A Tasting Tour of Sicily’s great vineyards and Native Varieties


Sicily today is one of the world’s most exciting wine-producing regions. With its sunny and warm climate, rich soils and treasure house of unique grape varieties, Sicily has been producing wines for millennia, back to the time of the Phoenicians and ancient Greeks. However, much of Sicily’s modern wine history has been dominated by a wine culture that emphasized quantity over quality – cheap, heavy reds, dull whites and cloyingly sweet Marsala and Moscato wines.

It wasn’t until the last few decades of the previous century that the Sicilian wine scene began a gradual transition to production of high-quality wines that are modern yet Sicilian in character. This was partially spurred by a change in international tastes away from heavy, high-alcohol wines to wines with balance, verve and finesse.

But a critical catalyst has been the advent of a new generation of ambitious, forward-looking wine producers that began implementing modern wine-making and cellaring techniques with an emphasis on the island’s unique, ancient grape varieties and classic growing areas.

Today, Sicily is a mecca of wine experimentation and investment with organic and biodynamic wines and explorations of ancient techniques for fermenting and ageing wines.

This article presents a brief but inclusive review of Sicily’s major wine regions and varieties. It is focused exclusively on the island’s red grape varieties, leaving the list of Sicily’s compelling white varieties for a later posting.

Paolo Cali, “Forfice” Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG 2014 (about $340
Cerasuolo di Vittoria is a red wine produced in a very small area around the town of Vittoria, which is about 14 miles west of Ragusa in southeastern Sicily. It is Sicily’s only DOCG-designated wine appellation.

Cerasuolo di Vittoria is a blend of two indigenous Sicilian red varieties – Nero d’Avola, arguably Sicily’s best red wine grape, and Frappato. The Nero d’Avola adds body and structure to the mix while the Frappato adds floral aromas and fruit flavors. It is one of the most distinctive wines produced in Sicily.

Diptych 1 - view of Sicilian red wine labelsPaolo Cali’s eponymous winery is located a short distance north of Vittoria. It has 38 acres under vine where it grows primarily Frappato and Nero d’Avola. Cali’s Forfice Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico is a 50-50 blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato and is the flagship wine of the winery.

The grapes are fermented on their skins for an extra-long 100 days so as to extract the maximum flavonoids from the grapes. The wine is aged for 3 years in large-format Slavonian oak barrels and has 13.5 percent alcohol.

Like most other Cerasuolo di Vittoria wines, Cali’s 2014 Forfice has a light cherry-red color that can be deceiving as the wine is medium-to-full-bodied with good concentration and depth. It is a distinctive and delicious wine with good acidity and serious ageing potential.

Cerasuolo di Vittoria is a very flexible and food-friendly wine that goes well with a variety of foods from veal dishes and risotto with porcini mushrooms to hearty roast lamb or pork dishes and stews.

Duca Salaparuta, “Passo della Mule” Nero d’Avola 2019 (about $20)
Nero d’Avola is the most widely planted grape variety in Sicily and accounts for the largest volume of red wines produced in Sicily. This thick-skinned, late-ripening variety typically produces full-bodied wines packed with dark fruit flavors and prominent tannins.

Duca di Salaparuta is one of Sicily’s oldest and most prominent wineries. It has since its founding in 1824 been a leader in Sicilian wine production and innovation.

The 2019 Passo della Mule is made entirely of Nero d’Avola grapes hand-harvested from the estate’s Suor Marchesa vineyards located a little inland from Sicily’s southern coast. The grapes are fermented for about a week and then aged for 10 months in oak casks and 8 months in the bottle prior to release. The wine has a food-friendly 13.5 percent alcohol.

With its layered, juicy dark fruit and kitchen-spice flavors balanced by fresh acidity and soft tannins, Salaparuta’s Passo delle Mule displays all the attractive features and intense personality of a quality Nero d’Avola wine.

Firriato, “Ribeca” Rosso 2015 (about $38)
Perricone is a late-ripening, little-known grape variety that grows in a relatively small area in northwestern Sicily where it thrives in the warm Mediterranean coastal environment. 

While Perricone is extensively used as a blending variety, Firriato’s 2015 Ribeca is made entirely of Perricone from estate vineyards around the northwestern seacoast town of Trapani. The wine is aged in French oak barriques for 12 months and spends an additional 20 months in the bottle prior to sale. The wine clocks in with a rousing 14.8 percent alcohol.

This is a benchmark Perricone wine – robust and full-bodied with good acidity and a strong tannic backbone.

