For such an old place, there are many new things happening in Sicily. Layers of grime are being scrubbed away, revealing the beauty of the ancient buildings underneath, and new people, new investment and new ideas are moving in. Sicily’s wine is also having a moment and producers brim with confidence about the potential for growth and exports. Nowhere was that more obvious than in May at the sixteenth edition of Sicilia En Primeur, organised by Assovini Sicilia.
A generous year
The event opened with remarks from oenologist Mattia Filippi, who says 2018 was a generally positive year for Italian wine production, with less extreme temperature spikes than in previous years. Overall, Sicily had performed in line with historic averages, despite 2018 being the hottest recorded year in Europe in the past century. “Sicily’s geographical position at the centre of the Mediterranean represents a huge and unique advantage compared to other European wine regions,” says Filippi, “protecting the island from the thermal excesses of 2018.” Its geography spares it from the extreme weather that can affect Europe, although parts of western Sicily suffered hail storms and lashing rain. “In 2018, the effects of the African heat were mitigated by cooler flows coming in from the Balkans.”
After the speeches, the tasting tables opened for business and the 200 assembled journalists, tastemakers, influencers and others filled their glasses. The wines of Mt Etna in particular generated a buzz, and visitors flocked to taste the red Nerello Mascalese.
“The quality of winemaking on Etna is exceptional,” says Jean Reilly MW from the USA. “It’s amazing how dense the population is of quality-minded producers, helped no doubt by lots of outside investment.” Reilly MW says the first time she had an Etna Nerello Mascalese was in 2001, when it was a more rustic wine than those of today. “It wasn’t until 2010 that you could really find a good selection of Etna wines on the export market, and the quality had improved a lot from my first experience.”
Monica Larner, Italian critic for The Wine Advocate, agrees. “Sicily never had an issue fitting into that mid-range of Italian wines where you can find excellent value at reasonable prices,” she says. “However, more recently, in the past ten years or so, we’ve seen Sicily reorganise its quality offering into a more classic pyramid shape with fewer iconic and collectors’ wines at the top. Fittingly, that proverbial pyramid has been shaped by the mighty Mt Etna.” Larner says her highest scores from the tasting went to Mt Etna wines, which wasn’t true ten years ago.
Andrea Gabrielli, journalist for Tre Bicchieri, says contemporary Sicilian wines are quite different from their forebears – and not just because winemaking has improved. He believes that climate change has driven some of the development. “During the 1980s, it was very, very cold. At the end of the ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s, everything changed.” He says the warming weather had allowed grapes from higher-altitude vineyards to develop an elegance that’s very attractive. Sicily’s white wines have also changed as well. “There are now a lot of wines that are lightly salted. Once upon a time, that was not the case, except near the sea,” Gabrielli says.
It’s hard not to feel that the excitement around Nerello Mascalese is reminiscent of the moment when Nero d’Avola was the ‘it’ grape of the moment. But so popular did Nero d’Avola become, that poorer-quality wine – and wine labelled as Nero d’Avola that was actually something else – turned up on the market, hurting the wine’s image. Antonio Rallo, president of the Sicily DOC, says a concerted focus on quality has made the wine popular once again. “It is strictly controlled,” he says. “You can only produce Nero d’Avola if you are working on a DOC like Sicily. Before you release the wine, you need to have certification, and to have the certification, the wine must be tasted and submitted to chemical analysis. Everything is traced.”
Yet while everybody is talking about Mt Etna, its vineyards cover a mere 950ha – a fraction of Sicily’s total vineyard area. And despite the many delicious Nero d’Avola, Grillo, Perricone and Zibibbo wines on offer, among others, Sicilian growers still face challenges.
Laurent Bernard de la Gatinais, Assovini board member and owner of the Tenuta Rapitalà winery, notes that Sicily produces enough wine to fill 600m bottles. Yet most wine is sold off as bulk, with only 235m bottles produced. “You can understand there is a great deal to do,” he says. The formation of Assovini 20 years ago was the first step. “Producers were spread out, especially in the south, with everybody on his own, so we needed to have a unique voice.” Today, Assovini has about 80 member estates.
The second step came with the creation of the DOC Sicilia in 2012, and then the Consorzio in 2013. “A lot of people asked why we put everything under a DOC umbrella,” De la Gatinais says, given that Sicily is a large island, with multiple different regions. “It was the only way we could defend and market Sicily to the world.”
One major goal is to increase the value of Sicily’s wine. “Even the bulk wine does not have the right value,” says De la Gatinais. “But we only started in 2013 and have already done a lot,” including promoting Sicily in the USA. “The Anglo-Saxon world is first in terms of communication about wine, so it’s a huge market and we are keeping pressure on it, as well as Germany and Italy.”
De la Gatinais also believes developing the commercial expertise of the cooperatives should be a priority. “Until two or three years ago, they didn’t have sales directors, for example, apart from Settesoli. They were just selling bulk wine.” He adds that they are beginning to adapt, and quickly, with more wine being bottled and the packaging improving.
One thing that Sicily has in its favour is that more people are discovering the island itself. “People cannot go any more to the north of Africa because of the terrorists, so they rediscover Sicily. Sicily was the centre of the world once. Between the two world wars, Sicily was one of the richest places in Europe. It’s a continent in miniature. A mosaic.”
It certainly is. The island has withstood invasions from Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and others, each wave leaving behind its influence on the culture and architecture. And now the wine lovers are coming as well, lured by the friendly locals, fresh food, and the taste of its unique autochthonous varieties. It’s in a position that many wine regions can only envy.
Felicity Carter attended Sicilia En Primeur as a guest of Assovini Sicilia.
This article first appeared in Issue 3, 2019 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine.