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Discover Perricone: An indigenous red variety from Sicily, with eight wines to try

Once rare and perhaps endangered, Perricone is making a comeback, says Clive Pursehouse, who charts the long history of this grape variety from Western Sicily and recommends wines to seek out.

Perricone is one of more than 70 indigenous grape varieties in Sicily, according to the Consorzio di Tutela Vini DOC Sicilia, where wine cultivation has ancient roots.

Over the centuries, the island has been a hot potato of sorts for various invaders and rulers. From the arrival of the Phoenicians on its western shores in around 1100BC to the Greeks, Romans, Hapsburgs and even the Bourbons.

Sicilian viticulture may predate the Phoenicians; the island’s original tribal people, Sicani and their contemporaries, are thought to have produced wine as early as 6,000 years ago. A 2017 archaeological discovery by the University of South Florida found evidence of wine grape production near Agrigento.

Scroll down to see tasting notes and scores for eight Perricone wines to try

The Phoenicians and Greeks both brought advanced approaches to viticulture and oenology to the island. They spread wine-making from the early population centres near modern-day Trapani and Palermo to the rest of Sicily. Under Greek and Roman rule, Sicily’s modern reputation as a producer of renowned food and wine developed.

Perricone and its ancient roots

The grape Perricone is believed to have been brought to Sicily by the Greeks. It first appears in literature in 1735, in the book Il Podere Fruttifero e Dilettevole (‘The Fruitful and Delightful Farm’). The book is an instructive agricultural manual by the nobleman and dedicated agriculturalist Baron Filippo Nicosia.

Perricone has been known by various names depending on the region and the era in Sicily. Aliases include Niuri, Pirricuni and Tuccarino. In Trapani, it is called Pignatello or in the Sicilian language, ‘pignatidare’, so-called for the clay soils and the terracotta pots made from them.

In the rural centre of Sicily, the grape is called Guarnaccia, and it may have ties to the grape grown on the island of Ischia near Naples, known as Guarnaccia Nera.

Baglio Sorìa in the hills outside of Trapani. Credit: Firriato Winery

Changing fortunes

British maritime merchant John Woodhouse accidentally discovered Marsala in 1773, and upon fortifying it for his return to the UK, its popularity exploded, so much so that Woodhouse would return to Marsala and set up a winery. Eventually, he made a fortune.

Perricone was the key grape used in the production of Marsala Rubino and, as such, was cultivated widely in the vineyards around Marsala Trapani and Palermo. Perricone contributed an intensity of aromas to the red style of Marsala, and its significant tannins lent themselves to the long ageing the wines would undergo.

Yet, the variety fell into obscurity for two primary reasons. It proved to be particularly susceptible to phylloxera. When the formidable, yellow louse finally arrived on Sicily’s shores in 1879, the 1,000 hectares of Perricone vines planted on the island at the time were decimated.

The reduction in consumption of Marsala Rubino exacerbated Perricone’s fall. As the style fell out of favour, the challenging grape’s vines became less valuable to wine growers in western Sicily. Perricone’s challenges include ripening late, opening it up to disease pressure, and the grape’s significant tannins, which means it is often not approachable as a young wine.

With an opportunity to start over, many growers opted for the more popular Nero d’Avola. It is a wine enjoyed all over Sicily and the world for its youthful, fruity characteristics. As an early flowering variety, Nero ripens easily, irrespective of vintage.

A Perricone revival

As Sicilian wine has experienced a renaissance centred around its indigenous varieties, winegrowers around Trapani have redoubled their dedication to this historic varietal. Perricone is made as a varietal wine and as part of a blend in several DOCs. The broader Sicilia DOC and the DOCs of Eloro, Delia Nivolelli, Contea di Sclafani, and Monreale DOC all produce varietal Perricone.

Varietal Perricone is typically required to be 80-85% of the final wine, depending on the DOC, and there are regulations around tonnes per hectare that govern quality.

‘Firriato was one of the earliest wineries to begin recommitting to Perricone. We began in 1983 with a massale selection of the variety. At the time, you could say the variety was fairly endangered with only about 90ha of vines remaining,’ says Federico Lombardo at Firriato.

At Tenuta Regaleali, Tasca d’Almerita has grown Perricone since 1959, where local growers call it Guarnaccio. The winery has made a Perricone and Nero d’Avola blend since 1970.

Harvest atAzienda Agricola Ferreri & Bianco. Credit: Ferreri Vini

Taming the tannins

‘The varietal is slow to ripen, and the tannins tend to remain green. Often creating wines that can be excessively astringent,’ says Fabio Sireci, owner of Feudo Montoni. This is an element that historically the local farmers often did not always know how to manage.’

‘To soften the characteristic green tannins and create a velvety wine, a process which commences in the vineyard before unfolding in the cellar. We wait patiently for the grapes to mature, harvesting them in late October. The grapes communicate when they’re ready by transforming the bitter taste of the green pits into a pleasant, nutty taste.’

Lombardo, of Firriato‘, adds, ‘We grow Perricone in a zone close to Trapani, in the inland countryside. Here, precipitation is lower than average, with soils containing more than 70% clay. We use “hydro-stress-controlled viticulture”, meaning we strive to control the plant’s vigour, specifically the amount of tannin.’

With a renewed focus on viticulture, Sicilian wine growers are seeking to take the heritage variety to new heights.

As more varietal Perricone becomes available, wine lovers will find a robust red wine that gains in sophistication with age and offers alternatives to Sicily’s more established indigenous varieties. Perricone further tells the story of Sicilian wine’s heritage, diversity and range.

Clive Pursehouse is Decanter’s US editor.

Eight Perricone wines to try:

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