Sicily - Marsala to Etna

There is much to like about Sicily’s wines. For example, prices are generally not high, even for famous, high-quality reds and exciting dry and sweet whites. The island is also home to many native grapes whose considerable quality potential has only recently become clear. It’s not surprising that the likes of Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese have rightly gained fans the world over. Carricante, a white grape, is now rightly viewed as one of Italy’s three or four best native white varieties, capable of giving highly mineral and very ageworthy wines. Furthermore, the great potential of other cultivars such as the Catarrattos, Perricone and Grillo has not yet been fully tapped, so it is likely that there are many new and exciting wines to come from Sicily in the near future. Moreover, a young generation of talented and passionate producers is bent on making quality wines—and not the plonk that was once routinely used as a blending agent for anemic reds made in more famous parts of Italy and other well-known wine-producing countries. IAN D’AGATA, www.vinousmedia.com

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When I first started making sourcing visits to Italy, the South was largely not part of the program. The annual walk through the Sicilian pavilion at VinItaly and the odd visit to the regions was really the extent of my exposure to the wines which, at that time, were not offering anything new or exciting to the wine consumer. Fast forward to current day and the regions of the South are now producing Italy’s most exciting wines in both red and white. In Sicily in particular the quality revolution is in full swing with dedicated and creative winemakers now making full use of the diverse range of sites to reinvigorate indigenous varieties to stunning effect. Etna is a case in point. The sides of this still active volcano offer varying altitudes that extend up to 1000 metres and mineral rich soils make an ideal home for the Nerello Mascalese and Carricante grapes. The uniqueness of the zone coupled with the uniqueness of the varieties combine to make wines that are the hottest property in the wine world today. It’s a combination that can’t be replicated either and as such is one of those precious vinous landscapes akin to the Cote d’Or or the Langhe Hills. Elsewhere the energy formerly employed to make poor imitations of French varieties is being spent more productively on other locals like Grillo, Nero d’Avola, Catarratto, Zibibbo and the like.

While our experiences here have often been characterised by Pellegrino cooking Marsala, Sicilians mainly drink vintage Marsala as an aperitif or the dryer expressions with excellent Parmesan, Gorgonzola or Roquefort. The fortified wines of Sicily are from the town of Marsala, the discovery of which is credited to English trader John Woodhouse, who in 1796 began commercial production. Marsala’s fortification is similar to that of Sherry or Madeira and achieved its DOC status in 1969. Typically produced with the indigenous white varieties of Grillo, Inzolia and Catarratto (among the ten permitted) the colours of Marsala are due to the extensive ageing in cask. The original DOC laws were quite lax and, in a story familiar across Italy in the early 20th century of wine, quantity prevailed over quality. They were revised in 1984 with lower maximum yields in an attempt to increase the overall quality of the wines.

Marco de Bartoli has been the driving force behind the restoration of the reputation and quality in Marsala. Marco worked for Cantine Pellegrino, the largest industrial producer of Marsala before leaving to take over his family estate. His most significant change was to grow and vinify his wines in-house and the de Bartoli family work exclusively with Sicily’s indigenous varieties: Grillo, Zibibbo, Catarratto, Zibibbo and red Pignatello (Perricone). Like the grower Champagne movement this has resulted in other producers slowly following suit along the quality path. These are quite frankly amazing wines and having Sebastiano de Bartoli in Australia for the first time will change all your preconceptions of Marsala.