RICHARD ESLING: Sicilian wine is sunshine in a bottle
Open a bottle of chilled Sicilian white (or red for that matter) and you can almost feel the sunshine that has ripened the grapes to produce these delicious and eminently affordable wines.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, just off the coast of the toe of the Italian boot, and Italy’s most southerly region.
Roughly triangular in shape, it boasts one of the largest active volcanoes in Europe, Mount Etna, which has had a significant impact as far as wine production is concerned.
The vineyards of Sicily are also some of the oldest in Europe, dating back 2500 years to the age of the Greeks.
The climate on this Mediterranean island is ideal for producing wine grapes. Rainfall is sparse and confined mainly to the Winter and Spring months, with very little falling between June and harvest time in early August - the entire growing period for the grapes. Combined with masses of warm sunshine and refreshing sea breezes which aerate the vines, diseases and pests are greatly reduced, meaning that chemical, sprays can be kept to a minimum and even eliminated altogether. This means that there are an increasing number of organic wines produced in Sicily, which is good news for the environment, although climate is a significant factor in the ability to grow grapes organically.
Over the years, Sicilian wines have had changing fortunes. For centuries, their quality was revered by Greeks, Romans and subsequent populations. However, in the mid twentieth century subsidies were given by the Italian Government to ‘upgrade’ the vineyards to produce greater quantity. This, of course, had the opposite effect on quality, which decreased dramatically, with a consequent loss of consumer confidence. Latterly, though, the process has been reversed, with viticultural methods returning to those which produce far less quantity and much greater quality. Indeed, many wine experts consider Sicily now to be the most promising and interesting wine region in Italy.
There are a number of factors which make Sicily unique as a wine producing region. The soils right across the island have been heavily influenced by thousands of years of volcanic activity, producing soils rich in minerals and with a structure allowing deep root penetration, with a balance between fertility and austerity. Additionally, there are a substantial number of indigenous grape varieties on the island, wonderfully adapted to the climate and the volcanic soils and producing interesting and characterful flavours.
It is a little-known fact that, in recent years, Sicily produces more wine than Australia, Chile and Bulgaria put together and surprisingly for such a warm climate, the majority of grapes grown are white. The most famous wine of all which originates from the island is Marsala, sadly out of favour in recent times, together with many other fortified wines. It is made around the city of Marsala on the west coast, from indigenous white grapes, mainly Catarratto. It has similarities with Madeira and for many years was as popular as both Madeira and Sherry.
Some of the best value Sicilian wines are the regional or IgT wines.
Those made from the native grape varieties have great flavours and individuality. Easy summer drinking, two wines I recommend are the Terre Sicilane Bianco 2016 from M&S, made from a blend of native whites and Corbello 2016 red from Waitrose, a soft, ripe, luscious wine made from a blend of Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese.
Both wines are great value at around £8 per bottle.
Richard Esling BSc DipWSET is an experienced wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. An erstwhile wine importer, he runs a wine agency and consultancy company called WineWyse, is founder and principal of the Sussex Wine Academy, chairman of Arundel Wine Society and is an International Wine Judge. Twitter @richardwje. Visit www.winewyse.com.
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