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Wine tourism: Bacchus is worshipped in Sicily

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Nicolas Belfrage wrote in his book Brunello to Zibibbo that Sicily has the potential to become “California, Australia, Chile, Southern France, Jerez, and middle Italy all rolled into one.”

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Nicolas Belfrage wrote in his book Brunello to Zibibbo that Sicily has the potential to become “California, Australia, Chile, Southern France, Jerez, and middle Italy all rolled into one.”

Sicily has more vineyards than any other region in Italy and boasts 19 DOCs – with the Marsala region the most noted producer. Folklore indicates that wine appeared in Sicily thanks to the efforts of the God Dionysus (aka Bacchus); however, it is more likely that it was introduced by Mycenaean traders who grew grapes in the Aeolian Islands (1500 BC) and grapes continued to be cultivated and enjoyed by the Greeks who settled in Sicily in the 8th century BC. The wine industry is noted in Homer’s Odyssey as Odysseus captures the cyclops, Polyphemus – drunk on wine he blinds him in his single eye and escapes.

There is also a Muslim influence on the Sicilian wine industry…they introduced the process for drying grapes into raisins (uva sultana) and the name Marsala comes from the Arab Marsah-el-Allah or Port of Allah. The history of wine making in Sicily is one of the longest in the world and maybe the first place where the word vino was used.

In the late 18th century John Woodhouse introduced fortified Marsala wine. The Sicilian winemakers focused on sweet fortified wines because they could withstand the long sea voyages in route to international markets and to compete against the then popular Madeira.

By the mid-19th century, Marsala wine had become so popular that Benjamin Inghan and Vincenzo Florio (from Calabria) started competing operations. Florio, one of Italy’s first tycoons, bought up much of the land around Marsala and even today the Florio label remains one of the most important brands in the country.

Marsala was popular for almost a century; however, by the 1950s the quality of the wine deteriorated and it was found primarily in kitchens and used for cooking (i.e., veal Marsala). Finally, in 1986 Italy’s Republic DO laws were revised and stricter regulations (similar to Portuguese wine controls) raised the quality; once again Marsala wines received respect as aperitif and dessert wines. To move from a quantity to a quality-focus volume producing vineyards were eliminated and replaced with vines trained on cordon trellises to reduce yields. Red and international grape varieties were planted and white grape acreage was reduced to 64 percent.

Marsala Standards

Marsala can be categorized into three different standards: oro (golden), ambra (amber) and rubino (ruby). Available as both sweet and dry the term “fine” is used for wine aged for a minimum of one year; “superiore” aged for a minimum of two – three years, “superior riserva” is a vintage wine aged in wood for four to six years and “vergine” is aged in wood for a minimum of five years (or in oak casks for up to seven years).

The region producing Marsala wines is located in the Trapani province. Marsala can be served as a dessert or aperitif wines and is a blend of Grillo, Cataratto, Ansonia and Demaschino with the addition of distilled alcohol and is best served chilled.

About the Grapes

The area near Palermo (a terrain compared to Napa Valley) is the perfect hot, arid coastal region for grapes. In the eastern vineyard with higher elevations (slopes of Mt. Etna) the hills and mountains with poor soil and intense summer heat and low rainfall makes it a perfect area for viticulture.

The native grapes of the region include: Nero d’Avola (Calbrese) for dark, black-fruit driven wines similar to Syrah with notes of currants, cloves and vanilla. Other native red grapes include Perricone and Nerello Mascalese that that used in blends with Nero d’Avola. Sicilian white wines are fresh and fruity with refreshing acidity and grown around Palermo. The most important grapes are Inzolia, Grillo, Catarratto Bianco and Damaschino.

Sicilian red wines include: Nero D’Avola; Syrah; Etna Rosso (blend of 95 percent Nerello Mascalese and 5 percent Nerello Mantellatio (found on the rich, fertile volcanic slopes of Mount Etna, and Cerasuolo di Vittoria (Frappato 40 percent), Nero d’Avola (60 percent). Sicilian white wines include Bianco D’Alcamo (Cataratto 80 percent), Grecanico, Damaschino and Trebbiano (produced between Alcamo and Trapani). Wines from Grillo, Inzolia, Cataratto, Grencanico and Chardonnay are blended together.

Wine Experiences. Where/What to Drink

1. Donnafugata Wines

The brand, Dunnafugata, means woman in flight and references Queen Maria Carolina, wife of Ferdinand IV of Bourbon who left Naples as Napoleon’s troops arrived. She sought protection in Sicily – on the site where the winery’s vineyards are currently located. The Sicilian author, Giuseppe Tornasi di Lampedusa in The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) gave the name of Dunnafugata to the country estates of the Prince of Salina who hosted the queen and how hosts the winery’s vineyards.

