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Wine from Sicily

Wine from Sicily

The Varieties of Sicilian Wine and Their Origins

Introduction

The island of Sicily is Italy’s biggest region by land area and one of its most famous, known around the world for its art, history, cuisine – and indeed winemaking, their tradition for which might well be the oldest in all of Italy. It is an island known as a cultural melting pot, shaped by its many different inhabitants over the centuries – named for the ancient Siculi, it was settled by Greeks for a very long time until being absorbed by the Roman Empire, after whose collapse it became, for a few centuries, an Arab emirate. It was eventually the Normans whose conquest was to act as a synthesis for all this, their rule bringing together the various influences to create the beginnings of what we now know as Sicilian culture, historically one of the world’s most rich with colour and intrigue.

Geographically the island is famously a triangle. The northeast point is where the Straits of Messina almost touch the tip of the Calabrian toe of Italy – almost, but don’t quite. Heading south, the towns of Syracuse and Noto roughly mark the southeast point of the island; then the long way up northwest, up to Trapani to complete what is an isosceles triangle. There are three significant hill and mountain ranges – the Hyblaen Mountains inland from Noto, the Sicani mountains towards the northwest, and the Sicilian Apennines, a large stretch running all the way from Palermo to Messina and down towards Catania, bumping into, of course, one rather famous mountain. Four winds act on it, two drying and two wetting: the Ponente and the Saharan, bringing dry air from the northwest and south respectively; and the Maestrale and the Scirocco, which bring significant humidity and rainfall to the north and east sides of the island.

Vigneti di Donnafugata a Pantelleria

The wine

A comprehensive overview of Sicilian wine would clearly be something of a challenge here – the island’s size and diversity of terroir, with its soils and altitudes and microclimatic influences, is impossible to summarise. For this blog, however, the most interesting place to start is surely somewhere among the most dramatic spots in all of Europe, perhaps the world: the active volcano that is Mount Etna.

Etna DOC was the first to be established on the island in 1968, as recognition of the exceptional and unique characteristics that have led to it being nicknamed ‘the island in the island’. Its soil diversity is so extraordinary that the DOC is divided into fully 133 separate subzones, known as contrade, based largely on the type of terrain. Obviously that’s too much to go into here – but, fortunately, we can narrow down the facts to a few of the most pertinent.

Firstly, there are four particularly important grapes, two black and two white, to the production of wines carrying the DOC label: on the red side, nerello mascalese and nerello capuccio; on the white, cataratto and carricante. These pleasingly assonantly-named pairs of vines flourish in the sui generis terroir of the volcano, making wines of often exceptional minerality.

Secondly, it’s important to bear in mind how the different slopes of the mountain are differently suited to the cultivation of different types of grapes. The main factor behind this is the aforementioned system of winds, in particular the Maestrale (tempered, though now colder, coming in from the neighbouring mountain ranges to the north) and the Scirocco (coming in quite unimpeded from the east). As a result, the northern slope is renowned as the coldest, not least due to the lower sun-exposure as well, which interestingly makes it particularly suit to the production of the red grapes as it really emphasises their acidity; the east, meanwhile, is the wettest, and so presents a number of challenges relating to disease and fungus – thus the whites, and carricante in particular, which are more disease-resistant, thrive more here; the southeastern slope is starting to get considerably more sunshine but is still exposed to wind and rain, but is suited to both red and white production; and finally the southwestern slope, perhaps the most sought-after on the mountain, with excellent sun exposure and strong diurnal temperature varation, can make all kinds of wines and at remarkable altitudes as well.

In order to qualify for Etna Rosso DOC the wines must be at least 80% nerello mascalese, while the Etna Bianco DOC has to be at least 60% carricante. However, Etna IGT wines made from unusual combinations – or, even more excitingly, 100% unusual varietals such as nerello capuccio or even the rare white minella – are an increasingly intriguing trend in the wine-world of the island within the island. Rosato wines, too, are made, especially from nerello mascalese, while a development of interest in passito is yielding fascinating results. Really, these wonderful wines, with their refined character unique minerality, are well worthy of their place near the top of the Italian oenological imagination.

