Everybody’s talking about how fantastic today’s best Sicilian wines are – and not without reason, says Richard Baudains, who visited the region.

The evocative title of viticulture guru Richard Smart’s book – Sunshine into Wine – sums up the essential attraction of Sicily to winemakers. Lying in the middle of the Mediterranean sun belt (Palermo is on the same line of latitude as Athens and nearer to Tunis than Rome), Italy’s most southerly region has a climate that guarantees concentrated grapes and almost total absence of fungal vine diseases, frost, hail and rain-disturbed vintages.

The other thing it offers the big-league investors who have arrived in the region in the past five years – such producers as Gruppo Italiano Vini, Santa Margherita, Fratelli Martini, Zonin and the ambitious Trentino cooperative Mezzacorona, not to mention Australia’s BRL Hardy – is big, open spaces to grow into. Sicily has more vineyards than any other region of Italy and the province of Trapani alone, in the western tip of the island, produces more wine than the whole of Chile put together – quite incredible.

There is a downside, though. Until very recently the Sicilian wine industry was more occupied with turning sunshine into quantity than quality. Change began in the late 1980s and accelerated from the early 1990s onwards, thanks to the lifting of restrictions on imported varieties. Despite producing more wine on average than any other Italian region, only 10% of this is bottled, and statistics show that the transition from industrial bulk to premium bottled quality is still in its embryonic, early stages.

However, there is an almost fervid degree of excitement about the future, fuelled by the ever-increasing number of great new wines coming out of Sicily and contemplation of the mind-boggling potential of the island. Much has yet to take shape, but the direction in which the region is going is very clear. Sicilian winemaking of the future will be export-focused, hi-tech and will be driven by varieties rather than terroir. The ampelographical issues revolve around the respective roles of local and international cultivars. From the producers’ side you hear a chorus in favour of the indigenous varieties. ‘The greatest danger is the loss of local identity,’ says Massimo Bellina at Pellegrino. ‘Beware of Cabernet-isation,’ says Mauro Monchiero at Rapitalà. ‘Growers everywhere in Sicily are putting in Chardonnay and Merlot, but in the long term they are not our best option,’ says Salvatore Di Gaetano from Firriato. Their position is not entirely convincing. The problem is that, though Sicily is strong on indigenous red varieties, it is weak on whites – and yet 75% of the island’s production is currently based on local white varieties chosen for their resistance to heat and drought rather than for their quality as table wine varieties.

The shortcomings of the two most widely planted, Inzolia and Catarrato, are evident in the large and baggy category of basic label whites, where selected yeasts and cold fermentation rarely overcome the handicaps of neutral aromas, flagging acidity and bitter vegetal flavours. Wines like Donnafugata’s excellent Chardonnay/Ansonica blend, Chiarandà del Merlo, suggest that native white varieties are best used in blends.

The one local variety that seems to offer promise is Grecanico, in which the trend-setting Settesoli cooperative at Menfi is investing heavily. The point you cannot escape, though, is that whatever your feelings about international varieties, Sicily’s most impressive whites are currently Chardonnays – with one exception. The most exciting new release of the 2000 vintage is an exuberant, full-bodied fruit salad of a wine, Cometa, which is made from Fiano, a variety Alessio Planeta has transposed from Campania to southwest Sicily with spectacular success.

Going red

When it comes to reds, the case for the home-grown varieties can be put without reservation. Nero d’Avola is the Sicilian grape. For everyday drinking wines you can play down the tannins and bring out the Mediterranean herbs, as Corvo does with its Bennoto, for example, or go for soft, plummy fruit like Cusumano’s Sàgana. The very best Nero d’Avola is a more serious proposition, with the complexity and structure of a classy and many-faceted variety. Corvo’s Duca Enrico remains perhaps the most traditional in style. These days, Tasca d’Almerita’s Rosso del Conte has more modern fruit but retains the depth given by very old vines. Morgante’s Don Antonio is for people who like their reds tougher and more uncompromising, with great potential for bottle ageing. If, on the other hand, you like the everything-at-once effect, Firriato’s 14.5? Harmonium has monumental fleshy concentration and sweetness of fruit. With this kind of quality around, there is certainly less reason for Cabernet and Merlot to exist on the island, although this is not to deny the stature of Cabernets like Tasca d’Almerita’s or Planeta’s Burdese, or even some of the very good blends like Donnafugata’s Nero d’Avola/ Cabernet-based Tancredi.

Among other imported varieties, there could be a big future for Syrah, both at the top end and in stock-in-trade Sicilian equivalents of Jacob’s Creek. At experimental level there is much interest in Petit Verdot and, on Mount Etna, in Pinot Nero and Mondeuse, the Savoie variety which is grown with startling success by Cottanera. On the whole, Sicily missed out on the DOC system that regulates winemaking in most other parts of Italy. A mere 2% of the region’s output qualifies for DOC status and the lion’s share of this is Marsala. The vast majority of table wines are bottled under the much more elastic IGT Sicily label which allows producers the freedom to experiment with varieties and to source wines and grapes from different parts of the island. A number of new DOCs have been created in recent years, but they are so broad as to be fairly meaningless, and with names like Contea di Sclafani and Delia Nivolelli they were certainly not devised with non-Italian speakers in mind.

The longer established DOCs enjoy mixed fortunes. At Marsala, despite the reforms of the 1980s, Byzantine production norms still mask many compromises. The reputation of Sicily’s most famous wine lies in the hands of three or four quality-oriented producers. Florio, which incidentally offers Italy’s most atmospheric cellar visit, has succeeded in marrying tradition and innovation in its Targa Riserva and, above all, the barrique-aged Terre Arse. The purist De Bartoli, after a brush with bureaucracy which saw its cellars sealed for five years pending a court ruling on its labels, is back with wines that are as distinctive as ever. Pellegrino represents serious tradition with its old vintages, but as export manager Massimo Bellina says with a deep sigh, ‘I have to be frank – Marsala is not making much headway.’

A DOC that’s coming up in a big way, however, is Moscato di Pantelleria. An increasing number of quality producers are making wines from (not necessarily on) the island of Pantelleria, halfway between the coasts of Sicily and Tunisia, where unique growing conditions produce equally unique dessert wines, but the risk is over-commercialisation of a hand-crafted traditional product. Sicily’s other offshore dessert wine, Malvasia di Lipari, has the opposite problem of barely commercial quantities. Among table wine DOCs, the Nero d’Avola-based Cerasuolo di Vittoria appellation has well-defined zonal character, which the COS winery has defended for two decades.

Eloro is a DOC in the buzz zone of the moment. This is Sicily’s hottest, driest, most southerly corner, and Nero d’Avola grapes produce a quintessential Mediterranean character and where Benanti, Planeta and the Franciacorta-based Cà del Bosco all now have interests. A lot of the wine from the area goes into the top IGT blends of producers in other parts of the island.

One DOC that gets media coverage every time the volcano erupts is Etna. Unfortunately the volcano has shown more signs of life in recent years than the producers of a DOC which is in sadly visible decline. Benanti, where winemaker Salvatori Foti’s mission in life is to rejuvenate what was once a thriving source of table wines, is fighting a tenacious rearguard action in favour of local varieties. With its volcanic soils and high-altitude, Etna has growing conditions that are totally different to those of the rest of the island and which elude generalisation. The way forward for the DOC, and for Etna wines in general, might be to compromise on tradition and open the DOC norms to international varieties. If the results of Benanti’s Chardonnay and Cottanera’s silky, Merlot are representative of what these varieties can do, then a revival should not be long in coming.

Richard Baudains is an Italian expert

Written by RICHARD BAUDAINS