Traditionally the engine room of the country’s bulk production, the Mediterranean’s biggest island is gaining acclaim for wines made from its indigenous grape varieties.
Nero d’Avola may be a common name on shop shelves nowadays, but Sicily is also home to the less well known Fiano, Grillo, Catarratto, Nerello Mascalese, Moscato, Frappato, Inzolia and Perricone.
Liberty Wines managing director David Gleave says: “Sicily has huge potential in the UK off-trade, where independent merchants in particular have both the broader shelf space and specialist knowledge available to introduce consumers to the sheer diversity, individuality and excellent value offered by the best of the region’s wines. Sicily offers a wide range of price points and styles, both varietal and DOC. The depth of quality is not as great as in Piemonte or the Veneto, but it is improving with every vintage.
“Parts of Sicily are further south than North Africa, yet the heat you would expect from such a southerly region is often moderated by the proximity of the sea – in the hills outside Marsala, for instance – or altitude, such as at Etna.
“Allied to the climate are a myriad of indigenous varieties. The traditional Marsala varieties Grillo, Inzolia and Catarratto are emerging from the blending vat to produce strikingly perfumed, fruit-driven white wines, while Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese play starring roles in many of the region’s best red wines. We believe that Sicilian wine has never been more exciting than now, and this gives us great confidence for its future.”
Tony Brown MW, Italy buyer for Boutinot, says: “Though Sicily’s most obvious appeal may be great value, reliable entry-level wines, move up just a small notch and you can find great, characterful varietals. You can get amazing value – at a premium of only 10% or so above entry – and plentiful volumes of interesting local varieties from mature vineyards. Nero d’Avola and Grillo are the stand-outs for me. “Looking to the future you will see distinct regions at a higher quality level starting to emerge. Nero d’Avola from the south east, Vittoria and Etna – from where Boutinot has just taken on a range from Cantine Nicosia, all stand out. We’re starting to see a raft of really interesting wines – mostly made from local varieties – starting to break through in the more specialist retailers now. We believe, and we hope, that consumers will be led into Sicily via the more economical wines, and then be encouraged to explore that bit further into the higher quality levels.”
Chris Pollington, Italy specialist at Berry Bros & Rudd, sees plenty of opportunity for lighter, more aromatic styles such as Cerasuolo di Vittoria, which blends Nero d’Avola with the lighter Frappato, and fresh whites made from varieties such as Grillo, if Sicily can overcome consumer perceptions of the island as a producer of cheap, heavy reds.
“The styles reflect modern tastes, quality is improving and as people get to know the names of the DOCs and the grape varieties I think it has a great future for quality wines,” he says.
Hallgarten Druitt & Novum head buyer Steve Daniel says: “I personally find Sicily hugely exciting – Etna, for example, where you find cool-climate volcanic wines. The island is so large that there is a big selection of climates and terroirs, and the ability to produce very competitively priced wines and very high quality wines.”
Connoisseur Estates imports the wines of Marabino, an organic and biodynamic estate in Noto, southern Sicily. Its wines include what Connoisseur director Andrew Steel believes is the only riserva Nero d’Avola produced, grown on old bush vines just 3km from the coast.
As well as reds, Marabino makes Eureka Chardonnay, a wine that gets a salty tang from the sea breezes that blow over the vineyards, a lusciously sweet Moscato di Noto and a dry Muscat that Steel has not yet “managed to make work” here.
“It’s very exciting as a property,” says Steel. “Italian wines are having huge success – it’s fashionable to be Italian.”
Stefano Girelli’s Santa Tresa estate is also organic, and combines indigenous grapes such as a rich, smoky, citrussy lees-aged Fiano with indigenous and international blends including a Grillo/Viognier – with the Viognier giving the Grillo extra freshness and acidity.
He used to produce a Nero d’Avola/Cabernet Sauvignon blend but says it didn’t make commercial sense – and has now grafted all the Cabernet vines with Perricone.
“I think the future is indigenous grape varieties,” he says. “We have an incredible number of indigenous grape varieties and we should really educate customers that there are different things than Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay, which we can leave other people to do probably better than us.”
“The island has a great story and significant identity almost apart from that of Italy,” says Nick Tatham MW, wine development manager for Continental Wine & Food. “The culture, history and the wines all set Sicily apart.
“But it is not well represented in the off-trade and there is no major brand on the shelves. The current offer is a rather mixed bag of own-label, exclusive label and odds and ends.
“Sicily has already moved a long way over the last 20 years or so when it was seen as a source of basic, cheap and cheerful red and white wines. I see Sicily continuing to focus on its own grapes rather than the French varietals, which can be bought from anywhere and usually don’t have much specific Sicilian identity, except perhaps for the Shiraz. I also see pricing moving up as quality and lower yields have an impact. Wine consumption in Italy as a whole is falling very fast so Sicily will have to find new markets.”