Sicily used to be called Oenotria, literally “Land of vines”, by the ancient Greeks when they first landed on this southern Italian island. With about 3,000 years of history, Sicily is perhaps the most longaeval wine region in the world.
Today, Sicily is the biggest producer of Italian wine and is climbing the fine wine rankings with outstanding gems, particularly among the native red grape Nero d’Avola.
There is archaeological evidence dating wine consumption in Sicily back to the 17th century BC. Historically, Phoenicians are believed to have brought the grapes, then considered native, to the region, but according to Greek legend it was Dionysus (aka Bacchus), carrying a vine with him while embarking on an arduous journey across the sea. When finally in Sicily, he planted the first vineyard at Naxos.
What is certain is that Greeks used to call local inhabitants Oenotrians (or “people from the land of vines”) when reaching Sicily in the 8th century BC, and, despite them not bringing wine itself, they surely provided the skillset and know-how needed to improve viticulture.
Romans’ control over Sicily mainly influenced distribution, especially during the imperial age.
Between the 9th and 11th century AD, wine production declined significantly, but soon after, during the Spanish domination, the Aragonese promoted a time of consolidation for the export business.
In 1773, an English merchant called John Woodhouse was en-route to Trapani to buy soda. When a storm forced his ship to port in Marsala instead, he had the chance to taste the local wine. It reminded him of Port and Madeira wine, very popular among the British during this era. He parked the original idea of buying soda and ventured Marsala wine instead, with the Baglio Woodhouse opening in 1796.
At the end of the 19th century, not only had the devastating phylloxera fungus reached Sicily, but export to France was greatly affected by the breakage of commercial agreements.
The 1950s and 1970s were years of deep innovation, with the mechanisation of vineyards and new technologies being adopted. From the 1990s though, it was the market imposing Sicily to focus more on quality rather than quantity. In that sense, vigorous investments were injected into the region, with public bodies and private entrepreneurs working side by side.
Sicily’s climate is classically Mediterranean, ideal for wine production. Its key features are consistent sunshine and warmth. Rainfall is moderate and drought reduces the risk of mildews and rots to a minimum.
Proximity to the seaside in some areas of the regions provides great ventilated by coastal breezes. and the lower risk the grapes are exposed to allows viticulture to be organic, as the usage of chemical products is all but unnecessary.
In Sicily, vineyards occupy roughly 107,000 hectares. More than 50% of the vines are planted in the western coastal side region, near Marsala and Trapani, followed by the south coast around Agrigento (22%) and up north in the Palermo area (14%).
In 2016, Sicily produced 5.3 million hectolitres of wine, which is 15% of the whole region’s agricultural production. Whites account for about 60%, but it’s the reds that are now widely considered the crown jewel.
Together with Puglia, Sicily the largest producer of Italian wine.
The most common grape variety in Sicily is Catarratto, accounting for 36% of Sicily’s vineyards. It’s the most widely planted grapevine in all of Italy and commonly used for the production of light, easy-drinking white wines.
Grillo was originally the primary ingredient for Marsala in the traditional recipe and today it is still much used in its production. A fine white grape, plantings increased to meet the need of higher quality productions.
The crown jewel of Sicily is perhaps Nero d’Avola, a dark-skinned grape planted in 18% of the vineyards in the region. Nero d’Avola is one of the older indigenous Sicilian varieties, its name literally translates to “Black of Avola”, relating to the unique inky black colour of its juice.
In general, Sicilian whites brings hints of white flowers, ripe citrus, melon, herbal flavours and spice. Both Catarratto and Grillo bring full-bodied features and a healthy acidity.
For reds, Nero d’Avola is the pride and joy of the region. These wines are rich and full-bodied, with healthy acidity and tannins. In terms of aromas, red fruits, such as strawberry, sour and ripe cherry are not uncommon, alongside rose, sweet spices, liquorice and cocoa.