It might be a surprise that Etna isn’t a DOCG – however, as we’ve said elsewhere, it’s vital to remember that DOCG isn’t necessarily a measure just of quality but of particularity, that there is a traditional wine style that makes a very identifiable kind of wine, and therefore merits very exact regulations. Etna is a very diverse viticultural zone, and so DOC regulations allow winemakers the requisite freedom of action to showcase that diversity.

Sicily does have one DOCG, and it is a very particular one indeed. Cerasuolo di Vittoria, around the town of Vittoria in the southeastern province of Ragusa, bears a name most associated with rosés (‘cerasuolo’ translates as ‘cherryish’) made particularly in Abruzzo. But Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG is not a rosé – it is, in fact, a very bright, very vivid, very, well, red red wine, a distinctive translucent crimson colour that derives from its signature blend of two Sicilian native grape varieties: nero d’Avola and frappato.

Nero d’Avola is a grape found all over Sicily, a weighty, leathery, smoky, brooding presence with plenty of tannic backbone. It makes up from 50% to 70% of the final blend of Cerasuolo di Vittoria depending on the wine the maker wants – a significant decision, as its partner, frappato, is very different indeed, a bright, vibrant, almost shockingly fresh red that, when vinified as a varietal, can make fridge-friendly reds of summery cheerfulness. Frappato’s job in the blend is to give some lift to nero d’Avola’s heft, and the result is something else, a whole fruitbowl of flavours backed up by a bitter tannic backbone and electric acidity. You can see why this style needs such particular regulation, as there really isn’t a wine quite like it anywhere.

As mentioned, the nero d’Avola vine is a major contributor to much of the wine of the island. It makes pretty decisive contributions in Alcamo and Erice DOCs in Trapani province, Monreale DOC and Contessa Entellina DOC in Palermo,  Contea di Sclafani DOC in Palermo, Agrigento and Caltanissetta, Eloro and Noto DOCs in Ragusa and Syracuse, and elsewhere, including the very large and encompassing ‘Sicilia DOC’. Much of Sicily’s growing reputation has been staked on the success of this high quality variety, as locals have seen it essentially as the island’s answer to cabernet sauvignon (and a small but steadily-growing number of international plantings are witness to that idea!).

Other varieties abound, of course, with the international varieties of merlot and especially syrah finding great success in much of the island, leading to their inclusion in the list of grapes permitted to make various DOC wines. Interestingly, the Menfi DOC makes a red based on a grape called alicante, not related to the Portuguese grape alicante bouschet but in fact a local variety of grenache, just to add to the fun.

But for all these wonderful black grapes abounding in Sicily, this hot, southern island is in fact home to more white wine than red. We’ve already met cataratto and carricante, the latter of which is generally light and somewhat lemony, and carricante, which adds to this more perfume and steely, mineral undergirding. Of the two, cataratto is by far the most planted – indeed, it is the most widely planted variety  in all of Sicily, from Alcamo Bianco and Sciacca DOCs in the northeast corner, all the way over to Mamertino DOC in the Messina area, which is said to have been Julius Caesar’s favourite wine.

There are several other important white varieties to take note of. First, the exciting grape grillo (which means ‘cricket’), particularly common in Trapani province in DOCs like Salaparuta, but really found everywhere, producing grassy, green-flavoured whites every under several labels, especially the broad-strokes Sicilia DOC.

Ampelographers have determined that grillo is likely the offspring of cataratto and another variety found in Sicily, though it is also found elsewhere. Zibibbo is the frankly awesome local name for Muscat of Alexandria, a remarkably heady and perfumed grape which, in Sicily, is mostly found on the tiny, volcanic island of Pantelleria, quite a way off the west coast of Sicily. The Pantelleria DOC is a passito sweet wine, an intensely honeyed and long-live dessert wine that is one of the whole region’s most precious treasures.

