Sicily and Cerasuolo di Vittoria
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, and it is a distinct region within Italy known as Regione Siciliana. Sicily boasts a history of wine making and grape growing that dates back for centuries, and it continues that tradition today by offering the most dynamic wines it has ever had. Sicily has been host to many different civilizations and it has truly been a bridge between cultures over the centuries. This large island is divided into numerous unique winegrowing areas that produce different wine styles. Of these, there are 23 DOCs (Denominazioni di Origine Controllata), and one DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), and 7 IGTs (Indicazione Geografica Tipica). The diversity of landscapes on this island leads to very different terroirs in the above regions. The most prominent landmark in Sicily is Mount Etna, the large active volcano that contributes to the unique landscape and differing soil types, as well as the heroic viticulture in the region. Sicily has earned a reputation of producing some of Italy’s best wines, often centering around indegenous grape varieties. This region is known worldwide by its rich and persuasive sweet wines and its decisive and delightful red wines.
The Greeks, Phonecians, Arabs, and Italians have all left their imprint on Sicily and have shaped it into what it is today. It is believed that the vine grew spontaneously in Sicily, long before the arrival of the Greeks, and winemaking dates back to about 4000 BC! Viticulture however, was most likely introduced to the island during the eighth century BC by the first Greek colonists. They brought with them advanced agricultural knowledge and techniques, and laid the foundations for the future oenological wealth of Sicily. In later centuries, there were various ups and downs in the viticultural and wine production influenced by various domains: the Christian, the Byzantine, the Arab, the Normans and the Spanish rule. Their cultures and traditions greatly influenced the development of the wine production, following their religious beliefs.
One of the most significant events in the history of Sicilian wine occurred at the end of the 18th century, when a young English merchant who through his skills contributed to the birth of one of the most famous and important wines of Italy: The Marsala. He sensed that this particular wine could compete with the famous and undisputed wines from Jerez and Porto. During the 1800s, thanks also to the fame of Marsala, the wine production of Sicily developed considerably. This was a period where the most historic and prestigious Sicilian cellars were born. At that time the main production areas were Etna and Catania, with more than 90,000 hectares of vineyards and about one million hectolitres of wine produced.
The last drastic change in Sicily’s wine history came with the phylloxera crisis. Although a solution to the devastating crisis was found, the restoration of the affected vineyards lasted for over half a century and was finally finished during the 1950s. This event signalled a decisive change of direction in the wine production in Sicily, now in favour of single varietal wine rather than the usual varietal blend. In the past, Sicily’s vine growers opted for higher yields which turned the region into a bulk producer that exported wine to the rest of Europe, China, and India. Nowadays, recent improvements in viticulture have shifted the focus to lower yields and higher quality. In the 1980s, there was a resurgence of interest to improve viticultural practices in the area, and this has contributed to maintaining its position as a key player in the winemaking industry.
Sicily has several denominations: 1 DOCG, 23 DOCs and 7 IGTs. Italian wine classification can be a bit complicated, but each of these levels has different quality and regulations. Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) is the highest level of classification. For this level, the wines are of the highest quality, and all wines are tasted by a government-appointed committee to guarantee a consistent standard. Denominazioni di Origine Controllata (DOC) is the next level, with slightly less stringent regulations than DOCG, but all wines in this category still maintain a highlevel of quality. The final classification level is Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT), which means that the wines are produced in a specific area. Although the loosest of the regulations, there are still certain rules that must be followed in order to have IGT written on the label.
In Sicily, the only DOCG is Cerasuolo di Vittoria. It is a red wine comprised of a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato. Of the DOCs, Etna DOC is the most dynamic and most known for the quality of its wines and the different styles. Marsala DOC is also quite important, it is the land of the most important fortified wine in Italy. Following that, Malvasia delle Lipari DOC and Passito di Pantelleria DOC are the next main appellations in the region, and in Italy, producing sweet wines. From the IGTs the most popular is Terre Siciliane IGT which represents mainly blends of wine from the region.
Climate, soil and viticulture:
Sicily is the biggest island in Italy, and it has several unique areas that have different climates, soil, traditions, and terroir. This dynamic layout, with its long coasts, high mountains, active volcanoes and small archipelagos, is what makes Sicily so special. The climate is Mediterranean with dry summers and mild winters. However, due to the high mountains the altitude and the exposure to the dominant winds can vary significantly throughout the region. The diverse environment explains why such diverse and rich wines come from the region.