Arianna Occhipinti, Sicilia Rosso Frappato 2020 (about $53)
Frappato is a grape variety that is grown almost exclusively in a small area in southeastern Sicily. It produces cherry-colored, light-to-medium bodied, aromatic wines low in tannins, similar in many respects to that of Pinot Noir–based wines.

Located in the Vittoria area in southeastern Sicily, Arianna Occhipinti has garnered considerable critical praise for producing wines of character and distinction centered on a “natural” approach to winemaking that emphasizes minimal human intervention in the journey from vine to bottle.

Occhipinti's 2019 Frappato is made entirely of Frappato Diptych2 - view of more red Sicilian wine labelsfermented with natural yeasts, aged for 14 months in Slavonian oak barrels and then bottled unfiltered.

It is cherry-red in color with an intense fruity bouquet of strawberries, cherries and raisins supported by perky acidity and modest tannins. It is not a fruit bomb or wine of power, rather one that enchants with its subtlety and finesse.

It is a versatile wine that goes well with various pastas, salads, appetizers, simple fish and white-meat dishes and is at its best when served lightly chilled.

Palari, Faro 2015 (about $60)
The small, ten-acre Palari family vineyard is located in the very northeastern tip of Sicily on a high plateau overlooking the Strait of Messina where on a clear day you can see across the Strait to mainland Italy.

With only about 50 acres of dedicated vineyards, the Faro DOC appellation is one of the smallest in Italy. Faro wines are blended wines based primarily on Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, eastern Sicily’s most prominent varieties but the blend can also include a small amount of other local red varieties. I have tasted several Faro DOC wines in recent years and I find their combination of finesse and concentration evocative of a fine aged Barolo but at half the price.

Palari’s 2015 Faro is aged in barriques for 18 months and spends an additional 18 months in the bottle before release for sale. It has seductive red-cherry scents, velvety-textured dark fruit and cassis flavors and soft tannins with some invigorating spice on the long finish. Expensive? Yes, but worth every penny.

Tenuta Delle Terre Nere, “Santo Spirito” Etna Rosso 2015 (about $38)
The Terre Nere estate is located on the northern slopes of Mount Etna, an active volcano that dominates the eastern end of the island of Sicily. The area’s volcanic soil is generally recognized as one of the best sites for production of quality red and white wines.

Mount Etna vineyards are graced with many old-growth vines, in this case really old growth with many vines being 80 to 100 years old and some even older. Since the phylloxera louse does not do well in grainy, volcanic soil, Mount Etna vineyards managed to escape the worst ravages of the phylloxera epidemic that decimated European vineyards in the late 19th - early 20th centuries.

The popularity of Mount Etna wines has increased dramatically over the past several decades and precipitated a land rush of sorts as new producers and investors flocked to the slopes of Mount Etna. The Tenuta delle Terre Nere winery, however, is one of the area’s oldest with prime vineyard sites and is generally vewed as one of Sicily’s top wineries.

While Etna Rosso DOC wines are typically a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, two traditional, indigenous varieties of the Mount Etna area, Terre Nere’s Santo Spirito is made exclusively of Nerello Mascalese harvested from 80- to 100-year-old vines.

The wine is aged in a combination of barriques and large-format French oak barrels for 14 months followed by an additional month in steel tanks prior to bottling and release for sale. Alcoholic content is 14.5 percent.

With its medium-weight body, rich and intense red fruit flavors, fresh acidity and refined tannins, this Etna Rosso wine has been described as the Burgundy of the Mediterranean.

COS, Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG 2015 (about $28)
This is another Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico wine. Since Cerasuolo di Vittoria is Sicily’s only DOCG-denominated wine appellation, it’s worth taking another look at this engaging wine variety.

The distinctive name of the COS winery is derived from the first letters of the surnames of the three founders of the winery (Cilia, Occhipinti and Strano). Initially started in the early 1980’s as a hobby on a shoestring budget by the three long-time friends, it quickly achieved critical success and as the business took-off they decided to make it a serious, full-time pursuit. Today, COS is acclaimed as one of southern Italy’s premier wineries.

The 2015 COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico is a blend of 60 percent Nero d’Avola and 40 percent Frappato. The grapes are fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged in oak barrels for 20 months. The wines are bottled unfiltered in distinctive squat-shaped bottles with short necks reminiscent of old-time Port wine bottles.

COS’s Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico has the wine’s traditional light cherry-red color. A gentle swishing of the glass reveals an aromatic ensemble of ripe black cherries and raspberries with a fruity-floral lift. It is medium-to-full bodied and offers up a round, full, intense mouthfeel of red fruit mingled with some spicy earth notes, pleasant acidity and light tannins. It’s an elegant wine, beautifully balanced, complex and a real pleasure to drink.


©Richard Marcis
January 18, 2023

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