The resurgence of Sicily as one of the greats is one of the most exciting stories of the last couple of decades. Gone are the days when the island was known only for the sweet wines of Marsala and cheap, poorly made table wines. Though a few stalwart producers such as Duca di Salaparuta made some decent bottles during the long lean years, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the real revolution happened.
I attended a tasting at VinoVip in Cortina d’Ampezzo in 1998, where the major luminaries of the Italian wine world were assembled with their top offerings on hand. There was a major buzz in the room about an upstart Sicilian winery named Planeta. Its wines were original, exciting and obviously very high quality. Led by the Planeta family, the Rallos of Donnafugata and several others, Sicilian wine has subsequently continued to build steadily on quality and growing originality to stake its claim among the top Italian wine regions.
Initially, New Wave Sicily focused on international varieties. At a small gathering in 2011, Alessio Planeta, who heads up the family-owned operation, confided that his strategy was to excel at producing wines made from the same varieties that were made by winemakers on five continents. Only then, he felt, would Sicilian wines really be taken seriously.
Growing confidence and international acceptance has also brought with it a vibrant revival of ancient indigenous varieties. Sicily boasts over 20 such varieties, some quite localized and others that are much more widespread. About a dozen of these grapes are of real interest and some are good enough to hold their own against the most prestigious international varieties.
2004 marked the inception of Sicily en Primeur, an annual event showcasing to the international wine press the latest vintages and those currently on the market from the wineries belonging to Assovini Sicily, the leading Sicilian wine association. The 11th edition took place last May, on the island of Vulcano in the legendary Aolian island chain. The still very active volcano, Stromboli, made a particularly dramatic backdrop to the proceedings.
Prior to the main event, some of the 70 wine journalists from Italy and around the world, split into smaller groups touring various regions of Sicily. Having visited several in the past, I chose the south-eastern tour, from Butera to Noto, which was new territory for me. The wine notes that follow include tastings at these south-eastern wineries as well as the formal tastings of wines from 35 producers from all regions represented on Vulcano.
the unique etna region
Fine wine is made almost everywhere in Sicily, but the volcanic soils on the slopes of still-erupting Mount Etna are delivering truly remarkable bottlings. The resurgent Etna region has gained growing prominence mainly for outstanding red wines made from the Nerello Mascalese grape. Though grown elsewhere in Sicily, it is in this unique terroir that this local variety approaches greatness. Nerello Mascalese, like Cabernet Sauvignon, can be a little forbidding by itself. Blending with small quantities of a secondary grape, Nerello Cappuccio, makes it more approachable as well as providing greater complexity, much the same way as Merlot does for Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux.
Although the Etna story has been mainly about the reds, some outstanding whites, made primarily from the local Carricante grape, are now gaining prominence in their own right. These finely focused, aromatic, minerally wines have great acidity and age-worthiness.
Barone di Villagrande 2013, Etna Bianco IGT
Mellow yet subtle yellow fruit scents backed by a firm whiff of mineral lead into a quite austere yet elegant palate with excellent minerality and acidity softened by light creaminess on the finish.
Barone di Villagrande 2010, Etna Bianco Superiore IGT
Deep golden colour with good depth of lemon citrus fruit, contrasting creaminess, stern minerality and pronounced acidity with a touch of melon, crisp stone fruit and a lick of creamery butter on the finish.
Cottanera Etna Bianco 2013, Sicily IGT
Very pale green showing green fruit and pronounced green herbal notes, this one seems rather clumsy and underripe.
Donnafugata SurSur 2013, Grillo Sicily Bianco DOC
Light floral and citrus scents with a hint of minty herb shift to subtle apple-pear flavours on the palate. This is a mildly flavoured white, ideal as an aperitif.
Graci Etna 2013, Etna Bianco DOC
Fragrant melon and citrus on the nose with similar themes playing through in the mouth. Shows great acidity and gravelly mineral balanced by attractive creaminess on the very dry finish. Polished, age-worthy wine.
Fuedo Maccari Grillo 2012, Sicily IGT
Displays crisp white peach, great chalky minerality and lively acidity. Although from a cool vintage, shows excellent focus although a little less fruit than is typical.
Baglio di Pianetto Ficiligno 2013, Sicily IGT
A blend of Insolia with around 12% Viognier, this is a harmonious wine revealing floral and rounded stone fruit aromatics with white peach, mineral and lightly buttery sensations on the palate. With its adroitly balanced acidity, it is a fine aperitif or accompaniment for lighter seafood.
