Sicilians like to call their home island a continent – at least when talking about wine. It is indeed so that this Mediterranean island has a rich variety of different landscapes and terroirs. In addition to this rich variety, the island can also boast of a long list of autochthonous types of grapes. For a long time, Sicily was regarded as a supplier of mass-produced wines. But the winemakers now put their oenological potential to skilled use and today have many advantages over other regions.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe loved Italy. So much so that in 1787 he dropped everything in Germany and embarked on a journey there in secret. The journey fulfilled all expectations. Only at the southernmost point of his trip of self-awareness did he need to take it up another level. “Italy without Sicily just does not paint a picture on the canvass of the soul,” wrote the contemplative poet. The landscape, culture and vivid history had enthralled him. Besides the abundant remnants from the times of antiquity, he was fascinated by the beauty of the different landscapes which he encountered. The terroirs from the green valleys in the west, to the hangs of the snow-capped Etna, through to the arid volcanic islands over which the African winds sweep, are today the perfect substance in which to cultivate grapes for great wines.
Despite all the differences that do exist, the climate is generally dry, from May to September it usually does not rain whatsoever. “Despite this, it is far from being an arid and bone-dry island on which Southern Europeans with leathery skin tanned by the sun slave in the vineyards,” laughs Dario Cartabellotta. The local politician means the images from the films like “Stromboli“, “Cinema Paradiso”, “La Terra Trema” and the endless list of Mafia sagas which characterise the picture that the world has of Sicily.
A hub for culture
The vines are almost as old as the mountains themselves. The oldest grapes ripened for millions of years before people came and settled on the island and made Sicily one of the oldest European civilisations. As a maritime base, the largest Mediterranean island was the political hub for the entire Mediterranean region over many centuries. In the 8th century B.C. the Greeks arrived on Sicily, and they could feed the citizens of their city states thanks to the agriculture practiced in the island’s interior. Among many other things, they brought Nero d'Avola with them and developed the cultivation of wine. Syracuse developed to become a centre of intellectuality, where the writer of erotic poetry Sappho is said to also have cultivated wine.
This is also where the scientific genius Archimedes developed a catapult in addition to laying the foundations of modern mathematics. The innovative artillery kept the ships of the Roman navy at a distance for a very long time before the Romans were finally victorious. The Romans then later went on to intensively cultivate wine. Julius Caesar’s favourite wine was Mamertino. Sicily developed into a tourist destination for wealthy Romans, a party island on which the Romans enjoyed drinking games as historical sources from the time detail. In the Middle Ages, it was the Arabs who set the standards when it came to technical innovations. In addition to lemons and oranges, they also brought irrigation technologies, distillation and a healthy thirst for wine, ensuring that the cultivation remained productive as a result.
Curse transforms into blessing
The English merchant John Woodhouse finally made the Marsala a massive export success in the late 18th century. There was nevertheless still plenty of room for improvement. “The oil, the wine, all very good,” was Goethe’s opinion, “but they could be even better if more care was taken with their preparation.” The unification with Italy through Giuseppe Garibaldi’s guerrilla fighters meant a backward step for Sicily’s agriculture. High taxes drove the farmers from the land and across the Atlantic to America where Mafia films would one day become a genre in itself. In the opinion of many historians, during their invasion of Sicily in 1943, the US Army relied heavily on the local knowledge of Mafiosi – with the consequence that they could once again gain a solid foothold in their homeland. Sicily remained poor and at the end of the nineteen-fifties hundreds of thousands Sicilians left to emigrate to the North of Italy or West Germany.
Sicily is currently in the throws of transforming the curse of the Mafia into a blessing. Properties which have been confiscated near the legendary town of Corleone have been planted with vines. The organic Nero d'Avola “Centopassi”, which is named after a journalist who was murdered by the Mafia, is selling excellently. And when Dario Cartabellotta announces to winemakers that a Google search for Sicilian wines now displays significantly more hits than a search for the Mafia, this is something which is met with rapturous applause from his island compatriots.
Renaissance through sustainability
The Marsala from the town on the west coast was the Sicilian wine which was best known internationally for several decades. Produced in very large quantities, this fortified wine was initially competition for sherry. At the end of the 20th century the market was then flooded with ever increasing volumes of the wine which was being produced at ever cheaper prices: In the finish the wines were being stretched with egg yoke as a sort of premixed flip. The few quality producers, who produce a quality version of this wine today, fill a niche with it in addition to the well-known sweet wines such as Moscato di Noto or Malvasia di Lipari.
It was only in the late nineteen-eighties that Sicilian wines stepped onto the international stage. Ironically as an alternative to Australian wines, due to the fact that it has a similar climate. Customers wanted dry wines as it was, and they found them just a little inland along the west coast. Right there where Tomasi di Lampedusa’s historical drama “Il Gattopardo” is set, a story about change being forced upon the people during the period in which the Italian state was born, 85 percent of Sicilian wines continue to be produced there a good century later. It was in this maritime climate that the first Chardonnays which could hold their own internationally were produced. The wines such as Planeta’s “Cometa” were even more important. A wine with dense mineral characteristics was developed from the original Campanian grape Fiano, a wine which pointed the way with respect to the renaissance of Sicilian wine cultivation.
The style of cultivation aims, in particular, to be sustainable and authentic, with 25,000 hectares or 38 percent of the wine gardens being cultivated organically. “And we are not doing any ‘green-washing’ here, that is something that the world needs to know,” says a proud Francesco Ferreri, owner of Valle dell’Acate and President of Assovini. The merger of quality-orientated vineyards, both big and small, places a great deal of importance on giving each member the exact same voting rights. The average age of the board of directors is 40, and the ratio of women is consciously very high. This is meant to underline the fact that this is not an old-men’s club that stands in the way of change. Founded in 1998 by the three fathers of the Sicilian wine renaissance Planeta, Donnafugata and Tasca d’Almerita, the 72 members today represent 80 percent of all wines bottled. The main goal is to be successful on the foreign markets and that as a quality wine.
