The wine world is abuzz about the quality of wines coming from the Mount Etna area of Sicily. A thoroughly modern dynamism is evident across the whole of the island of Sicily (the football at the toe of the boot of the Italian mainland).
Indeed, the island is probably the cradle of wine production in Italy. In vinous terms Sicily is divided into three main sub-regions: north-easterly Val Demonte (in which Mt Etna is located), westerly Val Mazara and southerly Val Noto with the island of Pantelleria off the southwest coast.
Sicily is seeing its young people return to renovate family holdings, bucking the national trend for young people to leave family farms and head to the city. According to the Slow Wine Guide 2015, production in 2014 was up 40 per cent compared with 2012.
Sicily is the most important part of Italy for the production of organic foods. But a strong vinous push in the direction of organic or even natural production is also evident, with less invasive cellar practices.
For some this simply means doing things as they’ve always been done. Fourth generation Lia Di Caro, for example, who run Azienda Agricola Deliella, carries on family traditions such as minimal intervention and the use chestnut – as opposed to oak – from Etna for storage. She began to turn the property organic 14 years ago, starting with olives, followed by grain and then grapes and fruit. “It is much easier to be organic in Sicily,” she says, compared with regions like Piedmont or Tuscany. “In November in Sicily we go to the beach!”
International grapes clearly do very well. The (organic) Adamo Sauvignon Blanc Costa dell’ape 2014 is a vibrant, tingling expression of the grape; and (organic) Lioy Syrah-Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, with a Super Tuscan-style elegance, shows how beautifully the wines can age. But any comparisons with Tuscany end there, at least as far as pricing is concerned. The Lioy, for example (named for one of the oldest known Sicilian oenologists dating back two centuries) retails at around 10-12 Euros.
At the same time as embracing these international grapes, growers are also working determinedly with indigenous grapes such as white varieties Grillo and Inzolia and ancient red varieties like Frappato and Perricone. At Rocche della Sala they grow international grapes but then sell them. They only bottle Grillo (a delicious, mineral wine) and Nero D’Avola.
Only about 20 growers are working with Perricone (also known as Rosso Sicilia). Given that it is a low yielding grape with small berries, this may not be surprising. It creates wines that are pale in colour, show an acid-tannic duality often associated with Italy, and offer full flavours of cherries and berries. The Azienda Agricola Deliella 2013 has a lovely liquorice finish.
Di Caro is going very much in the direction of zero sulphur wines, though she says it depends on the vintage and the quality of the tannins. Her Frappato 2013 has zero sulphur while a white wine from the same vintage, Grillo 2013, has just a touch. This is very much a “natural” wine, deep in colour, a touch oxidative, with a funky nose. Yet the Frappato 2013 does not present as natural, despite the absence of sulphur. Pale in colour, it has lovely red currants and flowers on the nose, with base notes of earth and mushroom – and Di Caro is also in the process of making a white sparkling with it.
The “classic” red grape of Sicily is, of course, Nero D’Avola, one of its heartlands being Eloro Pachino DOC. Within this DOC, at Baglio dei Fenicotteri, Giuseppe Squasi makes four different wines with the grape, two in stainless steel and two with a few months in French barriques. These wines illustrate what a flexible grape it can be. Even with 8-10 months of new oak, his Respensa Riserva 2007 sings of Nero D’Avola. The Pachinsoinos (the ancient name of Pachino) 2013 is fresh and bright with loganberry characters, while the rich but still fruity Nero Natio 2010 has a fabulous structure. Cala’mpisi 2008 is pale and lean; a wine to go with food. The Rocche della Sala Nero D’Avola 2014 sees no oak but has a remarkably rich nose, perfect balance – and is similarly a food wine (perfect with some of the estate’s wonderful olives, for example).
Sicily used to be known only for its sweet wine, Marsala, but the potential for making high-quality, premium dry wine is now being explored. They may have to harvest at night, to save the grapes from high daytime temperatures, but the island’s combination of hilly terrain, low rainfall and poor soils is now being recognised as a winemaker’s dream.