Italian wines are grabbing consumer interest, but it is the wines of Sicily that could be the big winners.
© Italian Wine
| Mount Etna dominates the landscape of Sicily.
No lineup of autochthonous varieties has seen such international success as those from Sicily.
Cultivated in a variety of soil types and microclimates, these indigenous grapes are the backbone to some of the wine world’s most versatile, food-friendly, and easy-drinking wines, and though other viticultural zones are also home to plethorae of native grapes, few regions – if any –have seen the market domination that Sicily has. Nine industry professionals have some hunches as to why.
Dolce vita mentality
Numerous professionals agree that the wanderlust aspect of Sicily has played a large role in consumer attraction towards its indigenous wines. Charlotte Berdensey, ex-bverage director at Momofuku and currently of Skurnik Wine and Spirits, notes that Italy as a whole has a strong intrinsic lure in terms of history, food, travel, and wine. “Many people become enchanted with the geography, beauty, and terroir [of Sicily],” she says, believing that these reasons allow people to feel more comfortable in becoming adventurous with the island’s native grapes.
Jake Taub of Taub Family Selections – –which boasts a two-decade history of working with Sicilian-based mega-producer Planeta – feels the same. “Over the past 10 years, there has been increased levels of tourism on the island from America that have created a certain proximity to Sicily that makes it relatable and digestible,” he says. “People want to bring home a piece of Sicily with them.”
Sicily-born sommelier Elio Sofia, wine director of New York-based Lucciola, agrees. “As Goethe once smartly observed, you cannot understand Italy without knowing Sicily,” he says, citing a global fascination with Italian culture, with Sicily as one of the many gateways. “We are a land of interventions and invasions from the Greeks to the Arabs (all who loved wine), yet we have maintained our unique identity and influences. Our indigenous grapes have survived volcanic explosions, hot blasts of African wind, and snowfall, all on one island – who wouldn’t want to taste that?”
Italian wine-focused sommelier Jeff Porter also credits cultural connection to growing interest in the island’s indigenous grapes, beginning with Nero d’Avola. “It is relatively easy to pronounce, and the first entrants to the US nailed the flavor profile that consumers loved,” he says, highlighting that the strong connection between the US and Sicily has also played a role in the rise of the Sicilian wines versus those from other parts of Italy.
From a retail perspective, sommelier Susan Ellis: “Sicily is sexy to talk about, especially when no one could travel,” she says. “The water, the history, and the idea of volcanic soils… It is enchanting. People always want to hear more.”
Sofia also credits quality-focused farming and winemaking as part of the rise in consumer interest in Siclian wine.
“Over the past 20 years, prosperity in viticulture has returned to the island,” he affirms. Sofia explains that generations of old winemaking families and vineyard owners have invested in their wines and techniques for improving viticulture methods, citing a return to Alberello-trained pruning and emphasis on site-specific, soil-based vinification to the rise in wine produced from indigenous grapes. “The knowledge, importance, preservation, and communication around wine, as you can find in Tuscany, Piedmont, or France, wasn’t there before,” Sofia explains. “But thanks to producers that come to Etna and invest, we have achieved well-deserved notoriety.”
Robin Wright, beverage director at Ci Siamo, also highlights the recent DOCG elevation of Cerasuolo di Vittoria as a key factor. “Cerasuolo di Vittoria became Sicily’s first and only DOCG in 2005, which was pivotal in the global awareness for Sicilian wines,” she explains, equally highlighting the island’s vast diversity of wine production. “From the racy, but full-bodied whites of Etna to the sweet wines of Marsala to the juicy Nero d’Avola / Frappato of Vittoria, there is something for everyone here and quality producers are popping up across the region.”
Land of versatility
Across the board, industry professionals agree that the versatility of Sicily’s topography, microclimates, and soil types creates the perfect mosaic for cultivating a slew of indigenous varieties – and, in turn, creates a diverse spectrum of flavor profiles within the wines they produce. Rocco Lombardo, president of Wilson Daniels, advises taking note of vineyard location when seeking out indigenous grapes from Sicily.
“Wines [produced from high-elevation vineyards] have complexity, concentration, and elegance,” he says, highlighting Feudo Montoni’s Lagunsa Nero d’Avola, cultivated at 1500 feet above sea level, as well as the family’s Grillo vineyards, which sit at a staggering 2400 feet above sea level.
“When Grillo is planted in vineyards of elevation, it can take on beautiful, bright tropical tones with high acidity,” he says. Equally, Lombardo notes that many Sicilian wines produced from high-elevation indigenous grapes show incredible ageworthy potential. “These wines’ fruit is still very alive and vibrant after 15 years of cellar age, and the texture and bouquet show signs of petrol notes, similar to the wines of France and Germany,” he says, particularly calling out Benanti’s renowned Pietramarina cuvée.
Food-friendliness and accessible similarities
Wright notes that the average guest at Ci Siamo usually asks for wines from Italy’s more famous regions (Barolo, Chianti, etc.), but it isn’t very difficult to get them to move a bit further south to Sicily.
© Italian Wine
| Catarrato is a good substitute for Sauvignon Blanc.
“It helps that Sicilian wines are so food friendly,” she says. Taub references drinkability, consistency, and balance within wines produced from the indigenous grapes of Sicily. “In particular, Grillo, Nerello Mascalese, and Carricante often have a delicious zippiness to them, while never sacrificing the ripe fruit that comes from the bright Mediterranean sun,” he says.
