Sicily’s sweet success

This is the final column from Sicily. It looks at why the industry is doing well and considers some local wine styles. For publication in week starting 13 August 2018.

Wine from Sicily is vastly better than what it was three decades ago. Back then it tended to be produced in bulk and was often sold to the mainland or other European countries to improve the depth of wines there.

Why have wines improved so much?

The better producers prune their vines severely to concentrate flavours in the grapes, and many harvest at night to avoid the torrid daytime heat during autumn. Better harvesting techniques also ensure that grapes are not oxidised before they are crushed.

More modern winemaking techniques have been introduced, including the blending of local Sicilian grapes with international varieties, and a range of experimental blends. Now we find Grillo or Insolia blended with Chardonnay or Viognier, for example.

Nero d’Avola is often now found combined with Frappato in Cerasuolo di Vittoria wines discussed last week. It used to be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon but this combination makes wines that are too tannic when young.

The largest single grape-growing region in Italy lies in the far west of Sicily between Salemi and Marsala. The latter gives its name to the famous wine, which comes in dry as well as sweet styles. It is a vast region – larger than Tuscany or Piedmont. Vineyards spread as far as the eye can see. It’s a good place to witness the slow, rural Sicily of centuries past.

Sicily used to be best known for fortified dessert wines such as marsala, and provided a large part of Italy’s total production of fortifieds.

The island still makes excellent dessert wines. These come in the form of a golden or light amber dessert style known as passito. It is popular with biscotti on Saint Martin’s Day, the hard biscuits dipped into the wine.

Saint Martin of Tours was buried on November 11 and that is when he is commemorated. It is believed that Saint Martin encouraged viticulture in the Touraine region of France. He is a patron of, among others, wine cask makers and drunks. November is the winemaking season; hence the connection with drinking.

But another reason is also cited. Saint Martin’s Day traditionally marked the start of 40 days of fasting. So people ate and drank as much as possible before the fast. The term “Saint Martin’s summer” is a traditional Sicilian reference to a period of unseasonably hot weather in early to mid November.

Winemakers use a special process when making passito whereby semi-dry grapes and even raisins find their way into the must. Unlike marsala and port, where alcohol such as brandy is added, passito is not a “fortified” wine.

The best passito is said to come from the islands of Pantelleria and Lipari. The former is off the southern coast while the latter is part of a group of islands off the north-east coast, also known as the Eolian islands.

There wines are made from Malvasia di Lipari, identified by genetic testing as identical to Sardinia’s Malvasia di Sardegna, Calabria’s Greco Bianco, Croatia’s Malvasia Dubrovačka, Madeira’s Malvasia Cândida and Spain’s Malvasía de Sitges.

Ian D’Agata in his book Native Wine Grapes of Italy describes the wine as “honeyed and long, with delicate dried apricot and fresh peach aromas and flavours” with “an extremely intense note of oranges”. Once tasted this kind of wine “can be unforgettable,” he concluded.

Wines made on Pantelleria, a volcanic island, come in dry and sweet styles. The DOC Moscato di Pantelleria wine is fresh, dry and aromatic, with aromas and flavours of dried herbs, ginger and apricot. The sweet Passito di Pantelleria is sticky-sweet and lusciously creamy, with honey and orange marmalade aromas and flavours.

Prices can be high because of the difficulties associated with viticulture on the island – harsh working conditions such as hand harvesting on hot volcanic rock. Production has fallen over the past 20 years, Dr D’Agata notes in his book because about 80 per cent of the island is a national park so planting new vineyards is difficult.

The areas around Syracuse and Noto, in eastern Sicily, also produce good Moscato wines. The grape is sometimes referred to as Zibibbo, its Arabic name.

Zibibbo is also the generic term for a sweet wine made from grapes partially fermented in the sun. It is believed to be a very old process, probably from the Middle Ages. Wines are typically slightly lower in alcohol than Marsala (15 per cent compared with Marsala’s 18 to 20 per cent).

The Greeks are usually credited with the introduction of viticulture in Sicily about 600 BC, bringing grapes with them when they colonised the island. Viticulture developed in “Hellenic” eastern Sicily around Mount Etna, extending southward to Catania, Syracuse and Ragusa. But the Phoenicians also grew grapes in this part of Sicily, especially near flat coastal areas.

The grape Americans call Zinfandel is actually a Sicilian variety called Primitivo that may have been introduced by the Albanians who settled in Sicily in the sixteenth century. It was probably taken to California in the eighteenth century by Spanish colonists or later by Sicilian immigrants.

Nero d’Avola is a much more common red and has become Sicily’s most popular non-fortified variety. It is sometimes blended with other reds but when allowed to stand on its own makes a full-bodied wine.

The grape originated around the town of Avola near the east coast. Grapes are stored in cooled vats to stop premature fermentation. This helps retain distinctive aromas and flavours. It is another example of new methods that have led to the renaissance in winemaking in Sicily with which we began.

Words: 958

Video by Stephen Quinn

Categories: Italy, Lipari, Marsala, Not home, wine

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