Sicily (Sicilia in Italian) is an autonomous region of Italy, and the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. At its widest point, between Messina and Marsala, the island measures 175 miles (280km) east to west, and about one third that distance north to south. Its roughly triangular shape led the island to be dubbed Trinacria (the triangle) during the Middle Ages, and is reflected in the triskelion (a motif with three protrusions) at the center of the regional flag.
For more than 2500 years Sicily has been a significant center of viticulture in the Mediterranean, although its reputation is not as immaculate and widespread today as it once was. Blessed with consistently bright sunshine and reliably moderate rainfall, the classic Mediterranean climate is ideally suited to the needs of wine-bearing grape vines. Add to that the paucity of the island’s soils and the hilly landscape in which they sit, and the resulting terroir is almost perfect for growing not just vines but also the cereals, olives and citrus fruits which remain the island’s key exports today.
This apparent perfection has, ironically, helped diminish the luster once enjoyed by Sicilian wines, as it encouraged government-driven schemes pushing for higher productivity on the island during the late 20th century. Where once Sicily’s wines came from traditional goblet-trained (bush-shaped) vines, they now come mostly from the higher-yielding tendone (pergola) or guyot (cane-pruning) training methods; transition costs were heavily subsidized by central government. Higher yields led to over-production and lower-quality wines, which led to low consumer confidence, even lower revenues and a reputation so tarnished it may take decades to fully restore. Fortunately the dramatic surges in wine consumption since the 1980s, and the more quality-focused attitudes of wine consumers, have led to glimmerings of Sicily’s potential being noticed once more.
The soils, and the mountains from which they came, are of particular interest when it comes to studying Sicilian viticulture. Mount Etna, Europe’s tallest active volcano at 10,930ft (3330m), dominates the island’s eastern skyline and is responsible for the mineral-rich, dark soils which characterize the Etna DOC. Vineyards are now being planted higher up on the volcanic slopes, to capitalize on the cooler air and richer soils there. Fifty miles (80km) south, the Iblei Mountains stake their place in eastern Sicilian wine. On their lower slopes and the coastal plains below them, the DOCs of Siracusa, Noto, Eloro and Vittoria sweep from east to west, forming a crescent which mirrors the arcing coastline. In western Sicily, the volcanic hills are less individually dramatic but just as influential to the soil types. The western fifth of the island is covered by the Marsala DOC, and also within this area fall the DOCs Alcamo, Contessa Entellina, Delia Nivolelli, Erice, Menfi, Monreale, Salaparuta, Santa Margherita di Belice and Sciacca. Also of note is the small Sambuca di Sicilia DOC, whose wines are not to be confused with the potent anise liqueur of the same name.
The key grape varieties used in Sicilian viticulture are a combination of 'native' varieties (those historically cultivated on the island) and newer, more fashionable imports. Nero d’Avola and Catarratto are the most important natives, occupying 16% and 32% of Sicily’s vineyard area respectively in 2008. The sheer volume of Catarratto juice created each year means much of it is shipped to cooler Italian wine regions, where it is used to increase the body and weight of otherwise thin, over-acidic wines; chaptalization is prohibited under Italian wine law. A large proportion of what remains on the island is used to make Marsala, for which it is joined by the white varieties Grillo and Inzolia. Although less famous than Marsala, another sweet wine of significance to the island is Moscato di Pantelleria, the Moscato grape in question being Muscat of Alexandria.
In terms of red-wine varieties, the most common after Nero d'Avola is Grecanico, accompanied by small quantities of Alicante (Grenache), Perricone, Nocera, and Frappato, the latter being the key ingredient in Sicily’s only DOCG wine Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Sibling varieties Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio (also known as Nerello Mantellato) are also small players in terms of volume, but are of vital importance around Mount Etna. Syrah has been brought here from its home in southern France, where hot summer sunshine and sandy, rocky soils are also key components of the terroir. The robust red Rhone Valley variety shows every sign of adapting well to the Sicilian heat, and certainly better than Chardonnay, which is less able to produce balanced wines here. Trebbiano, the ubiquitous, high-yielding white variety found all around Italy, is also present in the wines of Sicily, although it has no role of particular distinction among them.
The island’s topography has affected more than just how, and where, Sicilian wines are created; it has also had a significant impact on the way commerce and customs have developed on the island. In the late Middle Ages Palermo was one of the largest city populations in Europe, and had a correspondingly voracious wine appetite. Despite large quantities of wine being made in the east of Sicily, Palermo’s wine supplies came as much from Campania and Lazio as they did from the other end of the island, so mountainous is the landscape surrounding the port city. Given the frequent contact Palermo had with the central western coast of Italy, and the proximity of Messina to southern Italy (it is separated from southern Calabria by the Strait of Messina, just two miles wide), these two key Sicilian cities were more influenced by the mainland at this time than they were by one another. And while Palermo was importing Italian wines, Messina was actually exporting eastern Sicilian wines to Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. Modern transportation and communication technologies mean that Sicily's dramatic, volcanic landscape has less of an impact on the region's social and cultural structures today. They remain, however, a vital part of its viticulture and winemaking, and may prove to be its unique selling point in the modern wine world.