Sicily – The Italy That It Isn’t

Sicily, the Island of Cellars, as much a part of Italy is quite unique in its history, culture, and gastronomy, and distinct from the mainland. It distances itself from any other winemaking region in the country, or the world, given its human and natural influences which it translates in its wines too. Numerous evident ecozones, over four dozen unique grape varieties in its cradle, tiny island dotting its periphery with their own languages and lifestyles, and Europe’s largest active volcano (Mt Etna) at its epicentre, Sicily boasts unparalleled richness in its topography and scenic beauty. And to celebrate this individuality, diversity, and unique character through its wines, Assovini Sicilia hosts an annual showcase, Sicilia en Primeur, where local producers uncork their vinos to select wine professionals and writers from across the globe. This year this grand affair was hosted at the beautifully manicured Mediterranean gardens of Radicepura, in Giarre, spreading over five hectares and homing 3000 species of plants, making it a brilliant setting on this sunny island. For the ease of decoding the 400+ labels and understanding the array of indigenous grapes, numerous masterclasses were hosted by Masters of Wines. And then followed a walk around tasting opening a chance to communicate with the producers.

Sicily is marked for various wine styles and local varietals. Through our wine tours, visits, and tastings we tasted many of them, some usual, some expected, and some surprisingly new. Amongst them were my new founds of Zibibbo, Nerello Mascalese, Insolia, and Perricone grapes, while the usuals of Marsalas, Grillo, Nero d’Avola, and some sweet drops were pleasing to revisit.

WHITES & DESSERTS

Zibibbo, Grillo, and Inzolia, individually distinct varietals, are the three most promising whites from the island. Zibibbo has entered the winemaking space only 30 years ago, after being grown as a table grape for century. Known as Muscat of Alexandria elsewhere, it is marked for its sweetness and aromatic profile, thus a natural favourite for sweet and dessert wines. ‘Zibib’ is the Pantellerian term for dried grapes indicating how the grape was earlier consumed, thus the name. Many producers still maintain this historical way and produce sweet wines from raisinated grapes that are regarded across the globe. However, its dry avatar from fresh grapes can be dramatic, masculine, and serious, resulting in wines unlike any other internationally. 

2013 Coste Ghirlande, ‘Silenzio’ Zibibbo, Pantelleria – Dry, matured, vibrant, and masculine. Neat, vivacious aromas of stoned fruit, orange citrus, warm spices, herbaceousness, developing savoury tones, seaweed, minerality, flint, soft smokiness at back. Oily texture, refreshing acidity, gripping palate, long finish.

2014 Donnafugata, ‘Ben Rye’, Zibibbo, Passito de Pantelleria – Renowned dessert wine from the island dedicated to the ‘sound of winds’. Fresh grapes’ fermentation is initiated, dried grapes’ juice is added periodically, leaving 200 grams/litre sweetness. Dried apricots, figs, golden sultans, honey, high perfume, florals, orange marmalade, oak, chocolate, tad animally, oxidative. Long palate, tart acidity balances high sugar and alcohol, cleanse the palate clean.

On the other hand, Grillo is an island native marked for its formidable whites, for its fruity young versions as well as aged, layered, and serious ones meant for aging. Born from Cataratto (red) & Zibibbo, it’s aromatic and perfumed, thanks to the latter, and picks spice and tropical notes from the former. Put this flavour spectrum together with its tendency to attain high alcohol levels, Grillo can be cellared to create depth and complexity of texture & flavours too. What was once deemed as an innovative grape is now an island classic.

2016 Feudo Disisa, Grillo, Sicilia IGT – Bright, beautiful, and youthful colour.Fresh nose brimming with aromatics, stoned fruits, sweet lime, lemon candy, talc, and musk, finishing with warm spices. Rich round palate, bright acidity, light body, and good grip. A simple youthful wine, excellent drinking proposition.

2016  Assuli Astolfo, Grillo, Sicilia IGT – A serious one with French oak aging. Juicy tropical fruits, coconut gelato, floral& aromatic, peach marmalade, and honeydew melon. Balance between oak grip and varietal character is commendable. Elements show promise to age and develop further in complex.

Insolia, aka Inzolia or Ansonica, has doubtful origins. Some believe it’s an islander, while there’re evidences of its Greek origins as well. Nonetheless, it’s a prominent contender here, appreciated for it nutty, herbal, and citrus tones. While young, it can retain high acidity and hold a neutral flavour spectrum, however, leave it on the vines longer, its acidity crashes and nuttiness spikes, making it a perfect base for fortified wines. Thus, for long, without paying much attention, it was grown exclusively for Marsala production. However, much like most base varietals, as with Cognac and Champagne too, its caliber for varietal wines was recently identified and its problems mitigated by modern winemakers. Now, this crisp white can be a great pairing proposition for island’s seafood-heavy cuisine and quite exciting one amongst new experimentative winemakers.

2013 Baglio di Pianetto ‘Natyr’ Insolia Sicilia IGT – Unique organic wine, fermented on skins, aged one lees for 2 years. Wild & funky nose, decaying orange peels, yeasty, nutty, and musty tones from the less, highly earthy, savoury, touch of volatile acidity. Surprisingly granular texture, neat round acidity, and commanding texture. Needs development and opening yet is impressive.

