Exploring the White Wines of Sicily

Long the breadbasket for every empire that passed through the Mediterranean, Sicily’s still wine was once considered nothing more than bulk juice to be shipped to backfill poorer vintages in more northerly regions, or cheap wine mostly intended for immediate consumption, often tending toward oxidation and lacking complexity. Today, however, things are changing. Attention has been drawn to regions like Vittoria and Etna for years, but as growers move ever more toward a focus on indigenous varieties and the unique differences in growing conditions throughout the island, Sicily is increasingly becoming a treasure trove of selection and price-quality opportunities for drinkers and buyers of wine. And for all of the great red wines of Nerello Mascalese—and, yes, site-specific Nero d’Avola—being produced, the white wines of the island are as complex, varied, and interesting as their red-skinned counterparts.

A Sense of Place

Sicily is a dynamic place, and not just for its wine. It is quite literally a land still in formation. Sitting above where the African and Eurasian plates meet, the island is the result of tectonic and erosional forces, as well as magmatic activity. Recognizing the diversity of soils and range of altitudes concentrated in this land mass in the middle of a sea of 9,991 square miles is fundamental to understanding its diversity of grapes, microclimates, terroirs, and, ultimately, wines.

Sicily can be considered in terms of seven main geographical distinctions:

  • The flat coastal regions around areas like Palermo and Castellammare del Golfo
  • The Sicilian Apennines, which run almost continuously from corner to corner on the northern coastline
  • The central hills around Enna and Caltanissetta
  • The southern flat coastal areas from Marsala down toward Gela, characterized by marine terraces
  • The Iblean foreland, responsible for the stark white soils of the southeastern corner of the island from Vittoria to Ispica to Noto
  • The alluvial plains just above the Iblean foreland
  • The volcanic activity that has resulted in Mt. Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano

Volcanic activity also led to the formation of the Aeolian Islands to the north, as well as to the island of Pantelleria off of the coast of Tunisia—albeit from different magmatic chambers.

The altitudes, too, vary. Given the island’s latitude (37.60° N, 14.02° E), it would seem to be the territory of exclusively warm and even hot macroclimates. Indeed, many producers must solve for heat, particularly those at sea level, but elevations on the island rise up to Mt. Etna’s peak at 10,991 feet, with plantings as high as 3,300 feet on the volcano. In the mountains above Palermo, vineyards are found as high as 2,100 feet. As a result, harvest can range from August along the Sicilian Channel (from Trapani to Noto), into October and even November in cold vintages up in the highest plantings of Mt. Etna’s northern slopes.

Wind is a highly important factor as well, given that the island is at the crossroads of multiple wine channels: the Bora and Mistral, bringing cooler air from the north, and the Sirocco, with hot winds coming north from the African continent. The winds keep vineyards ventilated and reduce disease pressure. Near Alcamo, producers like Porta del Vento (meaning “door of the wind”) have vines planted practically adjacent to windmills. Even though oidium and peronospera are present, the windy and aerated site keeps the pressure at bay, allowing producer Marco Sferlazzo to employ organic and biodynamic practices in his vineyards and keep his treatments to a minimum. Even for low-elevation vineyards, the mitigating effect of sea breezes is important for keeping vines cool in the hot summer months. Producers like COS must consider planting orientation for their vineyards; in Vittoria, where COS is located, vine orientation runs east to west to prevent the hardest and strongest winds from damaging grapes throughout the growing season.

The Grapes of Sicily

The Istituto Regionale del Vino e dell’Olio (IRVO) is an important institutional body in Sicily that serves as both a regional entity and a point of reference for research. Its services include analyzing the varying mesoclimates and soils throughout the island; ameliorating vineyard management, treatments, and grape quality; providing laboratory and technical services to winemakers; certifying wines; and helping with promotion outside of Sicily. Established in 1950, the IRVO emphasizes not just the science of winemaking but also the cultural element, and at the core of this mission today is an acknowledgement of the place of native grapes in local history and traditions of consumption.

There is an overabundance of indigenous varieties found across the island, with research led by the IRVO to identify, preserve, and work with vintners to plant what are known as relic, or heirloom, varieties. According to producer Nino Barraco, to date, 50 to 60 relic grapes have been preserved in the Marsala area alone, and Barraco plants two experimental rows of these vines within every new vineyard he and his wife establish. Next to their new cellar, for example, there are two rows of Vitraruolo, a red variety, planted at the edge of a vineyard planted to Pignatello (another red grape, also known as Perricone). On the other side of the island near Ispica, Massimo Padova of Riofavara plants an array of these varieties, such as a white grape colloquially called La Raginedda, which ripens toward the end of August and lends its high natural acidity to his blends.

