IF you were a wine lover 3,000 years ago, where would you want to live? One very good answer would be Sicily. This is about the time that Sicily started building a name in the ancient wine world.
Sicily was settled as early as 8000 BC by wild tribes thought to have come from the Iberian Peninsula. The first archeological evidence of winemaking in Sicily dates to about 3,500 years ago when Phoenician traders brought vines to the island.
Recently, some historians and vine DNA specialists have been suggesting that vine cultivation and crude winemaking actually predated the earliest Phoenician settlements in Sicily.
Whether these ancient settlers first made wines 3,500 or 4,000 years ago, one thing is certain: Sicily was the first region in what is modern day Italy to make wine. Homer’s epic work “The Odyssey” prominently mentions the virtues of Sicilian wines. Other ancient poets and writers also praised Sicilian wines in their works.
Until recently, modern history has not been as kind to Sicilian wines. For most of the 20th century, the ripe grapes of Sicily were consumed locally or sold in bulk to provide sugar and alcohol to wines made in France and other more northerly wine regions of Europe. By themselves Sicilian wines were considered over-ripe, too high in alcohol and lacking in elegance.
The problem was the high temperature and lack of modern winemaking equipment. Throughout the winemaking process, excessive heat and exposure to oxygen would damage the grapes, resulting in wines that were oxidized and lacked freshness and elegance. But over the past two or three decades new investment in technology and modern winemaking have drastically improved the quality and reputation of Sicilian wines.
Like all Italian wines, those from Sicily can be confusing. A good way to understand and appreciate Sicilian wines is to get to know their native varieties. The Nero d’Avola grape makes deeply colored, robust red wines and the Insolia, Catarrato and Ansonica grapes make fine, light white wines.
Two non-native grapes have also helped lift the reputation of Sicily’s winemaking. Chardonnay is used to make deep-golden, full-bodied white wines with nice acidic backbones, while the Syrah variety makes enticing full-bodied and fruity red wines. One way to ensure that your Sicilian wine experience is enjoyable is to choose wines from top producers.
Two producers who have played important roles in bringing Sicilian wines to the world’s attention are Donnafugata and Planeta. The former is a family-owned winery making wines for over 150 years. Their Anthilia Sicilia (IGT) is a fresh and elegant white wine made of local varieties.
Two of their best-known reds are equally impressive. The Sedara Sicilia (IGT) is a medium-body wine with an enticing combination of fruit and spice, while the Tancredi Contessa Entellina (DOC) is a deeply colored wine with excellent complexity and length.
Planeta is another important name in Sicilian winemaking, with five wineries and 390 hectares of vineyards in different parts of Sicily. Alessio, Francesca and Santi Planeta have helped make Planeta one of Italy’s most dynamic producers that offers a wide range of wines made from both local and international varieties.
Their Chardonnay is perhaps the best white wine from Sicily, while their Santa Cecilia Nero d’Avolo red beautifully showcases the potential of Sicily’s most important red wine grape. The Planeta Merlot is a fine example of a classy international varietal red wine from Sicily.
Some of Italy’s hottest wines aptly come from the lands around Mount Etna volcano, located along the east coast of Sicily. Though wines have been made in the shadow of Europe’s tallest active volcano for thousands of years, only recently have they received world attention for their quality and distinction.
The sloping valleys below Mount Etna feature fertile volcanic soil and plentiful sun that are ideal for cultivating vines and olive trees. Formerly, the wines of this area tended to be rough and rustic and only favored by the local population. Now modern winemaking techniques and equipment are skillfully used to make charismatic and distinctive wines that have caught the attention of wine lovers around the world.
I recently tasted the very impressive 2009 Cantina Patria Riserva Rosso DOC red wine that offered delightful red berry and floral aromas and weighty blackberry and plums flavors with a spicy-peppery finish. In addition to Cantina Patria, two other producers to look for are Benanti Winery and Tenuta Terre.
The indigenous white varietals Insolia, Catarrato and Ansonica are relatively light and fresh wines that are ideal drinks for a hot summer afternoon or enjoyed as an aperitif. They are also perfectly nice with light salads or seafood dishes.
The more weighty Chardonnays from Sicily are great companions to Shanghai braised fish or crab dishes with rich brown sauces. Popular Sicilian reds like Nero d’Avola and Syrah are usually quite robust and richly fruity, making them suitable for many types of meats. In Sicily, these versatile red wines are also frequently served with herb-roasted seafood.
No matter what dishes you may be enjoying this summer, there are deliciously synergistic Sicilian wine partners that will certainly enhance your dining experience.