Sicilian Whites and lemons

Best friends, from hillside to dinner table.

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You probably don’t think very much about lemons; they’re a commonplace fruit. It may surprise you then that, throughout history, they’ve been among the world’s most coveted and mysterious of foodstuffs; the lemon is the most painted fruit in Western art. During the Dutch golden age alone, more than half of those 17th century paintings depicted the yellow citrus. Why did the lemon appeal so deeply to those artists? 

But that isn’t the lemon’s only mystery. When and where was it first grown? Perhaps 3,000 years ago? Maybe older? Perhaps from northwestern India? Maybe Myanmar? Honestly, who really knows? 

What we do know — is that lemons were brought to Sicily by conquering Muslims in the 9th century, when the island was part of the Byzantine Empire. Within a few centuries, lemons were so plentiful in Sicily that the Bay of Palermo was called the Conca d’Oro, the shell of gold, for the yellow citrus fruits shining along the coast. By the 19th century — after doctors realised that citrus cured scurvy — it was 60 times more profitable to grow lemons than any other crop, including olives and grapes. So lucrative was the lemon trade that it gave rise to Sicily’s infamous mafia, who controlled the industry.

So why all the talk about lemons in a wine pairing article? First, if you’re like me (and god help you if you are) you enjoy a wine pairing challenge, and citrus is devilishly difficult. Second, if you’re like me (again, lucky you) one of your favourite dishes is the southern Italian standard pasta al limone — a deceptively simple recipe that calls only for lemon, butter, basil, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, along with linguine or spaghetti. 

Like the tomato — the other southern Italian staple — lemon defies an easy pairing. Do you match the acidity, with a white like Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc? Do you contrast with sweetness, like an off-dry Riesling, or with heavily oaked red? I say, neither. With pasta al limone, it’s an exemplary case of “what grows together, goes together”. That means, Sicilian white wine with a classic Sicilian dish. 

Sicilian whites made from lesser-known but ancient grapes, such as Grillo, Catarratto, Zibibbo (aka Moscato d’Alessandria), Inzolia, and others have been gaining popularity over the past decade as good-value, everyday wines. Particularly around the cool volcanic slopes of Mount Etna, they are becoming some of the most sought-after Italian whites.

Dry whites, however, are a relatively recent phenomenon in Sicily. From the late 18th century until the end of the 20th century, grapes here were mainly grown for producing Marsala, the island’s famed fortified wine. But over time, poor quality doomed Marsala’s reputation as a cheap cooking wine.

Enter Marco de Bartoli, who made the revolutionary move in the 1990s to vinify Grillo and Zibibbo as dry wines. There are now over 8,000 hectares of Grillo planted in Sicily, up from just under 2,000 at the turn of the 21st century. Catarratto, though, remains the most widely planted grape, and it’s the backbone for one of my go-to value Sicilian wines, Donnafugata Anthìlia. At under 10 pounds, its lush floral and fleshy stone fruit notes, along with its supple roundness, pair beautifully with a Tuesday night pasta al limone. It’s an amiable crowd-pleaser.

These days, Sicily has become a hotbed for natural winemaking from producers such as Frank Cornelissen and Arianna Occhipinti. One of my favourite whites in all of Italy is Occhipinti’s SP68 Bianco, which is a blend of Zibibbo along with a rare, ancient variety called Albanello, of which there are only a few hundred hectares remaining. SP68 (“the name of a road, for a wine which is a journey,” says Occhipinti), is both complex and refreshing. There are unique aromas of grapefruit, lychee, saffron, rose, and even kirsch, yet in the mouth it’s salty and stony, full of nectarine and sage with a very dry finish. Beautiful, and with its low alcohol, dangerously drinkable.


Sicily’s dry wine culture is young and there aren’t so many strict traditions and rules

What’s striking about the Sicilian whites I’ve tasted over the years is that while there’s a common thread — drinkability, freshness, big floral notes, and an underlying seaside element — I find a lot of variety. Part of that is because of Sicily’s diversity of grapes. But the other part is that Sicily’s dry wine culture is young and there aren’t so many strict traditions and rules.

In that way, Sicilian whites mirror pasta al limone, which is a simple recipe with dozens of local variations. In mine, I use butter instead of oil, linguine instead of spaghetti, and I insist on using lemon zest as well as the juice. I’ve seen people (ahem Nigella Lawson) mistakenly incorporate eggs and cream (In a word: No). But the recipe is more of a suggestion or form rather than a prescribed list. Make it to your taste.

Do yourself a favour, though, and see how well it pairs with a delicious Sicilian white.




Pasta al limone recipe

This lemon pasta dish is an overlooked classic, native both in Sicily and the Amalfi Coast. The basics are always the same — lemon, butter, basil, and Parmigiano-Reggiano — but adjust according to your taste (I tend to use slightly more butter, lemon, and salt). The key is to use lemon zest as well as the juice for a fresh and lively sauce. A perfect accompaniment to grilled fish, or great simply on its own.

Ingredients:

•  340g dry linguine

•  6-8 tablespoons unsalted butter

•  Zest of one lemon

•  Juice of one lemon

•  ½ teaspoon salt

•  ½ teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper

•  10g fresh basil leaves, chopped

•  90g Parmigiano-Reggiano, freshly grated

•  Basil sprigs for garnish

Instructions:

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil and drop in the pasta. Cook according to the package instructions, stirring constantly.

When pasta is almost finished, melt butter in a large skillet. Add zest, juice, salt, and pepper and heat on low for 1 minute.

Strain the pasta when it is ready and then add it to the skillet and toss. Add basil and Parmigiano-Reggiano and toss until the pasta is evenly coated. 

Serve with more grated cheese and black pepper at the table. Serves four.


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