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The Recovery of Sicilian Wine

Planeta winery

This is a piece I wrote as a university report on our field trip in Sicily in February 2007…


As so much of our time in Sicily was devoted to wine, I decided to concentrate on that subject for this report.

Sicily has had an incredibly diverse history. It has been occupied and influenced by Greeks, Romans, and Arabs amongst others. During its long history it has been vastly wealthy and extremely poor. It has some of the oldest viticultural history of the Mediterranean but until relatively recently, most of the wine industry in Sicily was focused on quantity rather than quality. With the favourable vine-growing climate and plenty of land suitable for viticulture, Sicily excelled at producing vast quantities of grapes and wine, more than any other Italian region.

Planeta wine tasting

In the 1980s some Sicilian wine makers started to see that something else was possible and started to overhaul their operations. One of the key companies to do this was Planeta and they were first on our list to visit. After lunch at their fabulous villa overlooking the sea, we travelled to their first winery at Ulmo near Sambuca di Sicilia to meet Alessio Planeta, winemaker and one of the three Planeta’s now running the company. He gave us some more background on Sicilian wine history. Phoenecians and Greeks had brought the first vines to Sicily 8-10,000 years ago. Although Sicily has the most viticulture of any region in Italy, the amount of vineyard is only a third of what it was 130 years ago. This was partly due to the spread of phyloxera in Europe which started in Germany and spread slowly outwards. After some time, Sicily was one of the only places unaffected, which was exploited by producers. Also, at this time the average Italian was drinking 120 litres of wine per year. Despite the large decrease in viticulture since those times, the production is still too high, leading to about 20% of it being distilled for ethanol.

Until the 1980s the Planeta family had a large mixed farm with citrus fruit, artichokes etc with only a small vineyard and winery. The Sicilian wine market was mostly cheap white wine. Diego Planeta was interested by the wine developments in the New World and decided that they would start a small quality wine production using international and a few Sicilian varieties. At that time Nero d’Avola was only grown in the east of the island. After 8 years of experiments, they marketed their first wine in 1995. The success of that wine helped bring Sicily back into the world of quality wine and showed other Sicilian producers that quality Sicilian wine was a valuable asset.

With much of the success in Sicilian wine being with international grape varieties like Chardonnay and Merlot, Sicilian varieties lost favour and were being replaced with international varieties. However, the fashion for international varieties was about to switch and Sicily was well placed to capitalise on some of its native varieties like Nero d’Avola and Fiano di Avellino.

Florio delivery vehicle

Our next appointment was with Florio, one of the largest Marsala producers for more than 100 years. The Marsala we know today is to a great extent thanks to the work of an Englishman, John Woodhouse who, on tasting the local wine in 1773 and finding it tasting somewhat like sherry (the wine from Jerez that was very popular in England) decided that he would be able to export it to Britain. The trade went so well that Woodhouse returned to Sicily, bought land and started production himself in 1796. Vincenzo Florio started producing Marsala in 1833, was very successful and became one of the largest producers, buying Woodhouse’s company and others later in the century.

The reason that the wine of Marsala had tasted like sherry to Woodhouse was due to a system of ageing similar to the Spanish solera system where new wine each year is added to barrels containing mixtures of previous years wines. Also, the wine slowly oxidises while in the barrels, adding complex aromas and flavours and making it much more stable.

Marsala is mostly made with local white grape varieties, Catarrato, Grillo, Damaschino and Inzolia. Apart from base wine made from fermenting theses grapes, two additives are also made, mistella which is a blend of fresh or dried grapes and wine alcohol, the other is cotto which is a cooked reduction of grape juice. The wine also needs to be fortified with wine alcohol to qualify for the Marsala DOC. Generally, more of the cotto is added to lower quality wines such as basic “Fine” marsala which spends around 8 months in barrels. Superiore and superiore riserva spend 2 and 4 years respectively in barrels. Vergine and vergine stravecchio are not sweetened with concentrate and spend 5 and 10 years respectively in barrels.

Donnafugata wine tasting

Virtually next door to Florio we visited Donnafugata. Giacomo Rallo was of the fourth generation of Marsala producers but in 1983 he sold the company and with his wife, Gabriella started Donnafugata to produce quality table wines from vineyards at Contessa Entellina and on the island of Pantelleria. They exploited quality production methods such as reducing grape yields to improve grape quality, harvesting at night to ensure low grape temperatures, and modern wine making techniques. This eventually paid off with their top wine, Mille e una Notte receiving a Tre Bicchiere award in 2004.

On the island of Pantelleria they make a Passito di Pantelleria. This involves picking the Zibibbo grapes and leaving them to dry on racks in the sun and wind for 3-4 weeks. The resultant juice when crushed is incredibly sweet leaving plenty of residual sugar even after being fermented to around 14% alcohol. This type of production is extremely expensive, the volcanic island has crumbly soil needing constant care and upkeep of miles of terracing using dry-stone walling. The island is a popular tourist location without a large manual labour force, so workers have to be brought in and accommodated on the island. With the drying of the grapes, each bottle requires 4kg of grapes and each kilo of dried grapes needs 4kg of fresh!

