Boyd on wine: Introduction to Sicilian wine

There are many things to like about Italy, not the least is the broad selection of wines this sunny peninsula offers wine drinkers.

Adventurous wine drinkers can chose cool climate white wines from the north, warm weather red wines from the regions around Rome or more robust reds from the sunny area of Naples. Except for the mountainous east-west Italian Alps and the north-south Apennines, the Italian boot is literally overflowing with wine.

Wine tourism tends to be centered in Tuscany, with the occasional venture north to sample the famed Piedmont reds Barolo and Barbaresco and even rarer forays south to Latium to sip the refreshing Frascati vino bianco. For many wine tourists, Italy’s well-traveled la strada del vino (wine road) ends at Naples, rarely continuing south to the tip of the boot and on to Sicily.

Long known for simple, often overripe, red and white table wines, mostly from large cooperatives, and sticky-sweet dessert wines like Marsala, Sicilian wine was mostly an afterthought for many wine drinkers. Not anymore.

Sicilian white wines have probably made the most dramatic leap forward in quality, mainly because the whites of the past were heavy, sometimes oxidized and lacked freshness. Today, they are fresh and fruity with good balancing acidity, many made from the native catarratto grape and from inzolia, an aromatic variety commonly found in regional table wines. Sicilian white wines are the perfect foil for the fish and seafood-based cuisine of much of Sicily.

Sicilian white wines are scarce in Sonoma County wine shops; Terre della Baronia Cataratta, $18 being one of few I found. Red wines from Sicily on local shelves are another matter, one that is especially good news for those wine drinkers who hold that the only good wine is red.

A survey of Italian wine grapes, a few years ago, listed more than 800 distinct varieties used to make wine somewhere in the country. Only a small percentage of that number is grown on the island of Sicily.

Today, the core of Sicilian wine is bright, distinctive red wines, made from a variety of indigenous grapes, like nero d’avola, frappatto, nerello mascalese and nerello cappuccino, occasionally supported by “continental” varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and pinot noir.

Unless you speak Italian and have a good memory for trivia, Sicilian grape names are hard to remember. An easy way to keep Sicilian red grapes and wines in order is to match specific grapes with specific regions, aided by a basic understanding of Italian wine labeling.

Prior to 2011, Sicilian wines were divided into two categories: regional wines known as Sicilia IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) and DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), plus DOCG (DOC-Garantita) for the highest-quality wines. In late 2011, Sicilia IGT was promoted to DOC status with the regional wines now known as Terre Siciliane, a term you will see on the labels of many Sicilian wines.

There are 23 DOC zones in Sicily, the most important being Etna DOC, Eloro DOC and Siracusa DOC. In terms of prestige, the small Vittoria region also makes the list, based mainly on Cerasuolo di Vittoria, the only DOCG wine in Sicily. Other DOC zones from the western part of the island include Salaparuta, Alcamo and Menfi.

Only a handful of indigenous grapes dominate red winemaking in Sicily, with nero d’avola at the top of the list, an impressive fact since nero has been grown on the island for centuries but didn’t come into its own until the beginning of the 21st century. Nero d’avalo is an important grape in Etna red wines and accounts for more than 25 percent of the island’s total acreage. Nero d’avola is deep colored, with high-tone sweet cherry fruit and firm tannins. It does well blended with syrah and merlot and gives body and structure to frappato, another native Sicilian grape. Nero d’avola is also primary in the reds of Alcamo DOC and Salaparuta DOC.

Frappato is a light-bodied red grape grown mainly in the southeast of the island that is becoming a favorite of winemakers building interesting red blends. Often blended with nero d’avola, frappato is found in the reds of Eloro DOC and is the main grape, along with nero, in Cerasuolo di Vittoria.

The following Sicilian reds found in Sonoma County shops are either straight nero d’avola or nero and frappato blends: Tami Nero d’Avola IGT, Ottomarzo Tami, Occlipinti SP68, Palo Cali “Jazz.”

Although there is more nero d’avola grown in the Etna DOC, the most important red grape for upscale red wine is nerello. There are two nerellos: nerello mascalese, which makes firm long-lived wines with herbal notes and the less-widely planted nerello cappuccio, a softer variety most often used in Etna blends with nerello mascalese.

These wines are blends of the two nerrello grapes, occasionally with a dash of nero-d’avola, or some other complementary red grape: Benanti Etna Rosso, Girolama, Don Michelle, Bonavita and Tenuta Terre Nere.

Sicilian red wine prices are reasonable compared to other Italian red wines, like pricey Barolo and Barbaresco from Piemonte and Tuscany’s over-exposed Chianti Classico. The range is $18 and $28, with a couple (Tami Nero d’Avola and Palo Cali) at $14 and Bonavita, $36 and Tenuta Terre Nere Santo Spirito, $45.

Enjoy Sicilian red wines with any foods that you would pair with other red wines, like merlot or syrah. Don’t get bogged down in the label terminology. It’s meant as a guide and a way to keep an otherwise confusing system in order. Salute!

Gerald Boyd is a Santa Rosa-based wine and spirits writer. Email him at

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