On Wine: Sicilian wineries step up focus on quality to produce some top-notch table wines

On Wine: Sicilian wineries step up focus on quality to produce some top-notch table wines

Despite Sicily’s 4,000 years of winemaking history, most of the world has been enjoying serious table wines from this Italian island for only the last 15 years. Quantity was never the issue, as Sicily makes a huge amount of wine, but top-quality table wines from there are a fairly recent category.

Traditionally the majority of Sicily’s wine was destined for production of Marsala fortified wine or for distillation along with the rest of Europe’s overproduction. Additionally, two historic hurdles toward development of a viable wine industry were the island’s poverty and isolation.

Today Sicily’s fine wine and other agricultural products are getting new attention, and tourism is booming as people discover the mountainous island’s natural beauty and historic sites.

For many years Sicily competed with another region of Southern Italy, Puglia, as Italy’s largest producer of wine. Both regions averaged more than 100 million cases annually, together making up one-sixth of Italy’s production.

But Sicily’s recent emphasis on quality has lowered the quantity produced. It also has increased the number of small, private producers. Cooperatives now account for 75 percent of Sicily’s production, compared with 90 percent 15 years ago.

White-wine production still exceeds red-wine production by nearly three to one, driven by the fact that the base wines to make Marsala are white. Fish and seafood play a leading role in the local cuisine, and a tradition for white wines has existed throughout Southern Italy since Roman days.

Nonetheless, producers are concentrating more on red wines, and production figures for those varieties are rising.

On the coasts, where most of the wine is made and most of the people live, Sicily’s climate is hot and dry. But its mountainous interior is temperate and moist.

Most wine drinkers have never heard of Sicily’s popular grape variety, the white Catarratto, which covers over 40 percent of the island’s vineyards and is Italy’s third most planted variety after Trebbiano and Sangiovese. Catarratto is used mainly for Marsala and inexpensive white wine blends.

Two more serious local white Sicilian varieties are Grillo and Inzolia, also known as Ansonica. The other popular white varieties are Chardonnay, Grecanico and Fiano.

Sicily’s most popular red variety is Nero d’Avola. Red wines made from that grape are assertive and tannic, with heady flavors of ripe fruit and herbs. Other leading local red varieties include Nerello Mascalese, Frappato and Perricone, which is used mainly in blends.

Two wine regions deserve special attention: Etna and Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Some of Etna’s vineyards are as high as 2,300 feet in altitude. Etna Bianco, a great white wine, is made mainly from the indigenous Carricante variety. Excellent, lively reds, often called Etna Rosso, are made from the local Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio varieties.

WINE OF THE WEEK

2006 Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Planeta, Sicily, Italy

A 60-40 blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato, this wine is produced in stainless-steel tanks. The tannins and dark-berry fruit of the Nero d’Avola are countered by the lightness, acidity and red-cherry fruit of the Frappato. A fresh, vibrant wine with great length on the palate, it does not overwhelm food.

Wholesale price per case of 6: $80

The Cerasuolo di Vittoria region in southeast Sicily makes a powerful dry red of the same name, with a deceptively light ruby color. Most Cerasuolo di Vittoria is derived 60 percent from Nero d’Avola grapes, which supply the power, and 40 percent from Frappato, which contributes the color as well as cherry aromas and flavors. Cerasuolo di Vittoria is best consumed when it’s fewer than five years old.

We won’t be surprised if Sicilian wines, especially those based on indigenous varieties, become the next “hot” Italian wines in the United States.