Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

The Sicilian paradox

Published:  18 January, 2007

Sicily's wine industry has been transformed in the past 20 years, but has it changed for the better, ask Nicolas Belfrage MW and Franco Ziliani

Much water has flowed between Scylla and Charybdis since Hugh Johnson, in an early edition of the World Atlas of Wine, dismissed Sicily as the principal national producer of cutting wines - 75% of them white'; and since my colleague in this column, in his Life Beyond Lambrusco of 1985, observed that here, where traditional red wines are concerned, the uvaggio (blend) is much favoured, and pure varietals are uncommon', and that the principal varieties are Perricone (or Pignatello), Nero d'Avola (or Calabrese) and Nerello Mascalese'.

An obscene proportion of Sicilian production may still end up as distillate, thanks to the largesse (oh fellow EU taxpayer) of our goodselves, and overproduction on the island may still be rife; nonetheless, the vinous Sicily of today is a radically different animal from what it was 20 years ago. To such an extent, indeed, that Michle Shah in her recently published Wines of Italy (Mitchell Beazley, 2006) is able to identify for her readers one Sicilian DOCG and some 20 DOCs, as well as seven IGTs, although it must be said that most of these - rejoicing in names like Contessa Entellina, Delia Nivolelli, Mamertino di Milazzo and Sciacca - are virtually unknown outside the island (or inside, for that matter), most producers preferring to avail themselves of the infinitely greater recognisability of Sicilia IGT'. Little wonder, then, that the proportion of DOC to lGT/Vino da Tavola wines is a paltry 10%.

Is all, then, well in this new wave' Sicily, which has seen investment pouring into the island industry from the likes of mighty Zonin, GIV and Ilva; which has engaged both Antipodean flying winemakers and the most internationalist of the Italians of that ilk in the form of Giacomo Tachis, Carlo Ferrini and Renzo Cotarella? Oenologically, we are not convinced, even though we must take our hats off to producers like Planeta, Firriato and Donnafugata for the way in which they have succeeded in selling their, and by extension Sicily's, image abroad. Oh yes, the wines of New Sicily have refinement, softness, potency, concentration. The tannins are elegant, sweet and tender, and the final product is a delicious alcoholic fruit juice with veins, like nuggets of fudge or caramel in a tub of Ben & Jerry's, of toast and vanilla.

But where is Sicily in all this? Where in the world does the blind taster find himself - in Australia? California? Southern France? The confusion is less surprising when one realises that in Sicily today, Syrah, which was virtually unknown as recently as 1990, has (according to the Istituto Regionale Vite e Vino of Palermo) become the second most-planted black variety with 4,800 hectares, representing over 4% of vineyard area. And that the Sicilian native Nerello Mascalese has fallen behind both Syrah and Merlot (just under 4%) and is only just ahead of Cabernet Sauvignon at 3.2%.

Syrahmania' has taken such a grip that at the end of 2005 there were no fewer than 80 Sicilian varietal Syrahs, with a further 70 wines featuring the grape of the Northern Rhne as an ingredient in blends (at between 15 and 80%) - Cabernet, Merlot, Frappato and principally Nero d'Avola variously making up the remainder. True, Syrah has not yet attained the popularity of the Sicilian black grape par excellence, planted by 160 out of 188 bottling estates recently polled. Of the 188, however, enthusiastic users of Syrah numbered 64, and counting.

In this schizophrenic scenario, in which Sicily is progressively losing its viticultural and oenological identity in the dubious cause of becoming an appendage to the New World, and dedicating its time and energy to grapes and wines that have nothing to do with the traditions of the region, is it not legitimate to wonder whether the evolution of the world of Sicilian wines over the past 15 years has not actually been evolution at all, but rather a headlong pursuit of fashion, that most fickle of models? Is Sicily not perhaps heading down a blind alley towards an identity crisis that could prove disastrous for its vinous future?

Would it not make more sense for the island of Sicily to present itself to the world as the land of Marsala and Moscato/Zibibbo, of Grillo and Inzolia, of Catarratto (grown at altitude, crisp and herbaceous) and the extraordinary Carricante whites of Mount Etna; as the home of one of the world's unique black grapes, Nero d'Avola, as well as of Nerello Mascalese and Frappato?

Surely all it needs is a mental shift to quality from quantity, a will to plant in the right place and limit production, and any of these varieties is capable of bringing forth its light from underneath the bushel and showing the world that Sicily can stand on its own resources.