However, despite the seemingly endless selection, there are grapes that have gained preeminence for a variety of reasons, and within the scope of white wine production, there are several of paramount importance, defined both in terms of tradition and hectares under vine: Carricante, Catarratto, Grillo, Inzolia, Zibibbo (Muscat of Alexandria), Moscato Bianco (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains), Malvasia, and Grecanico (considered by some to be related to Garganega in the north). Others play supporting roles. Several of these will be discussed at length below, highlighted in the discussions of regions in which their plantings dominate and where their expressions are of greatest interest.

Northeastern Sicily

Northeastern Sicily is dominated by the volcanic soils originating from Mt. Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano. Its black silhouette and fuming summit craters dominate the skyline near Catania, and millennia of eruptions have resulted in lavic soils that reach the coastline—any guide in the area will point out that the beaches are black. Etna itself is around 30,000 years old, although volcanic activity in the area began over 500,000 years ago. An older, taller volcano once filled the space now occupied by the liquid-black Valle del Bove on the eastern side of the mountain, where the older volcano collapsed. The resulting landscape is ever-changing, defined by myriad geological periods.

The planting zone of Etna is shaped like a backwards c, with great variation in rainfall and temperature. Here, Carricante is the dominant white grape, a generously yielding (carricante infers “overloaded”), thick-skinned, late-ripening variety that is rather neutral, with piercing acidity; it thrives at high altitudes, with plantings reaching upwards of 3,300 feet above sea level. Other varieties including Minnella, Catarratto, and Grecanico Dorato are present as well and sometimes appear in Etna Bianco blends—the DOC only requires 60% of Carricante, and 80% for the superiore level.

Although planted in different locations around the volcano, the best expressions come from the area around Milo (900–1,100 meters above sea level) on the eastern side facing the Ionian Sea. This is also the only place from which the fruit for Etna Bianco Superiore DOC can be sourced. Carricante reacts well to the humidity of this site, with upwards of 2,000 millimeters of rain some years, according to famed enologist Salvo Foti of I Vigneri, the rain resulting from the mixing of wind from the peaks descending to mix with evaporation rising from the sea. Linear and saline in youth, the wines blossom with bottle age, with characteristics that are reminiscent of Riesling and Chenin Blanc. Jacopo Maniaci, the general manager of Tenuta di Fessina, notes that the mineral-rich soils of Milo derive from previous crater collapses. Fessina’s newest white wine, Musmeci Bianco, is a superiore, coming from Contrada (the local word for “cru”) Caselle in the Milo area and is an excellent example of Carricante at its purest. It showcases the dimension and tension this grape is capable of producing: fruity and smooth, and yet salty, smoky, and sour, with a persistent acidic finish and all the structure for aging.

Further north, off the coast from the town of Milazzo, are the Aeolian Islands, also known as the Lipari Islands. This volcanic archipelago results from the same magmatic thrust as Mt. Etna, with elevations up to 962 meters above sea level on Salina, with the Tyrrhenian Sea on all sides. The influence of salt, sun, and wind here is undeniable—aeolian derives from Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds—and the grape that has found a home here, reportedly since the time of said Greeks, is Malvasia delle Lipari. What this low-yielding variety lacks in vigor, it more than compensates for in floral and stone fruit aromas, and when made in a dry style instead of the traditional passito, a characteristic saline thread weaves through the wine. Nino Caravaglio, of the eponymous estate, has been integral to the revitalization of many of the vineyards across the islands. There are only 160 total hectares under vine today, although producers old and new like Barone di Villagrande and Tenuta di Castellaro have also invested heavily in recent years. Salina, Lipari, and Stromboli are currently the main zones of production for Malvasia delle Lipari, although some plantings can be found on the other islands.

Southeastern Sicily

Moving from north to south on the east coast of the island, the soils change from black to white, with the Iblean Mountains rising as Etna fades into the distance. Here, another geological shift has occurred. “This corner is actually a part of the African plate,” explains Pierpaolo Messina of Marabino, located in Noto. The seas advanced and receded five different times over the millennia, leaving a territory rich in marine deposits. The combination of calcareous-clay soils, bright sunshine, and the cross-section of air currents from the Ionian and Mediterranean Seas makes this a distinct growing environment, one that lends itself well to organic and biodynamic practices.

The 30-hectare Marabino estate is mostly planted to Moscato Bianco and Nero d’Avola, and at less than seven kilometers from the water, these low-lying vineyards (30–80 meters above sea level) are both sunny and well-ventilated, with little disease pressure. These are excellent growing conditions for the thin-skinned and delicate Moscato Bianco grape. Traditionally vinified as a passito wine, the investment in better temperature-controlled technologies (given Sicily’s frequent power outages, Marabino has invested in a thermos for each tank) has made possible beautiful expressions of this aromatic variety, with hints of honey, pear, white flowers, and a distinct note of santolina, or lavender cotton, a shrub native to the western and central Mediterranean.

