By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 17 August 2019
Sicily is one of my favourite destinations in Italy for scenery and culture, but only now am I starting to enjoy its wines.
For years Sicily was just a big bulk producer sending wine up to the chillier north for blending and the wines served in its own tavernas were rustic reds and inelegant whites. In the 1980’s things started slowly to change, with a focus away from bulk wine and fortified Marsala, to fine quality table wines.
One of the first pioneers to focus on quality wines in 1985 was the Planeta family, who make some of the best wines on the island from both classic French grapes and indigenous varieties. Today they have been joined by numerous renowned oenologists like the gifted natural winemaker Belgian Frank Cornelissen and the well-travelled inspirational Peter Vinding Diers both attracted to Sicily’s volcanic terroir, particularly to the slopes of its most famous active volcano Mount Etna [lava flows pictured right].
Sicily has huge tracts of vineyards – at 120,000 hectares it is similar in size to Chile and grows just less than Australia – which is phenomenal for this size of island. So vineyards are very important here to the islander’s livelihoods. Terroirs are very diverse from high altitude Etna to the south coast around Syracuse to the windswept island of Pantelleria – and there is a wide variety of styles here from zippy whites, fruit forward quaffing reds, rich meaty powerful reds, fortified and sweet wines, Pantelleria’s speciality.
For white wines, my favourite grape in Sicily is Grillo – an ancient grape variety which was created from a natural cross between Zibibbo (Muscat of Alexandria) and Catarratto Bianca it is mainly grown in the west of the island. It has charming floral notes and sweetness inherited from its Muscat parentage. Another indigenous grape Carricante, mostly grown on the slopes of Mount Etna to benefit from altitude and volcanic soils, is also enjoying a renaissance here now making very elegant minerally whites.
The most characterful complex reds are made from the fascinating Nerello Mascalese grape which grows on Mount Etna’s slopes. It is a tricky grape which needs a significant difference between day and night temperatures to achieve the best flavour with balanced acidity.
Anyone looking for a great red bargain in Sicily need look no further than Nero d’Avola. It is an easy grape to make into a sweet inexpensive red. It makes the most masculine heavyweights amongst the reds with a deep black red colour (hence its name nero), high alcohol and sweet chocolate notes.
Sicily has just had three warm vintages (particularly hot in 2017) with very rich ripe fruits in their reds, making the wines so attractive to those who normally drink wines from the New World. So now is a great time to stock up on some Sicilian sunshine.
SURSUR GRILLO 2018 Donnafugato (13%)
£14.99 Valvona & Crolla
Unoaked fresh fruity Grillo smelling of freshly mown meadows. It has such an attractive peachy, plummy, herby, honeyed, lemon-lime flavour with herby undertones – showing the Grillo grape at its best. Would suit anyone who loves aromatic fresh zippy whites.
GRILLO LUMA 2018 Fantini (13%) ***STAR BUY***
£12.99 Valvona & Crolla
This enchanting Grillo is typical of Sicilian whites with its rich full-bodied palate and vibrant freshness. Loved its gentle aromas of green apple and lychees – tastewise it reminded me of a Spanish Albarino and Italian Garganega with its honeyed citric notes. A wine to match with food – such as smoked fish, mackerel or light risotto.
ZIBIBBO VITESE 2018 Colomba Bianca (12.5%)
£11.69 Valvona & Crolla
Zibibbo is the Sicilian name for Muscat. The grape is often used for sweet sticky wines, but this is crisp and dry. Lovely lifted floral aromas, zesty tangy palate with ripe citric fruits. Popular with our tasters who loved its uplifting aromas and textural minerally palate. This organic Zibibbo is made by the dynamic co-operative Colomba Bianca.
NOSTRU CARRICANTE ORGANIC 2017 (12.5%)
£11.50-£12.95 Slurp, Jeroboams, Saxty’s Wine, Ricardos Cellar
Loved the fresh natural acidity and distinctly minerally notes which underlie this very ripe fleshy white. It is rich and mouthfilling with creamy lees texture, but with lots of attractive freshness too making it a deliciously zesty white for summer drinking. Carricante is a tricky grape to get right as it produces prodigious number of grapes, so it needs strict pruning.
NERO D’AVOLA 2018 (14%)
Aldi’s organic version of this grape gives so much ripe fruit and spice for your money. Our tasters loved its liquorice undertones, blackcurrant cordial flavours and soft tannins – although some commented it was quite sweet.
NERO D’AVOLA LA FERLA 2017 Canicatti (13.5%) ***STAR VALUE***
£7.25 The Wine Society; £7.95 WineTrust100
Unoaked sweetly fruited spicy sumptuous example of this grape – and a very good example under £8. Loved its white pepper nose, sappy raspberry fruits, mouthfilling full-bodied palate and refined tannins. La Ferla refers to the fennel flower which flourishes alongside Nero d’Avola on the island.
NOSTRU NERELLO MASCALESE 2017 (13%)
£11.50-£12.95 Slurp, Jeroboams, Saxty’s Wine, Ricardos Cellar
Bright vibrant fruity unoaked smooth and soft example of this fascinating grape. Nerello Mascalese needs significant diurnal temperatures during ripening to get plenty of flavour. Grown at 400 metres altitude it has retained enough acidity to balance with the rich baked fruits and spicy notes.
NERO ORO APPASSIMENTO 2017 (14%) ***STAR BUY***
£9.99 Majestic Wine
Another popular big bold red with cherry and blackcurrant notes, lusciously ripe tasting a bit like a full robust Malbec and sweet spicy Shiraz. Plenty of colour and fruit for your money. It is made using dried grapes, so has a similar textural feel to Amarone, although it does taste more like an Australian Shiraz.
NERELLO MASCALESE MICINA 2018 Fantini (13.5%)
£16.59 Valvona & Crolla
A meaty earthy version of this grape. It is still very youthful, but shows it can be enjoyed both young and mature. Tasters loved its savoury balsamic and liquorice notes, its gentle tannins and hints of vanilla and burnt earth. A wine to suit those who normally drink Barolo. Nerello Mascalese has a similar refined tannic structure to Nebbiolo and is also capable of ageing.
NERO D’AVOLA 2017 Mandarossa (13.5%)
£10.99 Valvona & Crolla; Great Western Wine
Damson and sweet chocolate notes in this rich plummy and savoury red – it has typical warm baked fruits and a very ripe core of fruit – but is well-structured with vanilla flavours. So typical of this grape with its soft silky sweet tannins.
SITO DELL’ULMO MERLOT 2013 Planeta (14.5%)
£28.50 Great Western Wine
From renowned Planeta, one of the great pioneering families of Sicilian wine. They focus on classic French grapes and this single vineyard Merlot is one of my favourites from their range with some maturity. Floral notes, plummy ripe plush fruit, creamy textured, toasty cedary notes from 12 months French oak with a beautifully long lingering finish. Very elegant for Sicily.
IL PICCOLO MONTE CARRUBO 2017 Peter Vinding Diers (14%)
An unusual wine for Sicily. It is made from 100% Syrah by a Danish winemaker Peter Vinding Diers who has worked across Europe from Graves in Bordeaux, Ribera del Duero in Spain to Tokay in Hungary and is now exploring the soils of Sicily. Il Piccolo is his second wine showing the minerality of Sicily’s volcanic terroir with lovely spice and pepper aromas and ripe smooth flavours.
Join Rose’s Piedmont v Veneto wine & Italian charcuterie tasting in The Scores Hotel, St Andrews Friday 4 October £40 www.rosemurraybrown.com