Wines in Italy, Sicily

The winemaking tradition in sunny Sicily dates back as far as four thousand years. Over those millennia the Sicilians, named for the settlers who introduced agriculture there, have raised wine grape growing to the level of the Italian Renaissance artist.

In the far west, nestled among the rugged Gibellina Mountains is their masterpiece: the Mazara Valley. Larger than Piedmont or Tuscany, the grapes here that ripen under the hot sun are often used to fortify the weaker wines made in northern Italy.

The heart of the region lies between Salemi and Marsala, the latter giving its name to the traditional hearty wine originating there. There, thanks to warm temperatures, hilly terrain, sea breezes and rich soil, conditions combine to rival the best found in California.

Gifted with such terroir, the country produces more wine per year than Australia and New Zealand combined. Merlot, Chardonnay and Sangiovese are grown, of course. But there are also indigenous varieties such as Insolia and Catarratto.

Of course, a major portion of that output is the dessert wine Marsala, actually originated by English merchant traders two centuries ago. In the past, scorned for its association with cooking wines, there are connoisseurs now that favor its complex flavors in the form of Marsala Vergine and Superiore Riserva. In some years, Sicily provided fully a third of Italy's total production of this sweet nectar.

But far from one-trick magicians, the artisans in one of the world's oldest winemaking regions also produce delicious whites made from a blend of Insolia, Damaschino and Chardonnay. And the reds, once scorned as overbearing, now count among their number such delights as Nero d'Avola. Sometimes compared to Syrah, they age well and sell for as much as sixty dollars a bottle in the finest restaurants in New York and London.

Such works of art come from techniques developed over centuries. The sophisticated vintners may prune the vines by as much as 35% to concentrate the flavor, then harvest the fruit at night to avoid the scorching Sicilian autumn sun. The grapes are then stored in cooled vats to avoid premature fermentation. From this is produced the high-reputation vino da taglio grape must.

Grapes run the gamut of Carricante to Chardonnay, Grillo to Malvasia. One can also find the Italian version of the Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, but also the traditional Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Among the reds, the mainstay Cabernet Sauvignon is grown everywhere, but Gamay and Negrello Cappuccio — from the foothills of the Etna volcano — form part of an enormous variety of vines.

Only 15% of this huge output, though, is bottled on the island, with only 2% controlled under the Italian Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) appellation system.

The majority of the vineyards reside on the island's west side in the Trapani province, where more than 70% of Sicily's wine is made. Surprisingly, the largest portion of this output is white wine not red. Among these is the Alcamo, enjoying a renewed rise in quality.