In Ispica, producer Riofavara has been working since 1994 to highlight regional native grapes, including Inzolia and Grecanico, and increasing experimentation with relic grapes. Even within this hot region, 20% of Riofavara’s production is white wine, marked by a fresh and linear character that owner and winemaker Massimo Padova attributes to the limestone soils and proximity to the sea. His Marzaiolo, a blend of the aforementioned varieties and up to 5% of relic grapes, is crunchy and sapid, with a fruit and acid character reminiscent of the whites of the Rhône Valley, while his Mizzica, a dry white made only of Moscato Bianco, shows the ageworthy character of the grape. Its white peach and flower notes gain dimension with bottle age, with notes of honey developing alongside a subtle passion fruit flavor and consistent acidity and freshness.

Integral to helping his friend establish Riofavara and for putting the region at large on the map is Giusto Occhipinti. His winery COS, founded with friends Giambattista Cilia and Cirino Strano, produces wine in the Vittoria area. Immersed in the limestone, mixed with clay, sand, and marl, he notes how the soils of this area lend themselves to producing fruity and fresh wines, with surprisingly low alcohol for a site located at 250 meters above sea level—phenolic maturation here can occur between 11 and 13%. Different from Noto and Ispica, here there are about 40 centimeters of iron-rich red topsoil, and the diurnal shifts can swing 10 to 15 degrees Celsius from day to night. “We have African days, followed by fresh nights,” he jokes. At COS, all of the wines, white and red, are made the same way: the grapes are sorted, destemmed but not pressed, placed into amphorae, and then punched down. The maceration that occurs over seven to nine months is key to making wines in the low intervention manner. Occhipinti notes, “The long maceration provides protection for the wine, and it also works as a sponge, so it never loses color.” In his Rami wine, he blends Grecanico, what he deems a delicate, crisp grape, and Inzolia, lower in acidity but more aromatic and expressive, to make a wine representative of the territory: herbal, fruity, salty, bright.

Southwestern Sicily

The traditional home of Marsala, the area of production on the southwestern portion of Sicily is dominated by marine terraces. The soils are defined by their high limestone content, which provides excellent water reserves in this hot, arid, and windy climate. The stratification of sand with maritime fossils within these terraces contains various mineral salts that characterize the wines as well. Grillo became the primary variety in Marsala in the 19th and 20th centuries, not least due to the ease of grafting it with American rootstock in the wake of phylloxera. A lower-yielding crossing of Zibibbo and Catarratto, it is known for its high acidity, capacity for structure, alcoholic potential, and thick skins. Parent grapes Catarratto, a vigorous grape that performs better in soils with higher clay content, and Zibibbo, an aromatic variety that arguably finds its best expression on the volcanic island of Pantelleria, are also widely planted.

There is currently a revolution of non-fortified winemaking taking place in the region, with Grillo playing a leading role. In this Marco de Bartoli was a pioneer, the first to bottle Grillo as a dry white wine in 1990. Behind its creation was an economic need: the oxidative wines traditional to the region required aging, and he did not have a wine that could be sold quickly to bring in revenue. The resulting wines demonstrated new potential for the grape—something fresh and youthful, but with the fruit concentration, structure, and acidity for aging.

That wine, Grappoli del Grillo (translates to “bunches of Grillo”), paved the way for a series of other wines in the portfolio in addition to the traditional oxidative wines, including Vignaverde, a stainless steel bottling from younger vines, and a traditional method sparkling wine, Terzavia, whose dosage is made with must from the vintage after harvest. (De Bartoli later invested on the island of Pantelleria, reviving traditional winemaking practices and introducing the concept of dry monovarietal wines here as well, using the aromatic, citrusy, saline Zibibbo grape.) Nearby in Mazara del Vallo, Gorghi Tondi, a female-owned estate that lies in the center of a World Wildlife Fund reserve full of lakes called gorghi, has followed de Bartoli’s lead, bottling Charmat-method sparkling, still, and oxidative Grillo wines. Distinctively, seawater filters through limestone and rises as freshwater in the lakes, making this a mandatory stop on the migratory path of birds in this arid climate. In addition to Grillo, the estate also focus on Zibibbo, Inzolia, and Catarratto.

While winemaker Nino Barraco works with Grillo and Zibibbo as single-variety wines, his work with Catarratto in this region is quite interesting. One of the most common grapes in Sicily, the name of the generously yielding Catarratto refers to the form of the bunch, connoting a waterfall. According to expert Ian D’Agata, over 33,000 hectares of the island are planted to the grape, second in quantity only to Trebbiano Toscano in all of Italy. Recent discussions have focused on the different biotypes: Comune (also known as Marsalese), Lucido, and Extra Lucido or Lucidissimo, although the last one has yet to be classified. The primary distinction between them relates to the level of bloom on the skins (lucido meaning “bright” in Italian) and how large the bunches are, with Comune tending toward larger bunches, although most often they have been interplanted in the vineyard and thus have rarely been studied in depth.

