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Drinks Atlas: Sicilian Wines

The Mediterranean’s largest island and home to important archeological sites, the world’s best capers, and the mythic Mount Etna, Sicily is also an ancient viticultural region with renewed promise. From its cuisine to its architectural influences, nearly every aspect of Sicilian culture weaves nuanced stories of the island’s complex history. Due to Sicily’s strategic location, the island was the subject of repeated conquests since it was first inhabited 10,000 years ago by three peoples, including the Siculi, from whom its name was derived. Thanks to viticultural practices developed under the Phoenicians and cemented by the Greeks as early as the 8th century BCE, Sicilian wines were among the best known and loved in antiquity.

Despite this winemaking legacy, Sicily later slid into service as one of Italy’s bulk wine centers, concentrated on increased yields and bottling less than 20 percent of its own production. Toward the end of the 20th century, however, producers began to embrace distinctly Sicilian wines and rally around their protection. “That transition has taken decades, but I think it’s just reaching more critical mass,” says Dan Gold, who, along with wife and partner, Elise Gold (née Lentine), owns Portland, Oregon–based Sicilian deli Sebastiano’s, the business inspired by a trip to Elise’s ancestral hometown, Castellammare del Golfo. Key to this turnaround were both the restoration of Marsala, the local fortified wine, and the work of Diego Planeta, who encouraged greater diversity in vineyard plantings (some 150 varieties are now grown) and whose eponymous winery sought to revive Sicilian wines of quality. 

The renewed pursuit of homegrown wines has sparked an industry resurgence. “The diversity of winemaking happening there is really exciting,” Dan says. Sicily’s 23 Denominazioni di Origine Controllata (DOC) and one DOCG are being reimagined by a new era of torch-bearing producers, including Vittoria-based Arianna Occhipinti and Frank Cornelissen’s Etna estate, who are drawing attention to the island while highlighting remarkable indigenous grape varieties, such as Nero d’Avola, Frappato, Carricante, and Catarratto. “I think it’s the quality, the excitement factor, and the uniqueness of these indigenous varieties that honestly haven’t really had the spotlight,” says Gold.

5 to Try

Nero d’Avola “Lagnusa” Feudo Montoni 2019

From historic Nero d’Avola producer Feudo Montoni, this organic bottling is made from 35-year-old vines and aged primarily in cement. The final product balances mineral notes with flavors of cherry and herbs. “We love introducing people to Nero d’Avola, especially when it’s from a high-quality estate with unique terroir like Feudo Montoni.” $21.99/750 ml, astorwines.com

Passito de Pantelleria “Ben Ryé,” Donnafugata

From the volcanic island of Pantelleria, this amber-color wine is produced in the passito, or dried-grape, style. “We think this dessert wine made from sun-dried Zibibbo grown on Pantelleria is truly world-class,” say the Golds. “There isn’t a more delicious pairing for cuccidatipasticcini di mandorle, and other Sicilian cookies.” $46.99/375 ml, astorwines.com

Calogero Caruana “Vino Bianco”

From “an up-and-coming natural winemaker working with native Inzolia grapes and spontaneous native yeast fermentation,” this Vino Bianco combines a blend of young vineyard production and vinification from 50-year-old vines. “Calogero uses ancient methods like prolonged maceration with skins and stems, and aging in casks with flor to make one-of-a-kind wines.” $50/750 ml, enotecadirect.net

Palmento Costanzo “Mofete” Etna Rosso

Using vineyards ranging from 5 to 30 years in age for their “Mofete” Etna Rosso, winemaker Mimmo Costanzo and his wife, Valeria, work on Etna’s northern slopes. “We love the minerality, balance, acidity, and expression of the 80 percent Nerello Mascalese and 20 percent Nerello Cappuccio.” $31.90/750 ml, la.eatalyvino.com

Due Terre Catarratto

“Honestly, we like every wine we’ve tried from Due Terre,” say the Golds. A collaborative project from friends, the label produces only pure, indigenous varietals—including Grillo, Frappato, Nerello Mascalese, and more—sourced from around Mount Bonifato near Trapani, and made with minimal intervention. The crisp Catarratto yields tropical expressions of coconut and pineapple. $22/750 ml, enotecadirect.net

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