• Ben Rye 2012. Passito di Pantelleria

The Grappa is aged in small oak barrels from Zibibbo grapes from the island of Pantelleria (originally from the North African coast). The name is derived from zibibb, an Arabic word meaning dried grape. Pantelleria provides the arid and windy climate that is ideal for these grapes – presenting a concentration of sugars and unique aromas.

The pomace is distilled in alembic stills using the discontinuous bain marie method. To the eye, an amber hue that leads to golden bronze. The nose detects a bouquet of honey, apples, lemons, almonds, dried figs, apricots, oranges and herbs. On the palate, very soft sweetness of oranges and a touch of minerality. Pair, at the end of a meal, with plain biscuits, chocolate and cheese. Considered to be Italy’s most pedigreed dessert wine.

• Trancredi 2011. Sicilia IGP

From Cabernet Sauvignon and Nero d’Avola Tannat blends that are harvested in September, the grapes are macerated in stainless steel on the skins for 12+/- days at a temperature between 79-86 degrees F. After malolactic fermentation the wines ages for 14 months in new and old French oak barrels and fined in the bottle for approximately 24 months.

To the eye- a deep purple trending to light red. To the nose – lots of sweet and sour cherries and spice. To the palate – cherries rich in tannins with a dry finish. Pair with red grilled meat, aged cheese and porcini mushrooms.

• Anthilia 2014

The principal grape is Catarratto blended with other Sicilian and international varieties. Pale yellow to translucent white to the eye, with hints of lemon, lime, orange, green apple and raisin to the nose. A delicious and slightly sour taste experience makes the wine memorable. Finish is fresh and crispy thanks to the touch of minerality. Pair with tuna tartare and lettuce salad with salt; roast chicken with goat cheese and grapes. donnafugata.it

2. Florio Wines

In 1833 Vincenzo Florio established Cantine Florio. The Florio operation was purchased in 1924 by Cinzano. Cantine Florio receives over 30,000 visitors each year and the guest book includes famous signatures including Benito Mussolini.

• Baglio Florio 2013

Grillo grapes present an amber color in the glass – that leads to gold tones that encourage a quick (if small) sniff of the syrupy liquid in the glass. The nose is instantly rewarded with the smell of honey, brown sugar, honey suckle, a hint of lemon amid a garland of flowers. To the palate there is a high degree of alcohol and a surprising hint of sour / tangy acidity, combined with a sweetness that encourages another sniff and taste. Pair with smoked fish, lemon tarts.

• Donna Franca 2015

Dedicated to Franca Icona di San Giuliano, the queen of Palemo. Made with 100 percent Grillo grapes and aged for over 15 years in the bottle. The eye embraces the deep amber color that trends to a light golden brown. The nose is rewarded with intoxicating aromas of caramel, honey, lemons and almonds with a curtesy to chocolate and hazelnut. Taste buds are rewarded with a delicate sweetness brought on by the taste of honey that leads to a lengthy, graceful finish. Pair with dark chocolate.

• Pasto di Pantelleria

Zibibbo grapes, grown on the island of Pantelleria, are sun dried and there is a brief contact with the skins with a slow fermentation process that takes months to develop in small oak barrels. Amber to the eye and honey, honey suckle to the nose. The palate is rewarded with a sweet taste that becomes mellow through the introduction of lemon zest. High in alcohol. Serve with foie gras, anything made with ricotta cheese, dried fruit and nougat. banfiwines.com/winery/florio/

Buy More Sicilian Wine

The Sicilian wine industry is ramping up its export capabilities, focusing on the USA and China markets. Good publicity from the Wine Spectator (cover October 2014 and the global 100 list – the Academy Awards for wine) selected two Sicilian labels: Firriato Santagostino Baglio Sorria rosso 2011 and Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna rosso 2012. These wines are available in the USA for $22 per bottle are placed with major French and California (Napa and Sonoma) priced at over $100 per bottle.

It is only within the last decade that Sicilian wine producers have accepted the logic of improving the quality of their product – if their objective was to successfully compete in the global market. With unemployment at 14 percent, the growth of the wine industry (for export and tourism) will play an important part in economic growth.

For your next wine purchase – in a restaurant or wine shop – make your first steps to the Sicilian wine section and purchase a few wines and reds along with the Madeira…dinner guests will definitely be impressed with your selections.

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About the author


Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.