Volcanic viticulture and Baroque palaces

Exploring eastern Sicily

Sicily, the ball waiting to be kicked by Italy’s boot, is currently one of the creative hotspots for Italian wine. Long maligned for producing oceans of deeply coloured, overly alcoholic wine that was shipped north by the tankerload to boost the paler wines of the north and France, it then dabbled with international varieties like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah and finally fell victim to the EU’s vine-pull scheme to halt overproduction and excessive agricultural subsidies. However, Sicily’s winemakers have reawakened and producers around the island are now creating increasingly high-quality wines mostly from indigenous varieties.

Ancient traditions

The Mediterranean’s largest island and historically a crossroads for many cultures and trading routes, Sicily benefitted from the winemaking techniques the Ancient Greeks brought with them, although wine had already been made on the island for centuries. Its warm climate, breezes from the surrounding azure seas and diverse landscape of hills, mountains and, of course, the infamous volcano Etna all create the perfect conditions for viticulture to thrive. Its arid climate also means than organic viticulture is increasingly practised.

Wine grapes are cultivated across much of the island and it boasts an astounding 23 DOCs (PDOs) and 1 DOCG (a more prestigious PDO with stricter regulations) as well as the catch-all Sicilia DOC (created in 2001 by a group of producers to help promote Sicily’s indigenous varieties) and a PGI – Terre Siciliane IGT.

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Historically, Sicily was famed for its Marsala, a fortified wine made in a similar way to Sherry which was, just like Sherry and Port, primarily destined for the glasses of the British. The British Navy had expanded its fleet in the region and was seeking something to replace Port for those stationed in there. A wine merchant from Liverpool dosed the local wine with alcohol and, voilà, Marsala was born and became an instant success. The wine, like most fortified wines, is no longer in favour, but if you find yourself in the west of the island, the town of Marsala, flanked by glistening salt pans and windmills, is definitely worth a visit, as are the Cantine Florio, which provides an excellent insight into the making of Marsala wine.

Head east

However, it’s the east of the island where much of the new winemaking action is taking place nowadays. As most people fly into Catania, the city shimmering in the shadow of ever-threatening Mount Etna, this makes life very convenient. Wizzair also fly there three times a week from Budapest. What’s more there’s plenty to enrich your Sicilian experience than just wine. You can scale Mother Etna, go hiking, stroll around magnificent Baroque cities, discover ancient Greek remains and gaze over the sparkling Ionian Sea from chic Taormina.

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Alpine viticulture in the mezzogiorno

The trendiest wine region in Italy at the moment has to be Etna. The region was in the doldrums like the rest of Sicily until its fortunes were revived around the turn of the century by outsiders like Andrea Franchetti, founder of Passopisciaro, and Belgian Frank Cornelisson, who were were drawn to the mountain’s terroir. However, Giuseppe Benanti is credited as being one of the first to revive winemaking on Etna. The Benanti ’Pietramarina’ is one of Etna, and Italy’s iconic, ageworthy whites. Produced from 80-year-old, albarello (bush-trained) Carricante, the main white variety on Etna, it’s dense and mineral-driven with plenty of zesty, citrus acidity. Carricante is mainly grown on Etna’s eastern slopes around the town of Milo, where it is entitled to be labelled as Etna Bianco Superiore. If you visit the Benantis, you can also view a palmento, the traditional Sicilian winery.

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Although Carricante, often with a dash of Catarratto or even obscure local variety Minella, makes fabulous zesty whites, Etna is all about red wine. The main protagonist here is Nerello Mascalese along with its understudy Nerello Cappuccio. Nerello Mascalese is often compared to Barolo and red Burgundy for its ability to reflect the terroir on which it is grown. It combines the elegance of Pinot Noir with the tannins and structure of Nebbiolo, producing taut ethereal wine when grown at higher altitude (up to 1100m above sea level) and more concentration and texture lower down, but always with subtle aromas of sour cherry, tobacco, herbs and mineral notes. Etna Rosso is often made from Mascalese alone, but it can be blended with up to 20% of the more burly Cappuccio, which adds colour and softens the former’s acidity. Some single-varietal Cappuccio is also bottled and demonstrates a lovely spicy, floral character.