There is another white dessert wine made from passito grapes on the absolute other side of the island, from the Aeolian Islands (legendary, supposedly, for being the home of the winds) off the northwestern Messina coast. Malvasia di Lipari DOC, named after one of the islands, is naturally derived principally from the malvasia grape, and is renowned for its somewhat Christmassy, spiced oranges character.

The last of these significant white grapes is ansonica, which is found outside of Sicily of course and whose origins are disputed, though whose importance on the island – where it’s known as inzolia – is impossible to overstate. It’s found all over the island making fine, dry whites with a somewhat nutty character, but it is one region in particular, right up in the Trapani corner, where it is very important for perhaps the most important wine in Sicily, indeed in all of Italy: Marsala.

Marsala is a fortified wine from the northwest corner of Sicily encompassing quite a wide swathe of the province. A base wine is made from any combination of cataratto, grillo, and inzolia (technically the very rare grape damaschino is also permitted), which is then fortified with an unaged grape brandy, then sweetened with either grape must that has been reduced (known as mosto cotto), or a slightly fermented must also topped up with spirit, killing the yeast (known as mistela). The wine is then aged in barrels, with older styles being aged in a Sherry-style solera system, which particularly allows for Marsala’s most notable characteristic – its oxidised character, derived from not quite filling up the barrels, allowing for greater surface area coming into contact with oxygen.

Marsala is available in Secco (dry), Semisecco (off-dry) and Dolce (sweet) formats, and is categorised according to colour (of which there are far too many to list here) and how long it’s been aged:

Fine must spend 8 months in barrel (and must be at least 17.5% alcohol – all the rest must be at least 18%);

Superiore must spend 20 months;

Superiore Riserva, at least 44;

Vergine, at least 56;

and Vergine Stravecchio, a whopping 116 months in barrel (that’s almost ten years!).

Marsala is an utterly, utterly unique fortified wine, and is popular as aperitivo, as digestivo, as a cooking ingredient, and so on. It is in many ways the pride of Sicily.

Sicilian wine doesn’t end here, of course, but it would effectively take a whole book to cover the subject thoroughly! A region with a historic reputation for bulk wine has transformed itself into a huge name in modern Italian wine, a land of truly dizzying variety.

Sicily – The breakdown

Location: island, off the southwest.

Climate: hot, Mediterranean, variable rain.

Soils: heavily volcanic, rich in minerals such as phosphorous and magnesium.

Elevation: medium to as high as it gets.

DOCG, DOCs, and an IGT: Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG; Alcamo, Contea di Sclafani, Contessa Entellina, Delia Nivolelli, Eloro, Erice, Etna, Far, Malvasia delle Lipari, Mamertino (di Milazzo), Marsala, Menfi, Monreale, Noto, Pantelleria, Riesi, Salaparuta, Sambuca di Sicilia, Santa Margherita di Belice, Sciacca, Sicilia, Siracusa, Vittoria DOCs; IGT Sicilia.

Main red grapes: alicante, frappato, merlot, nerello cappuccio, nerello mascalese, nero d’Avola, perricone, syrah.

Main white grapes: carricante, cataratto, damaschino, fiano, grillo, inzolia (ansonica), malvasia, pinot grigio, trebbiano, zibibbo (muscat of Alexandria).

Hidden gem: if you can get your hands on some minimum-intervention frappato reds, you’ll be very happy about it.

About Wine Shop all’Amarone

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Wine Shop all’Amarone in Venice offers an exceptional selection of Italian wines, spotlighting the distinguished Amarone della Valpolicella. In addition to our Amarone focus, we proudly feature select wines from Sicily, showcasing the diversity and richness of Italy’s winemaking regions. Our curated collection is designed to offer wine lovers a taste of Italy’s finest, from the robust flavors of Amarone to the unique profiles of Sicilian wines.

Open Monday to Saturday from 10:30 AM to 7:30 PM, Closed on Sundays.

Get the Waterbus line 1 & stop at San Silvestro. We are 1 minute away.

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