Grapes of Sicily
How to tell your Nero d’Avola from your Grillo.
Wednesday 10 November 2021
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Ask a wine lover about Sicily and watch their eyes light up. A little island just off the south west coast of Italy, its unique food and drink is influenced by the many cultures who’ve stopped off there, including colonisers from Ancient Greece, mainland Italy, the Middle East and Northern Africa, France and Spain. In return, Sicily has had a huge impact on wine and cuisine all over the world.
Summer in Sicily is hot. At the moment, thanks to global warming, it’s never been hotter in living memory. Thankfully, for the moment, the island’s indigenous grape varieties thrive in the dry, sunny climate and volcanic soils here. It seems a volatile place to grow fruit with delicate, nuanced flavours, but for thousands of years these vines have produced wines with elegance, power and structure, and a truly unique expression of Sicily’s unmistakable terroir.
One of Sicily’s most famous and well-loved indigenous grape varieties is wine-list winner Nero D’Avola. Also known as Calabrese, it makes up just under 20% of Sicily’s vines, and has been enjoyed since the Middle Ages. High tannins and medium acidity mean that winemakers can create big, bold wines with this grape, but equally they can choose to use a lighter touch, crafting young wines with interesting texture, and flavours of ripe plum.
Nerello Mascalese is the “grape of the volcano”. Grown up on the slopes of Mount Etna and in the volcanic soils of Catania and Messina, this variety flourishes with that gritty, ashy terroir all about its roots and is the main component in Etna DOC wines. Another Sicilian variety with big tannins and medium acidity, Nerello Mascalese is earthy and herbaceous, with red fruit flavours that mellow with age. Take a look at our feature on the soils of Sicily to learn more about how volcanoes have shaped Sicily’s wines as well as its landscape!
One of the most common and delicious grape varieties being used to make modern natural orange wines in Sicily is Cataratto. A white grape that’s been unfairly treated as lower quality for years, as a skin contact white it transcends easy-drinking-table-white and comes alive with citrus peel and fresh ginger notes.
You will most likely find Perricone in a Nero D’Avola blend because alone, it can have a bitterness that flattens any tannin or acidic yumminess. When it’s made well, however, solo Perricone can drink like a good Barolo — if you find a good one, they’re a great value wine.
If you’ve ever drank Marsala (or used it in a recipe), you’ve tried Grillo, Sicily’s most-planted white wine grape. Used for years to make fortified wine and not much more, in recent years this grape has become more favoured as the basis for local dry white wine because of its round citrus flavour and lemony zing.
Zibibbo — also called Muscat de Alessandro — is an ancient grape that’s been used for winemaking all over the Mediterranean, and has been loved in Sicily since the Phoenicians and Ancient Greeks cultivated vines there in around 800 BCE. It’s aromatic, and as a white wine it’s citrussy and floral. As an orange or skin-contact wine, it gets figgy, packed with apricots and garnished with candied peel.
Grown in Sicily since the 7th century, Inzolia, also known as Ansonica, is mostly grown in the West of the island, in the “golden triangle” between Agrigento, Trapani and Palermo. Low in acid and sugar, Inzolia makes a really surprising wine when used well — full of savoury notes, salty minerality and a touch of almond. Maybe even some menthol.
Versatile Frappato has an intense aroma often described as “peculiar” — violets, geraniums and menthol. It makes a light-bodied, transparent red wine with a surprising boost of black fruit flavours and soft tannins, which goes brilliantly with local fish soup or chargrilled fish steaks.
If you’re looking for a grape with real historic claims, look for Fiano, a grape that’s also grown in the Campania region of mainland Italy. Believed to have been the main variety used to make the Roman wine Apianum mentioned by Pliny the Elder, in Sicily it creates a floral, honey-toned wine with a rich nuttiness. It thrives in volcanic soils, which is why it does so well both in Sicily and in Campania.
If you’ve ever visited Sicily, you will most likely have tried a Nocera wine, being that it’s indigenous to Sicily but normally blended with Nerello Capuccio or Nerello Mascalese. It’s a tannin-rich grape that makes a hefty, bold wine, full of black fruit flavours and leathery spice, and manages to keep acidity levels high, even in the hot Sicilian sun. It’s also called Barbi du Sultan, which is an excellently extra name.
Nerello Capuccio is Nerello Mascalese’s cousin, and is usually found blended with it to add fresh fruit flavours and softness. This grape is a bit of a daredevil, and loves volcanic soil, especially at high altitudes. It gives off cherry flavours by itself, but hasn’t got much tannin to add structure as a single varietal, which is why it’s usually blended with fellow red grapes for more texture. It goes really well with Margherita pizza, by the way.
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