Cos Pithos Bianco Grecanico 2012, Sicily IGT
Good aromatic depth reveals tropical floral perfume and honeyed yellow fruits. Flavours are gentler than the nose suggests, with subtle citrus, mango with a trace of banana, creamery butter. Contrasting mineral and refreshing acidity provide grip on the finish.
Cusumano Cubia Inzolia 2012, Sicily IGT
Peach, apricot, lemon with a touch of honeycomb come through in a well-rounded body balanced with good acidity and light minerality. Finishes with a touch of butter cream and mineral grip. Very stylish wine with definite crowd appeal.
Musita Regieterre Grillo 2013, Sicily IGT
Limpid fresh green apple and citrus fruit are melded in a harmonious, lightly buttery package, shifting to very dry mineral grip on the finish.
Planeta Moscato di Noto 2013, Moscato di Noto DOC
Floral and lightly pungent Muscat scents with a suggestion of grapefruit give way to green grapefruit and lightly grapey Muscat flavours in the mouth. Harvested early, this is a refreshingly light aperitif style.
Pietradolce 2013, Etna Bianco Archinera DOC
Made from pre-phylloxera Carricante grapes, this deeply coloured wine yields up ripe yellow pear with light buttered toast and a trace of floral and fruity perfume. Characteristic mineral and acidity kick in on the palate, nicely balancing the depth of fruit. A fine and very interesting wine.
Valle dell’Acate Tenuta Ibidini 2013, Insolia IGT
Very lemony, almost like freshly squeezed lemon, with delicate creamy texture and contrasting mineral grip. Clean as a whistle on the finish. Simple, but elegant.
Tenuta Gatti, Inzolia Grillo 2012, Mamertino DOC
Intriguing combination of aromatic lemon drops, grapefruit and spring flowers shifting towards stone fruit and crisp grapefruit with contrasting creaminess in the mouth. Shows a trace of smoky mineral on the finish.
Fuedo Maccari Saia 2012, Sicily IGT
Notes of sweet red currant, red cherry with oaky astringency, a faint herbal overtone, milk chocolate smoothness but finishing with very dry tannic grip. Needs time to integrate more fully.
Fuedo Maccari Syrah 2012, Sicily IGT
Another example of Syrah’s ready adaptation to Sicily, showing raspberry and peppery spice scents with rounded fruit and good depth of flavour, a touch of chocolate and typically dry tannic finish. Give it 3 years more in the cellar.
Marchesi di San Giulano San Giulano Rosso 2008, Sicily IGT
The blend is predominantly Syrah with a lesser amount of Petit Verdot. Complex and powerful bouquet presents refined and developed fleshy red fruit in combination with layers of elusive spice. Muscular Syrah dominates in the mouth, with great depth as well as finesse. Superbly integrated fruit, spice and supporting oak on the finish. Uniquely good, but hearkens back to the top Syrahs of the Northern Rhone.
Principi di Butera Deliella 2012, Sicily DOC
100% Nero d’Avola, Sicily’s signature red grape, with red berry, peppery and lightly astringent tannic notes on the nose. Good depth of raspberry fruit in a creamy rounded, milk chocolate accented texture with chocolate lingering on the finish.
Principi di Butera Symposio 2012, Terre Sicily IGT
A Sicilian “Bordeaux” blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot showing refined dark fruit with blackcurrant, black cherry, cinnamon and clove with a splash of milk chocolate on the dry tannic finish. Needs 3 to 5 years in the cellar.
Planeta 2007, Cerasuolo di Vittorio DOCG
Cerasuolo di Vittorio remains Sicily’s only DOCG Appellation to date. The blend is 60% Nero d’Avola and 40% Frappatto. It is the lesser-known Frappatto that seems to add the necessary complexity to bring out the best in Nero d’Avola. Notwithstanding the bottle age, this fine example offers fragrant fresh fruitiness with some savoury notes, a light touch of earthiness and subtle red cherry fruit, finishing with a hint of chocolate and slightly drying tannic grip.
Planeta Frappato 2013, Vittorio DOC
Attractive fleshy red fruit with red cherry in the foreground backed by stony mineral and sound tannic and acid balance. Culminates in a dry finish accented by a light lick of chocolate.
Marchesi di San Giulano San Giulano Rosso 2009, Sicily IGT
A higher proportion of Petit Verdot in this vintage adds more elegant perfume with enhanced cinnamon and nutmeg spiciness and a little more softness and roundness on the palate. Almost as fine as the 2008 but stylistically, quite different.