Maurizio Micciché pouring wine for us

Our next visit was to San Cipirello where the giant Calatrasi winery sits, looking more like a chemical plant from the outside with large external tanks and extensive piping. We entered the winery’s visitor centre, which reminds one more of US or Australian wineries rather than Italian, with an impressive shop stocking all the wines and a very large restaurant/tasting room.

We were met by Maurizio Micciché, the energetic and intense owner of Calatrasi. He told us that the area around San Cipirello had been a dangerous place for criminality until the early 1990s. Consequently, his family had sent him away to schools and he had then trained as a doctor and worked in Padova. After noticing some similarities between Napa Valley and the Jato valley (where San Cipirello sits) and feeling home-sick for Sicily, he returned with the intention of making wine, with new world wine style as an objective. He built the winery with his brother next door to the cooperative winery that their father had helped set up for local grape growers.

The company grew with the increased interest in Sicilian wine in the 1990s and in 1997 they created a joint venture with BRL Hardy the Australian group to make a new, inexpensive wine brand “D’istinto” which would be marketed in the UK especially. This led to a massive investment in vineyards and winery and upped production to 10 million bottles within 4 years. The Australians helped with their expertise to make the whole operation as efficient as possible. They sold out of the venture in 2001.

In 1999 there was a large privatisation of state-owned land in Tunisia, some of it vineyards that were planted at the time of French rule. Attracted by another hot, sunny place to grow grapes and with some family history in Tunisia, Calatrasi purchased land. They now have 200 hectares there. More recently the company also invested in 240 hectares of land in Puglia with the first wine expected in 2007.

Calatrasi’s focus on quality with reasonable prices has introduced a lot of new drinkers to Sicilian wine. Micciché has been working to build exports to Russia, seeing great opportunities there. He told us that there is a large market for wine but most of it is very cheap, low quality wine from places like Moldova. Italian wine has only 1% of the market.

Firriato winery

Our next visit was to Firriato and another industrial-looking winery. They explained that they have a waste water treatment plant on site which accounted for the largest of the tanks we could see. Their wines, however, appeared much more hand-crafted.

Firriato was the first producer we met who mentioned organic grapes, as they have been making some organic wines. They told us that Sicily is an ideal location for organic viticulture as the climate prevents many of the vine diseases that get sprayed for. Conventional viticulture in Sicily can survive with 4-5 treatments per year where 10 is more normal in Piemonte, so foregoing chemical treatments has a head-start here.

Among the wines we tasted, there were two Nero d’Avola’s, Harmonium, a pure version, designed to be more international in style and Ribeca which has Perricone, a little-used Sicilian red variety added and is more “Sicilian” in nature. The thing that many of us were struck by with their wines was the quality to price ratio – really good wine at €35 a bottle is not affordable for most people but Firriato seemed to be managing some really good wine at under €15 a bottle.

Cusumano wine

We met up with Cusumano at the top of a wind and rain-swept hill, taking a tour of one of their newer vineyards at Piana degli Albanesi. These vines are at 600-750m altitude making them some of the highest in Sicily and are therefore situated in an atypical Sicilian climate. One of the benefits of this particular micro-climate is a big temperature difference between day and night (up to 30°C!), a trait that is almost always beneficial for quality wine.

Over a wonderful lunch by a roaring wood fire, we tasted some of their wines. One in particular stood out for me, Angimbé, a relatively inexpensive wine made with a blend of 70% Insolia and 30% Chardonnay. There was something about the combination of richness and delicate aromatics that made it one of the most memorable white wines I have tasted for some time.

Duca di Salaparuta winery

Duca di Salaparuta
Our next visit was to another giant winery. Duca di Salaparuta has been one of Sicily’s largest producers for a long time, producing quality wines across the price range, even before the current revolution in Sicilian wine quality. Their Corvo range was the largest inexpensive, quality wine coming out of Sicily and was also a popular import to the USA. They now produce a total of around 10 million bottles per year, excluding Florio Marsala that is now part of the group.

Lucio Tasca d'Almerita talking to us

Tasca d’Almerita
Our final visit took us much further east, about halfway across Sicily to the grand Regaleali estate, owned since 1830 by the Tasca d’Almerita family. Appearing much more down-to-earth than the impressive estate would have suggested, Count Lucio Tasca d’Almerita was both humble and passionate about their land and products. They have 1,200 Hectares of land producing almost everything the estate needs including olive oil, cheese, honey, vegetables along with the wine of which they produce around 3 million bottles per year.

A respect for their environment is key to their philosophy and they avoid chemical treatments wherever possible. They are also in the process of making their operation carbon-neutral. Believing that a DOC for the area would be good for the wine fortunes of the region they have been instrumental in setting this up.

The wines were another win for high quality at low prices, their entry-level Regaleali which is widely available and costing less than €6, being incredibly good for the price. My personal favourite was Camastra, a blend of merlot and nero d’Avola, full of rich, spicy fruit and cherry, complex and refined.

With its incredible history, favourable climate, ample space, diverse regions and wealth of autoctonous grape varieties, Sicily has excellent wine producing potential. Thankfully, with the work of some of the producers we met and the development of the international wine market, Sicilian wine has moved firmly away from it dark ages. Further consolidation of this position may be aided by the introduction of more DOC areas, thereby helping to delineate what is a very large and diverse island into more distinct and recognisable wine regions.

Photos of my trip can be seen here

All information for this report came from first hand experience and information given by the people we met at the wineries.


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