Sicilian wines: From Quantity to Quality

Sicilian winemaking was all but destroyed by a root-eating aphid and two world wars. Now, thanks to good agriculture, winemaking on the island is enjoying a renaissance.

By Marty Ramsburg

Goethe wrote that “to have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything,” and if the wines coming out of Sicily in the past 5-7 years are indeed representative “clues,” then great things are happening in Sicily.

Though Sicilian wines are relative newcomers to the US market, wine has been part of Sicilian culture since vines were planted by the Greeks who colonized the island circa 800 BC. In the late 1800s, however, many vineyards were destroyed by the root-eating aphid, phylloxera. Waves of emigration in the early part of the 20th century, as well as the devastation of two world wars, left Sicily economically strapped. Wine was relegated to cooperatives that sold grapes to fuel the massive production of low-quality, bulk red wine, much of which was sent to the mainland to blend, adding richer color to lighter-toned reds like Sangiovese in Tuscany and Nebbiolo in Piedmont. In the 1980s, however, things started to change.

Leading that charge of change were three school friends, Giambattista Cilia, Giusto Occhipinti and Cirino Strano, who began experimenting with wine-making during their summer breaks from architecture and medical schools respectively. They purchased 3 hectares of vines in Bastonaca, in the area around Ragusa in Southeast Sicily.

Since its founding in 1980, Azienda Agricola COS (the acronym for Cilia-Occhipinti-Strano) has been committed to quality production, to “understanding the soil” and letting it express itself through the wines. That quest has led them to adopt biodynamic agriculture as the best practices to ensure healthy soils and therefore vines and grapes capable of representing place and vintage. Their study of Sicilian winemaking led to their decision to use amphorae or even pithos to age the wine, clay containers historically used to transport or store wine. In the hot SE region of Sicily which is closer to Africa than to Italy, COS also revisited historic practice by burying the amphora in the ground to maintain a cool, constant temperature while the wine ages. (Picture here)

Part of the trend of moving from quantity to quality has been a renewed focus on grape varieties native to Sicily, some having arrived when the Greeks colonized the island around 800 BC. Principal among these is Nero d’Avola, the most-planted red grape on Sicily. Nero d’Avola accounts for 16% of Sicily’s total vineyard plantings, valued for its color, body and aging potential. In its resurgence as a more carefully tended, lower-yield wine, it produces wines with aromas and flavors of plums and blackberry and sometimes, there is a smoky, delicious undercurrent of bittersweet chocolate.

Frappato has been the real find for me, but then, I like these light-bodied reds. Frappato is late-ripening, so aromas get intriguing but somehow the sugar remains very low. That combination leads a fragrant, low-alcohol red that brings to mind Pinot Noir, for its weight and freshness, along with cherry cola and pretty damp earth aromas, and nebbiolo when it shows roses and violets. The COS Frappato that we carry usually weighs in at 12-12.5%, a bantam-weight for red wine. We have enjoyed the COS Frappato and SP-68 with Vermont Shepherd (link) cheese from up the road in Putney, and when it is garnished with the Side Hill Farm’s American cherry jam (just a dab), it is nirvana.

The other red wine from the Ragusa area in the southeast is Siciily’s only DOCG wine region (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantitia), Cerasuolo di Vittoria, a blend of Nero d’Avola (50-70%) and Frappato (30-50%). The black berry fruit of the Nero, along with its savory notes get lifted with the high-pitched floral freshness of the Frappato. Given some air, Cerasuolo can be a wine of beguiling complexity, elegance and grace. In addition to the COS Cerasuolo, the other producer bringing these wines to positive global attention is Arianna Occhipinti, the young niece of Giusto of COS. Her SP-68 is a blend of Frappato and Nero, though not a Cerasuolo since the Frappato exceeds 50% of the blend. We so enjoy this with grilled vegetables, now in their apex daily at either the Old Athens Farm outlet at North End Butchers or at Walker Farm. We get portobellos at Walker Farm, then add their zucchini, red and yellow peppers, onions—anything that is there that can get a char on it; blissful.

Meanwhile, the other area that has regenerated interest in Sicilian wines is Mt. Etna. Still an active volcano, Etna’s presence is the elephant in the room, its lava flows having already destroyed hectares upon hectares of vines. Yet Etna is also the source of the unique, volcanic soils that have captivated those responsible for Etna’s wine renaissance (picture here of the Romeo vineyard that shows Etna in the background and a lava wall in the vineyard).

Like Ragusa, Etna has attracted a few strong personalities committed to producing distinctive wines. Certainly no one has done more to move Etna to the global wine stage than Salvo Foti and Frank Cornellisen. Foti,an Etna native, resurrected the I Vigneri, a growers guild aimed at creating harmony between the vineyard workers and their environment, recognizing the value of the work to provide the workers with dignity and happiness. Foti speaks at length to his project in this video. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJjcCqVL5s8#t=523). His passion is infectious. I particularly like that he believes that happy workers will convey that to the vines, which in turn convey that contentment to the fruit and ultimately to the wines and, … why not? We carry both Foti wines and those of Fattorie Romeo dei Castello, one of the producers with whom the Foti I Vigneri team works.

Cornelissen, the son of a Belgian wine broker, actively choose Etna because of its volcanic soils which he felt provided the medium for giving a distinctive voice to Etna’s principal red varietal, Nerello Mascalese. (picture of the soils from one of Foti’s vineyards). As Cornelissen observed, “’with each new lava flow, new minerals that have not been found ever before are blown out of Mother Earth’” (Krigbaum, Food and Wine, link– http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/sicilian-wine-from-mount-etna).

We just started getting Etna wines 3 vintages ago, so my experience with Nerello Mascalese is limited, but so far, I am smitten. The wines I have tried seem to have everything from fruit (blueberries one vintage, quince another) to mineral to an ashy aroma that brings to mind cleaning the wood stove minus the dust. Cornelissen’s wines are high altitude and very late to be picked. He often does not begin harvest until late October and continues into November. He eschews oak or sulfur, letting the wines develop on their own into what they choose to become. We carry some of his wines, as well as those of one of his protégés, Filippo and Nancy Rizzo of Lamoresca. These wines are big, and can be paired so easily with whatever you might pick up at North End Butchers (link) and grill.

Finally, there is white wine from Sicily. The most unique we have found comes from the grape Carricante. Alberto Graci is another of those young winemakers who has returned to Etna. While he shares a vineyard planted with 100+ year old Nerello Mascalese with Frank Cornelissen, he also has 1.5 hectares of Carricante and 1 of a common Sicilian white, Catarratto. Carricante is native to the province of Catania, where Etna is located. Graci’s blend of 70% Carricante, 30% Catarratto is a lovely wine that shows peach, a pretty green balsam, mineral and salty with a plush, creamy mouthfeel. I am writing this at the height of peach season, so grilled salmon and grilled peaches come to mind!

Well, it is clear that a trip to Sicily is in order. Perhaps Goethe was right.

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