Sicilian wine: everything you need to know
olive’s wine expert on how native grapes have elevated the Italian island’s reputation as a wine producer, including bargain and unique bottles to buy
Find out what Sicilian wine is all about and the best bottles to try, then check out our favourite natural wines to buy, best wine subscriptions and clubs and our pick of the best supermarket rosé, natural and orange wines.
About Sicilian wine
The island of Sicily, kicked by Italy’s toe on the map into the Mediterranean sea, has a wine culture going back thousands of years. Its warm climate and fertile soils grow grapes in abundance but, until recently, it was best known for churning out cheap bulk wine in massive quantities that was of little interest.
These days Sicily is a real player in the quality wine market, celebrating its many indigenous grapes, whose names roll off the tongue like poetry and give hints to the rich history of the island, influenced by occupants including the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and French – zibibbo, catarratto, nero d’avola, inzolia, damaschino and the rest.
In the east is the Etna region, its eponymous volcano still spitting out plumes of ash and lava from time to time, whose wines are causing most excitement at the moment. Its volcanic soils produce wines with a distinctive minerality, mainly from its native carricante (white) and nerello mascalese (red) grapes, the best of which are likened to fine burgundies for their elegant structure and sleek finish.
Hailing from the rocky, wild west of the island, marsala is Sicily’s most famous fortified wine, made in styles both sweet and dry. Both have their charms – the sweet styles are fantastic with cheese, and I often have a bottle of inexpensive dry marsala in my fridge which gives a nutty depth to sauces (it works magic in a gravy for roast chicken) and also makes a fine aperitif to sip while you’re cooking.
Sicily’s hot summers make great sweet wines from sun-dried grapes – look out for malvasia delle lipari, made just off the north coast on the Aeolian Islands, or moscato di pantelleria, from the island of Pantelleria which is closer to Africa than it is to Etna.
The Sicilians are a proud people who consider themselves very different from the mainland – their dialect is almost indecipherable to Italian speakers, and their food often nods more to North Africa than to that of their northern neighbours – couscous, dried fruits, nuts and spices are commonly used. Now they’re making really interesting wines with typical Sicilian exuberance and infectious love of life. Â saluti!
The best Sicilian wines to try…
Nerello mascalese grown at 800m on the northern slopes of Mount Etna makes this beautiful, ethereal red. Fresh red fruits, violets and the distinctive stony minerality that comes from the lava-rich soils here. A really special wine.
Wines made from the frappato grape are usually light and delicate but here it’s silky and opulent with some warming spice. Bright redcurrant and pomegranate fruit with whispers of rose petals, tobacco and cloves, it’s a very easy wine to like. Try it with grilled lamb chops.
I so often have a bottle of this in my fridge. Classic dry marsala, made from a blend of native grapes and aged in oak barrels to give a savoury depth to its dried fruit and nutty flavours. Drink it chilled as an aperitif, mix it with tonic over ice, or slosh it into meaty sauces as you cook. Brilliant in a gravy for roast chicken.
From one of Sicily’s most important and respected wine estates, this is a blend of inzolia, catarratto, garganega and chardonnay grapes. Rounded but elegant, with peachy fruit and a tangy pink-grapefruit finish, try it with buttery fish dishes or a light pasta sauce.
One for lovers of funky orange natural wines, this is fermented with native yeasts in contact with the grape skins, and bottled with no filtration. Unashamedly rustic and wild, it’s got lovely notes of ginger and warming spice along with tannic and crunchy bruised-apple fruit. Great with robust flavours; try it with Sicilian pasta dishes or even a curry.
Fruity, juicy and really versatile with food. The Sicilians use a lot of dried fruit in their cooking – this would be ace with 0ur chickpea, pepper and bulgar wheat salad.