Sicilian Wine | Italy’s Best Kept Secret

Harry Lambourne
19th June 2021

Cue the mandolins! It’s time to talk about Sicily. Sicily is world famous for its part in the classic film the Godfather. However, Sicily is much more and Sicilian wine is one of Italy’s best kept secrets.

The Isle of Sicily is located by toe of Italy’s famous boot. Possessing a population of 5 million people, with 1.5 million Sicilian’s living in the capital of Palermo. There is no shortage of sunny beaches, stunning architecture or rich culture. Sicily even has an active volcano, Mount Etna, for good measure. Despite this, the thing that draws tourists to Italy more than all else is quality food and drink. 

Coast of Palermo - the Sicilian capital
Coast of Palermo – the Sicilian capital

The climate is exactly as expected being so far south in the Mediterranean. Dry and sunny, with temperatures of over 40 degrees in the Summer. Indeed, the climate itself helps make Sicilian wine so desirable. Dry heat, cool nights and low risk of frost in the spring lends itself to low-intervention organic wine. The virtues of organic and biodynamic wine are clear. While varied terroir means Sicilian wine offers a broad number of options.

An ever-growing figure in the wine world, Sicilian Wine is becoming more well-respected. Let’s look further into the wines of Sicily and why they are worth their salt.

White Wines of Sicily

The thought of a 40 degree heat already has me reaching for something cold. In that kind of heat I am always going to reach for a glass of white wine.

Catarratto is one of the most widely planted grapes in the whole of Italy. It is also a crucial element of Sicilian wine, present in all of the island’s provinces. The Catarratto grapes are often blended with other varieties of Sicilian wine. Faintly frosted grapes tend to possess citrus aromas and dominant lemon flavour.

Another white grape of note is Carricante. This ancient wine is indigenous to Sicily and has been grown on the island for over a thousand years. Although, it is far less common than Catarratto. Carricante is only grown on 500 acres of awe-inspiring slopes on Mount Etna. Much like Catarratto, the Carricante is a frequent blending partner in Sicilian white wines. Carricante has a vast range of citrus aromas attributed to it. You can expect lime, lemon, orange or grapefruit notes.

Sicilian Grillo Wine
Grillo Grapes - one of the highlights of Sicilian wine
Grillo Grapes – one of the highlights of Sicilian wine

There are a number of options for white wine in Sicily. However, Grillo could be the fastest growing and most exciting. Although lower yields have caused it to fall out of favour. Grillo has broken from its roots as a means to produce the fortified Marsala wine, into a Sicilian still wine in its own right. 

The man behind the revival of Grillo is producer Marco de Bartoli, who originally was known as a legendary Marsala producer. Indeed, he is still producing great Marsala. However, he also was key in bringing Grillo to the forefront of Sicilian Wine.

Like much Sicilian wine, the climate can be attributed to Grillo’s success. Renato de Bartoli, (Marco’s son), notes how Grillo is perfect for the Marsala region. It “thrives in the heat”. We can see how Sicilian wine seems made for the climate it is in. No extra support is needed for these vines to grow into something spectacular.

Grillo varies in terms of taste. This variety stems from the winemaking processes involved. More modern approaches of limiting air exposure and selected strains of yeast, result in a dry style wine which has high levels of acidity and strong lemon flavours and aromas. This is somewhere akin to the Catarratto grape, a parent to the Grillo.

The traditional approaches found in the likes of De Bartoli however, produce a more nuanced and refined product. These traditionally make Grillo possess strong citrus notes. Below these notes is an undercurrent of minerality, as the grapes are allowed greater time to soak up the Terre Siciliane. 

For a great example of Grillo and Sicilian wine in general – look no further than right here.

Di Giovanna – Grillo 19′

Red Wines of Sicily

If you’re more partial to red than white, then no need to worry. Sicilian wine also has a number of great offerings of red wine. Let’s review some now.

Frappato is one of Sicily’s oldest wines. With 85% of Frappato vines being found on Sicily. Mostly used in blends, Frappato is comparable to Beaujolais or Pinot Noir. Lightly coloured and delicious when chilled. This makes it an excellent red wine for the Sicilian heat.

For something medium-bodied, Nerello Mascalese is the one to try. Another grape found on the volcanic soil of Mount Etna, 1000 meters above sea level. High altitudes and volcanic soil both adding to the overall flavour. These factors help make Nerello Mascalese a rich and complex wine, which is lighter than other Sicilian reds.

Nero d’Avola

Nero d’Avola is the most well-known Sicilian red. It translates to ‘Black of Avola’. This is due to the darkness of the grapes and the Sicilian town of Avola. Although there is debate as to the grapes exact origins. Much like the Grillo, Nero d’Avola has had a recent revival. Previously, it was used to add colour and body to lighter Italian wines. However, it is now a red Sicilian wine that can be enjoyed on its own.

