horizon

The balance of power between large and small producers remains Sicily’s hottest issue. It took an unexpected turn in 2012 with the promotion of IGT Sicilia, the official designation for regional wines produced from almost any grape variety with loose requirements, into DOC Sicilia. Permitted yields were lowered and technical parameters updated, but many small producers argued DOC Sicilia, which encompasses the entire island and is Italy’s largest, fails to communicate a precise sense of place. One of its main purposes, limiting off-island bottling to raise quality, has failed, as many producers have obtained exemptions and bottle DOC Sicilia wine in the north of Italy. Recently, the consorzio scored a notable success when DOC became compulsory for varietal-labelled Nero d’Avola and Grillo, a change that caused dissent. 

The consorzio’s director, Maurizio Lunetta, defends the move: “Our main goal is to increase the value of our wines on the market and effectively redistribute it to all the participants of the production system. The DOC Sicilia is continuously growing. In 2018 we reached 80m bottles. This notably allows the promotion of Sicilian wine in its entirety.” But many smaller wineries give DOC Sicilia the cold shoulder. Some embrace smaller, more geographically precise DOCs such as Alcamo, Contea di Sclafani, or Contessa Entellina. The marketing power of more precise appellations such as Etna or Cerasuolo di Vittoria suggests that to wine lovers, smaller is more meaningful. Others opt for the IGT category, now renamed Terre Siciliane. 

The ensuing confusion arguably does little to guide the consumer through Sicilian wine, and it could ironically strengthen the power of private brands and grape varieties rather than Sicilia as a brand in itself. Walter Speller, Italian wine specialist for Jancisrobinson.com, argues: “DOC Sicilia is beginning to show its limitations … The image has not kept pace.” In any case, buyers continue to look for grape variety and price rather than DOC. 

The quest for identity

The agony and the ecstasy of Sicily’s restructuring match the grandeur of the local viticultural landscape, from azure seas to Etna’s majestic basalts. In less than a generation, Sicily has evolved from a provincial bulk wine supplier to an important global player. Yet beyond encouraging sales, the answer to one question appears to elude local opinion makers: what does Sicily really represent? The lack of clear identity threatens to become a liability in the long term. Countries that produce as much wine as Sicily, such as Australia and Chile, solved the conundrum and emerged more powerful from the process. For Sicily, the challenge remains. “Everything must change so that everything can stay the same” is the most famous quote from that quintessential book about Sicily, Lampedusa’s “The Leopard”. It’s advice the island’s winemakers would do well to note.  

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