In the beautiful Mediterranean Sea, barely two miles from the toe of Italy, lies the storied island of Sicily. It’s a land that has been at the crossroads of empires and subjected to invasion and settlement for thousands of years.
Wine culture arrived with the Greeks and spread throughout the isle under Roman control, when native grapes were grown and developed independently of mainland varieties. The modern age for Sicilian wine began in the 1980s with a shift from bulk, blended wine to the bottling and cultivation of indigenous vinifera. Sicily now boasts a total of 24 designated regions, encompassing red, white and dessert wines—many unique and quite delicious.
Grillo is one of the best known white wines in Sicily, used for making the island’s most famous dessert wine, Marsala. The origins of this fruit are obscure, but legend has that it was used to make a sweet wine called mamertino, which was a favorite of Roman emperor Julius Caesar. Modern grillo is a fresh, aromatic wine with topical fruit and great minerality. It’s a perfect match for fish, which only enhances the idea of island life.
Eastern Sicily boasts a white grape that only grows in the volcanic soils around Mount Etna. Carricante is probably the best white wine that you’ve never heard of. With nuances of peach and herbs, this is a very clean and thirst-quenching wine that is great as an aperitif. It’s a wonderful quaff from a region where the grape has grown for at least 1,000 years.
Mount Etna is also home to red grapes. Nerello Mascalese is a purple grape that thrives on the ash-covered slopes, resulting in a wine known as Sicily’s version of pinot noir. Here, vineyards extend to 1,000 meters above sea level, giving acidity and mineralogy to a wine that is elegant and aromatic with good aging ability. Blends from this area often contain nerello cappuccio in small amounts and are labeled as “Etna Rosso” on the label.
One of my favorite Sicilian reds is frappato. This wine is soft and fruity with flavors of berries and with a salty streak, round and easy with light tannins and a grainy sensation. Bring out the cheese and bread to match with this—and enjoy.
For those who prefer something on the sweet side, zibibbo will fit the bill. The Greeks brought this white wine to the island from Egypt. Here, the grape is moscato d’Alexandria and has a history going back thousands of years. For anyone familiar with moscato d’Asti, this variation on a theme deserves a try. Look for bottles labeled as dry for a distinctive wine style.