Autochthonous vines have a main role to play in this pursuit. “We have after all over 60 different types of vines,” explains Antonio Rallo, President of the Wine Makers Association, “and there are new types being included all the time.” Almost every third Assovini winemaker cultivates test plants, from which high-quality vines are selected. In the course of cultivating these vines, names like Vitarolo, a type of white wine, came to light, for which “only a single vine remained in existence in the garden of a ninety year old,” explains Rallo. The University of Catania even hopes to find out how the Romans cultivated grapes for wine production by carrying an experimental test planting.
Greek wine as the key to success
One of the most important types is Nero d'Avola, which is quite challenging to cultivate, although many very average wines continue to be produced from it. “In the case of wines that have been harvested too early,” says Giacomo Ansaldi, oenologist with Fazio, “the unripe tannins always remain hard.” This also applies for the dryness, which is why these types of vines often need to be watered. The Nero d'Avola from Fazio shows what is possible: Its warm and silky texture perfectly reflects the lime-clay soil with iron oxide in which its grapes are grown. Similar careers could be waiting for Nerello Mascalese and Frappato, whose possibilities first need to be fully gauged. Individual tests with foreign types of vines such as Tannat or Malbec are also promising.
The regions Vottoria and Noto on the southern tip of the island are amongst the very best locations to cultivate red wine. The vines develop deep roots and so produce intense wines with medium bodies and lots of elegance, as is the case with Giacomo Ansaldi’s Cerasuolo di Vittoria produced from 70 percent Nero d’Avola and 30 percent Frappato. They have made the region in the south to a location synonymous with value. The types Nocera, Nerello Cappuccio and, in particular, Nerello Mascalese are also starting to show their potential.
In the case of the white wines, Zagra and Grillo set themselves apart. Although it is an easily accessible white wine; it can take on a fine chalky note. This can be particularly well observed when the Fazio is bottled. The chalky tone can also be found in the Inzolia from Firriato. Following the founding of the company in 1992, the winemaker Salvatore di Gaetano contributed the experience he had gained in Australia. A typical example of the innovative skills and abilities which exist and are available within the region. Firriato today produces some of Sicily’s best wines on 300 hectares.
World heritage on the lava slope
The most valuable region on the island are the slopes of Mount Etna with their brown volcanic soil that can vary from a fine powder at the foot, right through to rocks as large as a handball ball near the summit. The soils also offer the advantage of good drainage properties. Vines nowadays grow at altitudes of up to a thousand metres and make use of the extreme differences between the temperatures at night and by day, which can be as much as twenty degrees. And with rainfall of in excess of 1,000 millimetres annually, the region is even wetter then rainy old Germany. This is where the highest density of avant-garde winemakers is to found, winemakers who sound out what is possible on small plots of land: Ancient vines, from organic to biodynamic. 85 percent of the production is sold directly to the customer at the vineyard. The wines achieve an intense minerality and ripening ability.
Many names are spoken with a sense of awe by those in the know. White wines also have the potential. Nerello Mascalese and Carricante develop particular qualities in this case. From the international vine types, Syrah finds good growing conditions. Tempranillo and the floral Petit Verdot also arouse hopes. A further extreme terroir is offered by the Aeolian Islands just off the coast in the north and Pantelleria in the south. 83 square kilometres of Muscat d’Alexandrie is grown there; the Donnafugata, the oldest vineyard in Sicily, processes them in order to create the star Passito wine Ben Ryé. The area is so close to the Moroccan coast that you only receive Arab-language radio stations, and it is here that the ancient types of vines are transformed into their elaborate Alberello form. Individual vines stand slightly low in the sand so they can duck from the hot African winds. This particular cultivation method requires 800-900 hours of manual work annually and was luckily recognized as a piece of World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2014. All the same, they account for ten percent of all the surfaces planted with vines on Sicily.
High-tech at the end of a dirt road
Sicily has a surface area of 113,000 hectares, making it double the size of Tuscany or Piemont. Yet despite its relatively small size, the types and terroirs on the island are very different and varied. So much so that up to 100 days can lie between the harvesting of the first Moscatos in the west in August and the last Nerello Mascalese at the foot of Europe’s most active volcano. It is exactly for this reason that many Sicilians like to describe their island as a continent. Being located not far from Africa, southern Sicily receives the lowest amount of rainfall in Europe, and has not been and will not be spared from the effects of global climate change, but with sensible cultivation methods and the right types of vines, Sicilians have dealt well with these challenges up to now.
The possibilities have been recognised by many winemakers. Companies from the north purchase inexpensive plots of land and bring knowledge and investment capital. Only in 2010 did Piero Antinori complain, while looking to the south, that thirty percent of Italian wines was simply not of an acceptable quality. Today, the Tuscan great recommends to his colleagues that they should orientate themselves on Sicily. The excessive production has been stopped. Only Cerasuolo di Vittoria has a DOCG, more needs to happen. The infrastructure also leaves plenty to be desired. There are high-tech vineyards with only a dirt road leading to them.
Despite these hurdles, the Sicilians have their eye on the global market and the big picture. More than half of all wines produced are exported to over hundred countries worldwide. Sustainability and organic cultivation are more sideline issues in this case. “We also need even more research to be carried out,” demands Alberto Tasca d’Almerita; “new rules for the financial system in order to overcome the crisis and to create green jobs.” It is almost as if Goethe had anticipated this when he wrote, “Sicily is the key to everything.”