Theo Lieberman, beverage director of Delicious Hospitality Group (including the newly opened, Sicilian-focused Bar Pasquale), cites accessible similarities to beloved regions and international varieties as a cause for the growing interest in Sicily’s native grapes.
“For the most part, the red wines of Sicily have texture that is hard to find outside of Burgundy, combined with the acidity that we look for out of Piedmont,” he says, stating that Sicilian whites do a great job of bridging the gap between textured Chablis, marked with the signature salinity often associated with Albariño. “On the floor, Sicilian wines are a really good way to get something in a guest’s glass that drinks Burgundian without the price tag,” he says.
Further emphasizing Lieberman’s point is the unanimous ability to recommend indigenous Sicilian varieties as similar substitutes to more commonly recognized grapes. When cultivated at high altitudes, Lieberman finds that a number of indigenous Sicilian varieties lend to a more elegant style of wine. “When grown in the right conditions, they can be a great alternative to the more nuanced wines coming out of the rest of Europe,” he says.
On a recent trip to Sicily, Lieberman also recalls the striking discovery of dry, high-quality Marsala. “It immediately made me wonder why more bartenders aren’t playing with swapping it in to be a Sherry-esque substitute,” he recounts.
On the wine shop floor, Ellis generally recommends Grillo to customers seeking an alternative to Pinot Grigio. “While not a 1:1 comparison, taste-wise, the idea of going to the other end of Italy appeals to people,” she says. Similarly, Porter reaches for Catarratto for fans of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. “The wines are bright, fresh, and very easy to drink,” he says. Wright frequently recommends Carricante from Etna to Burgundian Chardonnay drinkers. “It’s much like a racy but more powerful Chablis,” she says.
For Pinot Noir lovers, Wright finds that Nerello Mascalese from Etna can often show the finesse and complexity of Red Burgundy; JT Robertson of Le Dû’s wine shop has also found the bright red fruit flavors and dark soil minerality of Nerello Mascalese-based wines to be a great fit for Pinot lovers. Porter cites Perricone as a solid alternative for fans of California Pinot or other medium-bodied, fruit-forward reds, while Berdensey recommends Nero d’Avola for those looking for something with more concentration and a bit denser in body.
Robertson believes that consumers today are more open to taking risks than ever before. “People are simply more curious and willing to try new things, and by doing so, are finding new favorites – there’s certainly plenty to find in Sicily,” he says. Additionally, Robertson states that contrary to the “classics”, many modern wine drinkers are finding a greater sense of quality in the unknown and unexplored.
On premise, Porter agrees. “Sicilian wine has exploded,” he confirms. According to Porter, guests are looking for something more interesting and specific – and to him, Sicilian wines hit that on the head. “The consumer’s interest in grapes they have never heard of and the fact that the wines are affordable have really given Sicily its place at the wine table,” he says.
Berdensey reveals that there is a lot more awareness across the board, both within the wine industry and everyday consumers alike. “Sicily has been promoted extremely well, and with the uniqueness that these wines carry with their profiles, they are fitting to a variety of palates and preferences,” she says. Additionally, Berdensey also cites the current trend of skin-contact wines, which have historically been associated with Sicilian wine production.
Robertson also finds that readily available information has also played a role in the rise of Sicilian wines’ popularity. “Through social media, culinary publications, and even pop
>culture, consumers today have such innumerable access to trends and information,” he says, stating that Sicilian wine generally always delivers on any promise of pleasure, whether the bottle was recommended at a local wine shop or something a consumer stumbled upon on Instagram. In sum, Robertson finds that this massive consumer outreach is what has allowed Sicilian wines produced from indigenous varieties to have received their “ardent following”.
Quality-to-price ratio… for now
Liberman finds that consumers are beginning to realize the value of Sicilian wines more and more. “Between tariffs, shortages on wines, difficult vintages, it’s getting harder and harder to go to a good restaurant and buy a bottle of wine for $60-$80 that you are going to continue to think about the following week,” he says, citing that wines produced from indigenous Sicilian grapes can offer that experience.
Porter also finds that Sicilian wines offer great value today. “They sit on the top of the price-quality ratio across white, rosé, and red wines,” he says. Taub agrees, stating that Sicilian wines deserve to be in the conversation with the great wines of the world. “While the wines from Etna are getting pricier, there are so many undiscovered areas of the island that will offer great value for years to come,” he says.
Future of Sicilian wine
Lombardo notes that Sicilian wines are not immune to inflationary pressure. “We’ll likely see an increase in price between 10 and 20 percent, not solely from inflation, but also due to increased demand,” he says. However, Lombardo states that even as pricing increases, Sicilian wines still offer great value across a number of price points. Sofia echoes this, stating that certain wines from Etna are already fetching prices similar to the great bottles of Piedmont and Tuscany. “I anticipate the price will increase as there is more demand for the wine [too],” he says, foreshadowing a need for allocation both in restaurants but wine stores.
Wright agrees, noting that although she’s seen prices for Sicilian wines increase in recent years, she still finds there to be “insane value” coming out of the region. “One of Italy’s best white wines produced is Benanti Etna Bianco Pietramarina, a wine with an insane agability and complex character,” she says, likening its price point to the same as average village-level Burgundy.
For her, the response is clear: “The answer is, yes, drink Sicily!”
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