Sicily (Sqallija in Maltese and Sicilia in Italian) famed in antiquity for its agricultural produce, not least Wines. Often called “The Grain of the Roman Empire”.The largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. Sardegna (Saridina), also in Italy, being the second largest. Just a short flight or boat (or catamarran) from Malta (or is it the other way around?). Wines loved by the Maltese consumer.
The island’s true forte lies in the impeccable variation of its wines, with its native grapes forming a critical part of the way in which its wines represents such markedly different terroir, each with its own peculiarities. And it’s precisely this charming variety and diversity, that makes Sicily a winemaking region with such global appeal. This has allowed it to firmly establish itself as one of the most important on the planet. The island of Sicily is more of a continent in vinification terms.
were producing wine on the island well before the Greek arrival in the 8th century B.C. The Greek arrival, however,
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was undoubtedly a spur to viticulture development. They are thought to have brought innovations such as pruning, varietal selection and low vine training. Sicily has probably played a significant role in the development of viticulture in the whole of the Italian peninsula. At the time the most significant characteristic of Sicilian Wines was their sweetness. The most notable and famous was Marmertine (Mamertino), a sweet, light wine from the north east, around Messina. This is said to have been Julius Ceaser’s favourite. During this period there is evidence of quality wines from Taormina (Tauromenium), Agrigento (Akragas), Etna, Catania and Syracuse (Siracusa).
owed its considerable wealth to grain and wine was not the most important commercial product. Its wheat was low yield and therefore a luxury item, but its hard grain with high gluten content would not start fermenting on long sea voyages. At the time Sicily also produced large quantities of olives, olive oil and citrus fruits. In the 14th century a demand for quality wines surged. With the lands owned by feudal aristocracy and local nobles. Messina was the largest producer at the time with established trade routes to Constantinople, the Levant and Malta. At the time, Palermo was Sicily’s largest and most important city and Catania and Syracuse (Siracusa) being the important eastern cities. In the early 14th century Palermo had an estimated 100,000 inhabitants, as much as Naples, and only Venice and Milan in all of Europe were larger.
Industrialisation and greater economic mobility lead to the final collapse of the Mezzadria sharecropping system that had long kept the quality of wine production high. The long standing dynamic between the aristocratic landowners and the agriculturally skilled Mezzadri who farmed the land, both inherently reliant on each other, strained until it broke. Taking their knowledge with them, labouring classes joined the waves of urban migration, leaving some of the once great farming estates of Sicily to fall victim to neglect and dereliction. To boot, the global Phylloxera crisis had a profound effect on Sicilian wine production, which did not recover until well into the 1960s (starting in 1879).
Unfortunately, to compensate for such a long period of stagnation, the Italian government subsidised programs to grow very high yields of grapes. The encouragement of irrigation and fertilisers and transformation of goblet training systems into wire-trained, has done Sicily wine reputation more harm than good. Worse still were the policies that encouraged Orange and Lemon tree growth. The bulk wines being produced and exported gave Sicily such a bad rap in the wine world that took decades to overcome. Production in Sicily was comparable to Puglia, the most productive, in a country that is more often than not the largest wine producer in the world. The colour and alcoholic strength that can be obtained by high Mediterranean temperatures, provided France with much of their bulk vin de table, especially after the independence of Algeria.
Despite this, encouraged by quality successes, by the end of the 20th century, Sicilian wines had come to show great promise. Only to explode in the new millennium into the great wines that we now know. By the end of 2017 almost 30 million Doc Sicilia wines had been bottled. By July of 2018 it was almost 50 million. Although classified production (DOCG, DOC and IGP) falls below 10% of wine produced in Sicily as of 2019. The average price per bottle has also increased, demonstrating the wisdom of those who had seen the DOC classification as an opportunity to further develop the region. Yet it is not only DOC wines that are progressing forward at speed. Like Tuscany, other Italian and French producers many wineries are taking wine making to the limit outside of the DOC classification to make IGP wines that are increasingly interesting.
DOC & DOCG
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The island’s geography and climate, hilly and mountainous terrain with poor soil, intense summer heat, and low rainfall, make it ideal for the classic Mediterranean agriculture of grain, olive oil, and wine. Sicily’s viticulture, in fact, enjoys a series of natural advantages which have not yet been fully exploited. These are generally shared with Malta and all the nearby Mediterranean islands, Hillside vineyards with excellent exposures, abundant sunlight, and high temperatures to ripen the grapes. Excellent elevation and good diurnal temperature variation (see comments on Maltese Wine). Plus a range of native vine varieties with real personality.
There are dozens (23, actually) of DOCs (Denominazione di origine controllata) and one DOCG. Most of Sicily’s indigenous grape varieties and time-honored wine-growing traditions continue to play an important role. Classical accounts categorise the island’s west as the area for white wines and the east as the area for red wines. Though this hardly applies any more. Many global varietals are also grown. The signature red native grape is Nero d’Avola (traditionally from Ragusa) and its white counterpart is Cataratto (used for the production of Marsala, Sicily’s historically most important DoC) & Alcamo. Other popular red varietals are Nocera (for Faro DOC), Frappato (for Cerasuolo di Vittorio, the region’s only DOCG), Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio (for Etna Rosso DOC), Perricone, Primitivo and Syrah. Popular whites are Grillo, Inzolia & Perricone (Agrigento), Carricante, Grecanico, Chardonnay, Malvasia and Zibibbo (see Zbib in Maltese, Muscat Of Alexandria, for the dessert wine of the nearby Sicilian territorial island, Moscato di Pantelleria DOC).
The full list is : DOCG : Cerasuolo di Vittoria. DOC : Alcamo, Contea di Sclafani o Valledolmo, Contessa Entellina, Delia Nivolelli, Eloro, Erice, Etna, Faro, Malvasia delle Lipari, Mamertino di Milazzo o Mamertino, Marsala, Menfi, Monreale, Noto, Pantelleria, Riesi, Salaparuta, Sambuca di Sicilia, Santa Margherita di Belice, Sciacca, Other Sicilian wines, Siracusa, Vittoria. Though most are unknown outside the expert community and are hard to find outside their region. IGP : Avola, Camarro, Fontanarossa di Cerda, Salemi, Salina, Terre Siciliane, Valle Belice.
Sicily was historically known for sweet wines. The Passito di Pantelleria being particularly famous nowadays, surpassing even the Moscato di Pantelleria. There have been some attempts to restart production of the once famous Moscato of Siracusa and Moscato di Noto.