The ultimate terroir wines

Terroir plays a key role on Etna with the volcano being divided into contrade (or cru) based on lava flows from different eruptions over millenia, thus soil composition may vary widely within just few metres, with elevation further emphasising these differences. The contrade were officially deliminated in 2011. Before then, you were not allowed to state the contrada on the label, so Franchetti cunningly got around that by labelling his contrada wines with the first letter of their name, so R for Rampante for instance. Tasting some of these wines gives you a real feel for the differences between the individual contrade.

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Narrow roads wind through the scrub, vineyards and pistachio groves covering Etna’s slopes, but you can also take the Circumetnea railway which begins in Catania. Although you can’t reach everywhere with it, it runs right past Tenuta di Fessina’s lovingly restored lava-stone winery, which also boasts an atmospheric guesthouse. They served up some pretty good food and wine pairings too. If you don’t want to stay on Etna itself, nearby Taormina with its ancient Greek theatre affording magnicent views of the smoking volcano, perched above the sea, makes a convenient base. Taormina Gourmet, a two-day wine and food festival is held here annually in October.

The Baroque triangle

Lovers of Nero d’Avola and Baroque architecture should head further south to Noto, Modica and Ragusa, stopping off at Syracuse’s ancient port of Ortigia on the way. This is Nero d’Avola country and the variety’s name is said to come from the nearby seaside town of Avola. The area around Pachino, also home to the extra sweet Pachino DOP tomato, is considered its grand cru. Like elsewhere in Sicily, bulk wine was the name of the game here and you can still see derelict wineries with rusty pipes where dark, high-alcohol wine would have been pumped onto containers at the port. However, those days are long gone and producers like Zisola, Feudo Maccai and Gulfi are turning out some elegant, yet powerful Nero d’Avola under the Noto DOC. Grown on the area’s white calcareous soils, they boast delicious berry fruit and soft tannins. Gulfi are going one step further and producing vineyard-selected Nero d’Avola. Matteo Cantania shows me how the location (altitude and proximity to the sea) of each individual vineyard affects the wines’ character.

This is one of the hottest areas of the island, lying even further south than the tip of Tunisia, so it’s worth seeking cooler air in stunning Baroque hilltop city Noto, resplendently rebuilt within 50 years following 1693’s devastating earthquake, which killed around 50,000 people and flattened 50 towns. The beautiful balconied palazzi with carved rosettes and nymphs built from soft tufa take on a beautiful honey colour in the bright sunshine. Visiting the historic Caffè Sicilia is a must and you could balance this with trying inventive Sicilian cuisine at Ristorante Crocifisso.

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Elegant Nero d’Avola blends

Driving west, past other Baroque pearls, Ragusa and Modica, which incidentally hides a delightful chocolaterie, Bonajuto, still making thickly grained chocolate using ancient methods, you come to another Nero d’Avola stronghold and the island’s only DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Here the Nero d’Avola is blended with another local variety, Frappato, which produces a delicately coloured, fresh juicy, fragrant wine with aromas of strawberry, violet and wild herbs. The Nero d’Avola gives the blend structure while the Frappato provides freshness and elegance. One of Italy’s rising stars, charismatic Arianna Occhipinti is based here and produces elegant wines fom the sandy red topsoil underlaid with white calcareous soils found in Vittoria. She was the first to bottle Frappato as a single varietal. Her spacious cellars and wonderful atmospheric tasting room were perfect for escaping the downpour outside and enjoying her organically farmed, terroir-driven wines. Arianna is the niece of Giusto Occhipinti of the COS Winery, source of the region’s winemaking renaissance and another advocate of low-intervention winemaking. He vinifies and ages his most famous wine, ‘Pithos’, Greek for a large storage container, in terra cotta amphorae.

So, if your perception of Sicilian wine is limited to overripe, sweet Nero d’Avola and unbalanced, alcoholic Chardonnay, it’s time to take a trip to its East and discover its elegant balanced wines and energetic winemakers reinventing historic regions and rediscovering and refining wines made from Sicilian varieties. It won’t do any harm either to erase the memory of the Mafia and its legacy, by exploring Sicily’s Baroque cities, ancient sites and natural beauty.

*First published in Hungarian in the August 2019 edition of Vince magazine.