Here we are, back into our beautiful journey through the Italian wine regions. We promised to go to Veneto, but as we are approaching the time of our visit to the wineries of Sicily, it is logical to introduce this gorgeous island and also an upcoming producers of great wines. During our visit we will augment this blog with pictures and personal impressions.
Sicily ( Sicilia in Italian) is positioned in the center of the Mediterranean Sea. This has made the island a nexus of cultural mixing and integration for millennia. The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Goths, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans have settled here and shared their legacies, so have the French Angevin and the Spanish Bourbons. Each of these royal dynasties have ruled the island and made it what is today.
In terms of viticulture Sicily is a very large wine region blessed with a varied range of terroir. Conditions are ideal to grow the vine and there is a wealth of native grape varieties.
Like many Italian regions that take their names from the original tribes, Sicilia comes from Siculi, an ancient Italic tribe first to inhabit the island.
The Phoenicians colonized the Island first. They established a settlement in the western part of the island and founded Palermo, the modern day Island capital. Greek settlers arrived almost simultaneously in the eastern part and took viticulture to another level. They founded many colonies, among them what are now the modern day cities of Catania and Siracusa. In fact Sicily became one of the most important centers of the Magna Graecia ( Great Greece). The Greeks produced sweet and high alcohol wines which were diluted with water and seasoned with various spices.
By the 3rd and 2nd century BC , the island fell under the Roman's control and the viticulture became secondary to the production of wheat ... SICILY BECAME THE GRANARY OF ROME.
After the fall of the Roman Empire , Sicily was a battle field among many tribes, like the Vandals, Goths and finally the Byzantines. However in the 9th century AD, the Arabs Saraceni, occupied the Island. Sicily prospered under the Saraceni, however viticulture suffered, as wine was forbidden under Muslim Law.
The Normans defeated the Arabs in the 11th century, they also conquered a large part of the Southern part of Italy, calling it the Kingdom of Sicily. Under the Normans Sicily flourished as Palermo, the capital of the Kingdom became a cultural and economic jewel and one of the most important cities of the Mediterranean region.
After more than 400 years of progress, Sicily became a pawn in the political chessboard of Europe. Its long social and economic decline lasted centuries. The House of Anjou, Aragon and finally Bourbons ruled the Island until 1861 when it was annexed to the newly formed Kingdom of Italy.
With phylloxera ravaging the vineyards of France at the close of the 19th century, French wine merchants arrived in Sicily. They sought, good, inexpensive wine to ship home to augment the dwindling supply of French wine. Sicilian wine deep in color and high in alcohol and tannin fit their needs. The bulk wine production brought prosperity and vineyards expansion. The quantity vs quality last until the 80s, as Sicily was one of the largest producers of vino da taglio.
This, of course, didn’t last. Eventually, the bulk-wine market began to collapse, particularly when France found other sources for its own blending wines. (To compound grape-growers’ woes, Marsala began to fall out of favor in the market as well.) Only forward-looking co-ops such as Settesoli— which began marketing bottled dry wines in the early seventies— were positioned to survive.
The region experienced a large emigration of people to the North of Italy and to the Americas at the onset of the 20th century. The vineyards were abandoned and the two world wars contributed even more to the general decline in vineyards and wine production.
Finally during the 70s, a gradual movement towards quality wine production began to take shape. In the 80s was even more evident with the rise of estates such as Donnafugata, COS and Narco de Bartoli, followed by many others in the 1990s including Planeta and Palari.
Sicily is one of Italy's five autonomous regions. It is Italy's largest region and its largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. It is shaped as a triangle and it is situated between the 36th and 38th parallel. Two thirds of Sicily's topography comprises, hills and the majority of the planting is there.
Since the days of the Greeks, Sicily has been Italy’s granary, and its reputation as an agricultural mass producer has carried over into wine. The island’s most famous wine, Marsala, came into being mainly because the English merchant credited with creating it, John Woodhouse, needed to find a replacement for French claret during the eighteenth-century War of the Spanish Succession, which pitted Britain against France (this was when the market for Sherries, Madeiras, and Ports first developed as well).
Although Marsala became known not just as “filler” but as a world-class wine in its own right, Sicily has for centuries focused on the production of wine in bulk. The island is Italy’s largest region and has traditionally been Italy’s most productive, although lately both the Veneto and Puglia have surpassed it. But most Sicilian wine is shipped out in tankers as high-alcohol blending wine, to be used by producers in northern Italy and southern France. Sicily is also a major producer of concentrated grape musts, which are made by either cooking down or vacuum-evaporating the juice into a sappy sugar water. These are used for the same purpose as blending wines: to raise the alcohol levels of anemic wines made elsewhere. Of the huge production of Sicilian wine each year, only about 5 percent actually makes it into bottles, and only 2 percent of that is classified as DOC.
Along with neighboring Calabria, Sicily best exemplifies the enduring legacy of the latifondo, the system of land distribution and agricultural relationships that dominated the Italian south for centuries. Northern Italy was characterized by the mezzadria (sharecropping) model, where the peasantry at least had a stake in the land they were cultivating.
But southern-Italian farms were much more oppressive. Sicily in particular was dominated by a relatively small number of large landowners, most of them noble families, for whom the Sicilian peasants were little more than indentured servants. After Italy became a republic in 1946, the new government attempted to reverse the effects of the latifondo through the agrarian reforms of the early fifties. While a lot of land was appropriated from large landowners and redistributed to peasant families, it didn’t lead to the rise of many private wine estates.
Instead, those newly minted landowners who chose to grow grapes either sold their produce to the large Marsala houses or joined a cooperative winery, or cantina sociale. And more so than their counterparts elsewhere in Italy, these fledgling farmers also had the mafia to contend with. The cantina movement exploded in the fifties and sixties, largely because of the failures of the agrarian reforms. The redistributed plots of land were too small to do individual farmers much good, so the Italian government’s response was to subsidize the creation of cooperatives (not only for wine but other agricultural products).
Propped up not only with government money but with contributions from the European Community, the ever-growing legion of co-ops became pumping stations for bulk wine to be shipped north, especially to France, which lost a key supply of blending wine when Algeria declared independence in 1962.
The co-op culture was pervasive enough that for much of the last three decades, the commercial wine scene in Sicily— excluding Marsala— was defined by two estates: the Corvo-Duca di Salaparuta property in Casteldaccia, which was controlled by the Sicilian regional government until the spring of 2001 (when it was sold to a private company), and the Conte Tasca d’Almerita estate in Vallelunga, better known as Regaleali.
If you asked for a dry Sicilian white in the seventies and eighties, your choices were largely confined to either Corvo’s “Columba Platino” or Regaleali’s basic “Bianco,” two clean, simple whites based on local grapes. For reds, the choices were more interesting, but no less limited: “Duca Enrico” from Corvo-Duca di Salaparuta or “Rosso del Conte” from Regaleali, both of which showcased Sicily’s top native red, nero d’avola, to great effect.
But things have changed, and dramatically. The collapse of the co-op system has given way to a surge in private investment in vineyards and wineries; there has been a substantial increase in recent years. DOC/G wines now account for more than 20% of Sicilia's total production. The revived importance of native grapes and the recognition that several DOC/G appellations have acquired in recent years account for part of this growth; the rest is attributed to the upgrade of the Sicilia IGT to DOC status. Next blog we will get into the appellations and their wines.