Barraco has experimented greatly in one vineyard: he planted half with 140 Ruggeri rootstock, which in this territory pushes quick ripening that halts in August (excellent for Marsala production), and the other half with 1737, a rootstock adapted for dry lands that slows maturation—when August arrives, the grapes will continue to mature slowly, better maintaining acidity. He proceeded to then plant Catarratto Lucido and Comune on the two rootstocks, so that he effectively has four completely different grapes for his blends of table and oxidative wines. In the dry version, his skin-macerated Catarratto expresses itself much like a less-acidic Savennières, with bruised apple and straw notes overlaid with a mineral, earthy character. 

Northwestern Sicily

Catarratto also finds a home in the hills around Palermo and Trapani. This area is characterized by its mountains, with steep cliffs on the northern side from the horst and graben geological movement that dropped part of the land into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Deep valleys cut by rivers run transversely from the Sicilian Apennines, leading to flat coastal plains and draining into the sea. Catarratto was historically used for producing rather nondescript wines or must intended for Marsala, but with the growing emphasis on producing quality still, dry wines across the island, there have been discussions noting that the various biotypes thrive at different elevations.

Marco Sferlazzo of Porta del Vento asserts that the best place for Catarratto is at high altitudes, such as his north-facing vineyards at 600 meters above sea level. Here, there are significant diurnal shifts, with 10- to 12-degree Celsius swings between day and night. At these altitudes, the soils are characterized by eroded sandstone with more than 14 million years of age. Sferlazzo works with 52-year-old Catarratto vines planted in the traditional Sicilian alberello (bush-trained) system, as well as newer plantings. His most common biotype is the Catarratto Comune, although he notes there is a small portion of Lucido and Extra Lucido co-planted in the vineyard.

What attracts him the most to the grape is its versatility. He explains, “Catarratto is an interesting variety. Instead of blending it as was traditionally done, I highlight it as a monovarietal wine and make many wines in different ways from the same grapes to show its versatility.” He makes a range of wines, from a sparkling pétillant naturel, to a fresh, juicy style, to skin-macerated expressions—one made oxidatively, the other reductively. In all cases, the wines preserve a freshness and savory minerality, which highlight the grape’s propensity to emphasize texture over fruit.

Capturing Diversity

A range of new technologies and ideas—from picking in cooler temperatures and earlier, to cold-storing fruit before gentle pressing, to temperature-controlled fermentation vessels—has led to a plethora of quality-oriented white wines that would have seemed unthinkable in the hot Mediterranean climate just decades ago. The styles range from bright and fresh to skin macerated, and given the beneficial growing conditions throughout the island, many are able to work organically. The drive to capture the unique diversity of soils, mesoclimates, and varieties available is finding new proponents across Sicily, with small producers focused increasingly on bottlings of indigenous varieties, whether as monovarietal or blended wines, that highlight the region’s distinctiveness. Whatever the style, the white wines of Sicily overdeliver in terms of variety, quality, and pricing for the wine buyer and drinker of today.

Bibliography

Catalano, Raimondo. Geology of Sicily: an introduction. Palermo, Italy: Università degli studi di Palermo, Dipartimento di Geologia e Geodesia, 2004. https://www.herbmedit.org/bocconea/17-033.pdf.

D’Agata, Ian. Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs. Oakland: University of California Press, 2019.

D’Agata, Ian. Native Wine Grapes of Italy. Oakland: University of California Press, 2014.

Di Maggio, Cipriano, Giuliana Madonia, Marco Vattano, Valerio Agnesi, and Salvatore Monteleone. Geomorphological evolution of western Sicily. Palermo, Italy: Università degli Studi di Palermo, Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra e del Mare, 2017. https://www.degruyter.com/downloadpdf/j/geoca.2017.68.issue-1/geoca-2017-0007/geoca-2017-0007.pdf.

Fogliani, Giorgio. Il Futuro di Marsala: Vini spumante, bianchi, rossi, ossidativi. Milan, Italy: Possibilia Editore, 2019.

Santa Maria La Nave. Grecanico Dorato Grape. Catania, 2019. http://www.santamarialanave.com/en/grecanico-dorato-grape/.

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  • Sarah, thanks for taking us on a journey thru the viti, vini and the overall terroir of Sicily with focus on its white wines. Enjoyed also reading through your examples of singular and/or more common practices in the region. Well done!

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