The Etna Volcano area is by far the most dynamic and rich, the soils here have lots of volcanic nutrients and are very hospitable to growing grapes. The high elevation of the vineyards and the high temperature fluctuations between day and night increase the overall quality of the grapes and lead to increased colouration and flavour complexity. Another interesting feature of the Etna region is the old age of many of the vines in Mount Etna’s vineyards. Due to the sandy-volcanic composition of its soil the Phylloxera never spread in this area. The result is that some of Mount Etna’s grape vines are well over a century old!
The islands offer some unique terroir, here the viticultural practises are not easy. This heroic viticulture is permitted by the presence of terraces at varying altitudes, from sea level to up to 300m above sea level. Lipari islands are characterized by sand and pumice soils from Vulcan origin. The same type of soil is found in Pantelleria, but with smaller terraces and a hotter dry climate highly influenced by its proximity to Africa.
The coast and the inland areas of Sicily can have different types of soils, from Terra Rossa, rich in iron and with low fertility of Marsala, to the calcareous sandy-pebbly ground of Cerasuolo di Vittoria. This is an area deeply influenced by the proximity of the Mediterranean Sea and by the nature of the winds.
Cerasuolo di Vittoria:
Cerasuolo di Vittoria is located in the southeastern corner of Sicily, and here the lower elevations bring a hotter and drier climate. This is “una vasta area” with different microclimates and unique terroirs depending on the location. The wine produced here is a red blend, which must contain 50-70% Nero d’Avola, with the remainder made up of Frappato. This wine earned DOCG status in 2005, and it is the only wine of that level on the island. Nero d'Avola brings colour and structure, while Frappato brings some fresher fruitier aromatics. Cerasuolo means cherry, and that is just what these wines tend to be likened to. They are bursting with fruit flavours and aromas, notably cherry and red berries, but they can have subtle notes of licorice and leather depending on the ratio of the blend. Cerasuolo di Vittoria is a dark ruby coloured wine. Wines with the potential for longer aging tend to have a higher percentage of Nero d'Avola because this is the part of the blend responsible for more structure and tannin. Cerasuolo di Vittoria wines are best to drink 5-10 years after bottling, however some wines have been shown to be exceptional after 20 years. There are two different quality categories of Cerasuolo di Vittoria: rosso and classico. Rosso wines are aged for about 8 months, while clasico wines have a longer aging period of 18 months and all grapes in this wine must come from the Classico zone. This Classico zone approximates the original DOC zone from 1973, and it covers a rather large area. All wines under the DOCG must also have a minimum alcohol content of 13%.
Variety and Winemaking
More than 20 varieties are planted in Sicily, most of them which are indigenous and exclusive to the island. Local white grape varieties are either sold as varietal or blended wines and are usually made in an unoaked style with citrus and stone fruit flavours. Between those, Catarratto is the most planted in the island and one of the most planted in Italy. Grillo is the second most present variety, mainly for the production of Marsala thanks to its high potential and great quality-to-price ratio. Carricante is the key variety for the Etna region because of its versatility to ageing and the distinctive spectrum of aromas, from herbal and floral to tropical, and it brings everything together with its high acidity and minerality.
An important part of the wine production of Sicily is the sweet wine production. Malvasia here is typically used in the sweet style, where it finds its best example in the Lipari islands. Zibibbo (Muscat of Alexandria) is the second main variety to produce the Passito di Pantelleria with his famous spicy notes of candied citrus and dried fruit.
International varieties, such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah are also planted on the island, and are usually vinified in full-body and oaked styles.
Among the native red varieties, Nerello Mascalese is the most noteworthy. It comes from the small Etna appellation and is usually blended with Nerello Cappuccio to produce fresh, fruit-driven wines with high acidity and a good level of tannins.
Nero d’Avola is the most planted and recognized variety from Sicily, planted in several appellations of the island, but it finds its oldest blend tradition in the Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG appellation, normally in blend with Frappato. It is a medium-bodied variety with a fair acidity and medium level of tannins, driven by its characteristic red and black fruit and spicy aromas such as plumb, cherry and licorice.
Sicilia DOC. Consorzio Vini Sicilia DOC. https://siciliadoc.wine
Wine Enthusast. A Beginner’s Guide to the Wines of Italy. Lauren Mowery, April 16, 2019. https://www.winemag.com/2019/04/16/beginners-guide-to-the-wines-of-sicily/
Wine Insiders. DOC vs DOCG vs. IGT: The differences behind Italian Wine Classifications. https://wineinsiders.com/wine-101/doc-vs-docg-vs-igt-italian-wine
Wine Searcher. Cerasuolo di Vittoria. https://www.wine-searcher.com/regions-cerasuolo+di+vittoria