If like Leonard Cohen, ‘You Want It Darker’, then Nero d’Avola is going to be the Sicilian wine for you. Frappato and Nerello Mascalese red wines are light and medium bodied options. By comparison, Nero d’Avola is much darker and denser. Something in between would be a Barolo which is a medium bodied premium red wine from the Piedmont region in northern Italy.

Nero d'Avola - the most prominent red Sicilian wine
Nero d’Avola – the most prominent red Sicilian wine

The best thing about Nero d’Avola is that you can expect great variety between the different Sicilian wine regions. The dark, dense grape variety is often stored in oak barrels. Nero d’Avola possess rich flavours of black fruit and chocolate, with subtle spicy notes. Nero d’Avola is also suitable for ageing. The younger wines are still dark, comparative to other Sicilian wines, but have a different flavour profile. Young Nero d’Avola tends to give off red-currant fruit flavours.

For a great example of Nero d’Avola and Sicilian wine in general – look no further than right here.

Di Giovanna – Vurria Nero d’Avola 19′

Top Vineyards in Sicily

All this talk of Sicilian wine may already be enough for you to pick Sicily as your next holiday destination. So, let’s consider some of the best vineyards in Sicily to visit, whilst you are there.

For a taste of the history of Sicilian wine, then Cantine Settesoli should be on your list. Settesoli began producing wine in 1958. However, under the leadership of the late Diego Planeta, it found international fame. Planeta worked with respected oenologists. He combined classic indigenous Sicilian grapes, with international varieties. Still, this award-winning vineyard continues to be a symbol of Sicilian wine.

Another great option is a small family run vineyard called Cantina Horus. Located on the South-West coast, just outside the town of Vittoria. Cantina Horus produces fantastic organic Sicilian wines. Grillo, Frappato and Nero d’Avola to name a few. The Sicilian climate contributes to Cantina Horus’ great Sicilian wine. High-altitude vineyards, soaked in the Mediterranean sun with beautiful sea breezes. Cantina Horus promotes practices that are eco-friendly, through traditional farming methods.

Then, there is Di Giovanna. They are an example of a vinter who typify everything great about Sicilian wine. Managed by 5th generation winemakers, with a focus on organically cultivated vineyards. Di Giovanna is situated on a protected nature reserve, allowing for stunning views while you enjoy some award-winning Sicilian wine. Across there 5 vineyards you can expect to find a richly diverse terroir, leading to a wide range of excellent wines to sample.

Di Giovanna - one of the best producers of Sicilian wine
Di Giovanna – one of the best producers of Sicilian wine

Pairing Food with Sicilian Wine

No trip to Italy is complete without delicious food. As such, let’s discuss the best food to pair with great Sicilian wine.

We can begin with Grillo. Grillo is light, with citrus-driven flavours, nutty aromas and great minerality. This means a few Sicilian dishes would be excellent pairings. ‘Pasta con macco di fave’ is a prime example. This pasta dish, made with ricotta and beans, would compliment a cold Grillo perfectly. However, if you want something to nibble on instead, then some sheep’s or goats milk cheese would be perfect. A nutty pecorino or the Sicilian Canestrato. Canestrato is a hard cheese made through combining sheep and goat’s milk. Either would be an ideal pairing for Grillo.

Canestrato - perfect with a glass of Grillo!
Canestrato – perfect with a glass of Grillo!

Now for pairing the Nero d’Avola with some traditional Italian dishes. Rich red meat is the best option. For this reason, ‘Bistecca alla Siciliana‘ is the way to go. This is steak in a rich tomato sauce, (similar to ‘Steak Pizzaiola’). Simply made but decadent. If you don’t want the full meal, then Italy and Sicily both have an endless variety of cured meats. These are ideal to snack on with your next Nero d’Avola. Soppressata or Capocollo are two fine examples.

'Bistecca alla Siciliana' - a dish made for Nero d'Avola
‘Bistecca alla Siciliana’ – a dish made for Nero d’Avola

After writing all this I’m now ready to go back to Sicily. With return flights available from under £200 per person, (London to Sicily), why not? As I have said, Sicilian wine alone is a reason to jump on a plane. However, there is much more to Sicily than wine. Enjoy Sicilian wine, alongside some delicious food and a rich cultural experience. All set in the stunning scenery of the island.

If you’re not done learning about the world of French wine, be sure to check out some of our other regional guides! The links are below:

A Guide to Abruzzo

A Guide to Tuscany

A Guide to Piedmont

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