Sicily, Italy’s most southerly region, needs little introduction. Conditions for agriculture, and viticulture in particular, are nearly perfect. The island has a climate with Mediterranean temperatures and record breaking hours of sunshine.The soils types vary from limestone and chalky to sandy-clayey and volcanic – all of which offer excellent habitats for winegrowing.
Sicily is the southern Italian region which has invested most in recent years in up-grading its wine production, with the technical support of some of the country’s leading agronomists and consultant winemakers. Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, has more vineyard land than any other Italian region. Yet, with the emphasis shifting from quantity to quality, wine production has diminished recently to slightly less than that of Veneto.
Conversion of the vineyards to quality winegrowing and the introduction of international varieties such as Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz (the latter however possibly already indigenous to the island) were the first important steps. The second stage of development has been the rediscovery of the island’s local cultivars, amongst others; Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Inzolia, Grecale, Catarrato and Moscato.
Currently, premium wines account for possibly only 5% of the 10 million hectolitres produced annually, but this percentage is destined to grow thanks to the enthusiastic reception that the quality renaissance in Sicily has received from the international market. About 75 percent of Sicily’s wine is produced by cooperatives, though a growing number of privately owned estates has put the emphasis on premium quality.
Methods of vine training in the sunny, temperate hills have been changed to reduce yields of grapes for wines of real character and individuality. Recently, prominent wine houses from northern and central Italy have invested in vineyards on the island.
A major share of the DOC is represented by Marsala, a wine originated by English merchant traders two centuries ago. Marsala remains Sicily’s proudest wine despite the not so distant era of degradation when it was used mainly for cooking or flavored with various syrups and sweeteners.
Recently it has enjoyed a comeback among connoisseurs, who favor the dry Marsala Vergine and Superiore Riserva with the warmly complex flavors that rank them with the finest fortified wines of Europe. In Sicily the only other DOC wine made in significant quantity is the pale white, bone dry Bianco d’Alcamo, which is now part of the broader Alcamo appellation. Moscato di Pantelleria, from the remote isle off the coast of Tunisia, is among the richest and most esteemed of Italian sweet wines in the Naturale and Passito Extra versions. Malvasia delle Lipari, from the volcanic Aeolian isles, is a dessert wine as exquisite as it is rare.
The dry white and red wines of Etna, whose vines adorn the lower slopes of the volcano, can show class, as can the light ruby red yet highly aromatic Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Production of the other traditional DOCs, the dry, red Faro and the sweet Moscatos of Noto and Siracusa, has been minimal in recent times.
But the volume of premium wine is certain to increase with the additions to the DOC list of Contessa Entellina, Eloro, Menfi, Sciacca, Sambuca di Sicilia, Contea di Sclafani and Santa Margherita Belice. Wines from several admired producers of Sicily have not been qualified as DOC, though most are now covered by the IGT of Sicilia or other appellations. Plans have been advanced to introduce a regionwide Sicilia DOC.