Whites from Sicily worth seeking out
To understand the current state of Sicily’s wine industry, one needs to first understand the history of modern wine production on this island located at the tip of the toe of Italy’s boot. I’ve previously written of Sicily’s status as Italy’s largest producer of wine by volume — for most of the past century, the focus was on quantity rather than quality. In fact, due to the heat and intensity of the sun, there was an abundance of dark and overly alcoholic wine intentionally produced to ship throughout Europe for blending into wines across the continent, contributing colour and potency.
The 1980s and 1990s brought an increased focus on quality, but also a misguided, as it turned out, attraction to international grape varieties and the unfortunate and short-sighted uprooting of native grape varieties. Despite a few exceptions, most notably Syrah, the past two decades have shown that most international grapes are not well suited to the island’s hot climate. The rash of mediocre and monolithic Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay and the mostly incompatible blends with native grapes contributed to the misperception that because of the climate, Sicilian wines were all dark, heavily alcoholic and lacking elegance and freshness. Nothing, as it turns out, could be further from the truth.
Fortunately, there is now a renewed interest in Sicily’s native grapes which, not surprisingly, are better suited to the island’s microclimates and soils. This combined with better viticulture, winemaking and an understanding of the significant diversity of elevations, soils, microclimates and maritime influences has led to the production of wines that are fresh, lively, elegant and minerally, thus helping to correct the misperception that all Sicilian wines are heavy and hot.
There are many fresh, bright and delicious reds being produced — COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Occhipinti Frappato, Gulfi Nerojbleo, Feudo Montoni Vrucara and Pietradolce Etna Rosso to name a few. But Sicily’s focussed and energetic white wines from native grapes Carricante, Grillo, Inzolia and even Catarratto (which was most often used as a workhorse grape to produce rather uninspiring wines) are deservedly receiving widespread acclaim. These vibrant white wines are also helping to beat into submission any misconceptions that still remain of Sicily as an excessively hot region only capable of producing blending wines to add colour and alcohol.
The quality of Sicily’s white wines was reinforced earlier this year at the Sicilia en Primeur organized by Assovini Sicilia and held in Palermo. Not surprisingly, the wines produced using native grape varieties impressed me the most. From the slopes of Mount Etna to the coastal vineyards to the interior mountains, Sicily’s vibrant, focussed, fresh and versatile whites are worth seeking out.
Gulfi Carjcanti 2014, DOC Sicilia ($30)
Notes of tropical fruit and preserved lemons with great focus, minerally, fresh and rich texture, slightly tart with a savouriness, elegant and complex with an appealing persistence.
Pietradolce Etna Bianco Archineri 2017, DOC Etna ($40)
Focussed and linear, herbal and savoury with penetrating flavours, complexity and depth with a mineral, elevated, salty finish.
Benanti Etna Bianco 2016, DOC Etna ($30)
Mineral and salty with bright acidity and great length, nice texture in the mid-palate that makes the wine slightly less angular but does not detract from its linear path, with good depth and a mouth-watering finish.
Feudo Montoni Grillo della Timpa 2017, DOC Sicilia ($20)
From grapes grown on steep slopes at high elevation, the wine shows notes of stone fruit and floral blossoms with a brightness on the palate, great balance, soft acidity and a persistent, lifted finish.
Feudo Maccari Grillo Olli 2017, DOC Sicilia ($20)
Aromas and flavours of citrus, pineapple and fresh herbs, textural with soft acidity, mineral notes with a slight salinity on the finish.
Feudo Montoni Inzolia Fornelli 2017, DOC Sicilia ($15)
Floral notes with pear, melon and honey, slightly grippy texture and well balanced with savoury notes and a minerally finish. The name “Fornelli” comes from the ancient ovens in which clay present in the soils was cooked to create amphora to make wine, containers to store oil, vases, ornamental tiles and bricks for construction.
Terre di Giurfo Insolia Suliccenti 2017, DOC Vittoria ($15)
Aromas of flowers and lemon blossoms, flavours of fresh apple, herbs and citrus, medium-bodied texture while still maintaining freshness and nice salinity on the finish.
Feudo Montoni Catarratto Masso 2017, DOC Sicilia ($20)
Aromas and flavours of citrus and fresh herbs, nice weight and texture, mineral notes with fresh acidity and a long finish. The vineyard site is at 700 metres on sandy, rocky, mineral-rich soils.
Centopassi Catarratto Terre Rosse di Giabbascio 2016, IGT Terre Siciliane ($15)
Aromas of fresh herbs, topical fruit with lemony citrus, fresh fruit with good acidity and a touch of bitter almond on the finish.