Grape Profile: Catarratto
Is it the spelling? Sicily’s most-planted wine grape, Catarratto, is being ripped out all over the island. As Sicily has shifted from making boatloads of Marsala to being one of the trendiest wine hotspots in the world, growers are looking for grape varieties that are easier to sell.
Catarratto was once the most-planted white grape in all of Italy, based just on huge vineyards of it in Sicily. But it lost 42 percent of its acreage between 2000 and 2015, according to AGEA (the agency for agricultural disbursements), and another 29 percent just between 2015 and 2018. Somehow as Sicily grew in stature, its most-planted grape came to be seen as a relic of both Marsala and cheap and cheerful jug wine.
But today, that’s a misnomer. It’s not easy to find varietal Catarratto outside Italy, but when you do, the odds are good you have a good seafood wine: fresh citrus fruit with a touch of sea salt. It’s a fine wine for summer drinking, and summers are getting longer than ever.
There’s a reason the vines are disappearing, and it’s the same reason that the wines you now find with Catarratto on the label tend to be pretty good. It was planted to be a workhorse, in warm low-elevation areas where it could put out big crops of indifferent fruit. Many of those vineyards have been grafted over.
Moreover, Catarratto has in many cases been supplanted by its offspring, Grillo, a natural cross between Catarratto and more aromatic Zibibbo (aka Muscat of Alexandria). Grillo is easier to spell, and more than one Sicilian vigneron told me they think that has something to do with its success. Because, according to my tastings, if a winery can make a good Grillo, it can also make a good Catarratto, and the parent is often better.
That’s probably because as Catarratto vineyards are winnowed out, what remains, in many cases, are higher elevation vineyards. These vineyards are cooler and tended for wineries making premium wines who are thus willing to cut back on yield. When a winery takes it seriously, Catarratto delivers a serious wine.
Angelo Molito, winemaker for the 300-grower cooperative CVA Canicatti, says that until 15 years ago, Catarratto wasn’t considered of high enough quality to get EU funding to plant a vineyard, so growers who wanted to plant it couldn’t get valuable subsidies.
“There was a lot of Catarratto in Sicily in the wrong places, so the impression of Catarratto was bad,” says Molito. He adds that the main requirement for Catarratto is a ready supply of water, and that, unusually for fine wine grapes, it likes deep and fertile soil.
Similar to many fine wine grapes, Catarratto needs heat but thrives when it can get just enough of it. Thus as Sicily warms, the best place for Catarratto is at higher elevations — far from the coast, where so many vineyards of the variety used to be located.
“Catarratto is a grape that is now cultivated in the middle of Sicily, even at 1000 meters over the sea,” says Josè Rallo, proprietor of Donnafugata winery. “Now we are obliged to go higher. If the temperatures are rising, we are obliged to go higher.”
Musita makes an outstanding Catarratto from 65-year-old vines, but commercial director Vito Amato says, “The name is very difficult to pronounce. Double r, double t, it’s difficult to spell. It’s not the perfect name for the market.” Musita has tried blending its Catarratto with Sauvignon Blanc, and the wine tastes good, but Amato says he has learned that white blends aren’t easier to sell than mono-varietals.
Silvio Centonze, winemaker for Tenuta Rapitala, says that Catarratto is a hard sell even in Italy.
“Grillo is easier to say,” Centonze said. “Catarratto sounds more difficult than Chardonnay. Our marketing choice is not to put the name Catarratto on the label. Alcamo DOC was born with Catarratto, so we put Alcamo Classico on the label. It’s easier to market this way.”
Catarratto’s non-trendiness makes it affordable. If you’re looking for a great seafood wine, look for it. Two r’s, three t’s. Here are some of the best I tasted:
Fazio Catarratto “Caleblanche” DOC Erice 2022
A nicely balanced wine with fresh lemon fruit up front, some melon on the midpalate, and a salty finish.
Feudo Montoni Catarratto “Masso” IGT Terre Siciliane 2022
This wine is so salty that it’s practically a condiment. There’s also fresh citrus fruit, but if you like minerally whites, this is just what you want. Mainstream raters tend to underrate this kind of wine but it’s precise and perfect at what it’s trying to accomplish.
Musita Catarratto DOC Sicilia 2022
A crisp, minerally wine that gracefully segues from lemon fruit to a hint of melon and white flowers into a brisk finish.
Serafica Catarratto “Mirantur Bianco” IGP Terre Siciliane 2021
Lemon pith aroma with floral and sea salt notes. This one opens salty, with lemon pith coming in on the midpalate. The finish is slightly bitter.
Tenuta Gorghi Tondi Catarratto “Midor” DOC Sicilia 2022
A nice aroma of lemon pith with a note of white flowers leads into a taut citrusy wine with a burst of sea salt.
Tenute Rapitalà Catarratto “Vigna Casali” DOC Alcamo 2022
A straightforward citrusy wine with sea salt on the finish that is a bit abrupt, but without false steps. Leads to a second sip.
Zisola Catarratto “Contrada Zisola” IGT Terre Siciliane 2021
A fresh and tart wine, with a burst of fresh lemon on the palate. Simple but refreshing.