1994 Cantine Florio, Bianca di Valguarnera, Insolia, Marsala – Dry palate, crusty, biscuity nose, filled with oak, toast, oil, developed tones of meat, earth, stoney minerality, dustiness, candied vanilla, and toasted warm spices. Round palate with high acidity, gentle luscious touches without sacrificing oaky structure. Shows youthful grip, promises to age further.

1964 Cantine Florio ‘Donna Franca’ Semisecco Marsala Superiore Riserva, Marsala – Fortified at 93 grams sugar per litre, blend of seven vintages, youngest being 7 years old, and oldest 30. Amber hue, with notes of dates, sultans, nuttiness, warm spices, mocha, meat, savouriness, and perfume. Lifted elegance, rolls swiftly on the palate, leaves neatly without cloying.

REDS

Sicily has always been renowned for its reds, being warm, and vines planted on volcanic soils. Nerello Mascalese and Nero d’Avola has started a new debate amongst Sicilian red admirers – which defines Sicilian reds better – while Perricone, being a charming varietal that it is, sits comfortably in a different sphere all together. Nerello Mascalese, product of bringing Montanico Bianco & Sangiovese together, was first mentioned in 3rd BC by Greek Poet Theocritus, and has 2000 years of history in Etna region of Sicily, especially enjoying the 500-850 meters altitude belt. Its wines can easily resemble those of Beaujolais Villages with tones of strawberries, wine berries, violets, and a touch of spice. Modern winemakers are increasingly experimenting with it in oak and blends, thus adding to the debate if it’s the grape of the future.  

2016 Casa Vinicola Fazio, Nerello Mascalese, Erice IGT – Bright ruby hue, very rich and lifted nose with elegant florals and sweet fruity nose dominated by raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, and red fruits compote. Dry palate, fruity sweetness, gentle extraction, light tannins, balancing soft acidity, and juicy fluidity. Subtle, simple, and amicable. 

Nero d’Avola, island’s champion red, is a local varietal from southern Sicily’s Avola region. It has the regard alike Aussie Shiraz or Argentine Malbecs, given its tannins, depth of colour, sturdy body, and spicy notes. Its love for dry and hot conditions makes it the most planted varietal here and yield elegant, oak-loving, age-worthy wines. Once planted and produced in bulk to beef up the lighter wines of the North, though no one would accept, Nero d’Avola is now called the trump card of the island. Its regard in local and international markets has left Nerello Mascalese struggling for its ground in the heated debate if it’s the island’s defining future. Nonetheless, the debate will definitely be further heated with a serving of Nero d’Avola.

2014 Masseria Del Feudo ‘Rosso delle Rose’, Nero d’Avola, Sicilia DOC – Deep ruby colour. Red and dark fruits show on the nose with tobacco, savoury tones, developing tertiary notes, and a lift of crushed florals. Dense palate with fruity acidity, ample to balance warm acidity and young dusty tannins, leaving the mouthful tad grainy but round and pleasant. 

2012 Duca di Salapurta ‘Duca Enrico’, Nero d’Avola, Sicilia IGT – Deep colour, rich aromatics,and round palate dominated by dried herbs, warm and sweet spices, hints of forrest floor, and sweet tobacco. Though oak-aged yet soft, ripe, rich, and elegant.    

Perricone, once the most cultivated grape, has become a challenge off late. This vibrant, playful, and fruit-forward varietal shows its best only after its second birthday. However, it doesn’t like oxygen and, thus, resting it in oak isn’t an option. This poses an image-related challenge to the producers. Nero d’Avola, synonym to Sicilian reds, shows better with oak while an equally old Perricone, sitting besides island’s other formidable reds, seem a tad confused and costly at the same time. Thus, in this oak-loving wine world, the grape may appear to be struggling a bit, at least theoretically, but it has its own safe place amongst its admirers. More so, local producers have a soft-corner for Perricone as it’s a local boy, and holds admiration amongst tourist for its easy approachability. 

2014 Caruso & Minini, ‘Sachia’ Perricone, Marsala – Beautiful ruby hue, sweet fleshy red fruits, plums, cherries, red berries, bubblegum, liquorice, touch grainy tannins, balancing acidity, light body. Perfumed, charming, and unpretentious. 

Sicily is an entity by itself. Though it holds resemblance with mainland Italy it shouldn’t necessarily be seen through the same window. Its landscape, its wines, its appeal, has a multitude of influences. From the Greeks, the Romans, and those who made a pitstop here en route their voyages, leaving hints of their own unique character that the locals have embraced. It seem to exist in harmony while being visibly diverse. And it shows in its winemaking too. Hundreds of varietals exist her, on a variety of soils, ranging in their topography, concluding in the hand of historic and modern winemakers, destined to further widen the assortment that we pick to sit on our tables. No other region in Italy can argue this heterogeneity of produce from its soils, let alone its varietals. In many ways, it’s a one-stop solution to the growing wine demands of the world, both in styles and quality. And it’s time that these wines reached our Indian palates too. Much like all wonderful things, it may need some learning and experimentation before we settled for our favourites, but, hey, Sicily has waited and surely can wait a little more. 

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