An island of wine, olives, food and sunshine in the Mediterranean
Sicily, the island, the sun, the wines, the olive oil, the food… The largest island of the Mediterranean Sea has many charms, much to make you want to go there. Britt Karlsson did and discovered a region with a little known but very dynamic wine production, spectacular landscapes and a unique gastronomy. Here’s her story.
For more photography from Sicily take a look at this photo essay on BKWine Magazine: Sicily: wine, food, vineyards, history, and landscape in pictures.
Sicily seduces. The largest island in the Mediterranean has a very special charm that urges you to return. Maybe it is the location. North Africa is not far away. Or the spectacular mountainous scenery that culminates with Mount Etna, sitting proudly in the eastern part of the island.
Or it could be the Greek heritage, so evident when you admire the temples of Agrigento and the adorable coastal town of Syracuse, where you can enjoy a grilled fish in one of the harbour restaurants.
Never be in a hurry when you are out driving!
One thing, however, is certain. It is easy to be seduced by the local wines. The reds, the whites, the sweets… They are all getting better and better. It was long since Sicily was synonymous with Marsala.
Sicily is a mountainous island. Never be in a hurry when you are out driving! Only 14% of the island is flat. It is hot and dry, except around Etna where it actually rains 1,000 mm a year.
Thanks to the mountains, the wine producers can easily find cool areas for their vines. “Our vineyards start at 350 meters and go up to 800 meters. The high altitude gives freshness and delicate flavours,” says Laura Orsi, winemaker at Tenuta Regaleali, located almost in the middle of the island. The estate is run by the family Tasca d’Almerita and is a quality reference in Sicily.
The black soil of Etna
From Regaleali we go straight east, towards Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano. And one of Europe’s most spectacular wine regions. This is the land of nerello mascalese, a local grape planted on the slopes of the volcano in the black lava soil.
The vines look like small gnarled bushes.
One of the first in modern times to realize the quality potential here was Andrea Franchetti. In 2000 he created his Tenuta di Passopisciaro, located on the northern side of Etna, 1000 meters above sea level. The vines are 100 years old and trained in traditional alberello. They look like small gnarled bushes.
Nerello mascalese thrives here in the dark lava soil. The soil is very fine and allows the roots to go deep down. Hot days and cool nights provide a long growing season and a harvest which can be as late as the end of October or even November.
The land of nero d’avola
We continue a little further south, towards Syracuse and Ragusa. Small sturdy olive trees follow us wherever we go. In Sicily golden olive oil is a vital part of the gastronomy. The local varieties are numerous. Nocellara is one of the best. The high quality oil has just the right spicy bitterness. To be enjoyed with almost anything you eat in Sicily.
We approach Ragusa. This is the neighbourhood of nero d’avola, one of the great grapes of Sicily. The wines are rich and full of flavours, especially in the district of Pachino, south of the Baroque town of Noto.
“A red wine to drink with sushi”
Between Ragusa and Vittoria we find Sicily’s first and currently only DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria. The grapes are frappato and nero d’avola. Frappato gives a cherry scented wine with a fairly light body and many Cerasuolo di Vittoria are made in a light, easy-to-drink style.
With low yields, however, you get more concentration. Il Frappato from Valle dell’Acate is certainly an unpretentious wine but very good with lots of red fruit. “A red wine to drink with sushi”, says Francesco Ferreri, the wine maker, “but it also goes perfectly with mozzarella and tomato sauce.”
Orange blossom and amphorae
Sicily in the spring smells wonderfully of zagara, the orange tree’s white flowers. In the courtyard in front of Valle dell’Acates wine cellar the scent is very strong. The property has four hectares of orange trees and not surprisingly they have created a white wine called Zagra, made from local grapes grillo and inzolia. It is an aromatic wine with fine, fresh mineral notes.
Tasting wines makes you hungry and we are lucky, we are not far away from one of the best restaurants in Sicily.
At the Gulfi wine estate the chef treats us to a memorable meal of local products, mostly from the sea. The bread is home made and we eat it with Gulfi olive oil made from the olive variety tonda iblea. Its fruity, peppery taste goes very well also with the swordfish, briefly marinated in the oil and lemon juice.
Amphorae preserve the taste of the terroir.
Before we leave the area of Ragusa area, we pay a visit to Giusto Occhipinti at his wine estate COS.
Giusto makes organic wines. “We have a good climate, we do not have to use any chemicals,” he says. He ferments and stores some of his wines in clay amphorae. “It has a bit the same effect as oak”, he says, “the wine breathes, but the clay gives no taste so we keep the taste of the terroir.”
Chardonnay and riesling
We continue along the south coast and we drive past the silhouettes of the Greek temples of Agrigento. Soon we arrive at the estate of one of the stars of Sicily, the Planeta family.
The Planeta property is large and modern. The family is also large and many family members work together on the estate. The Planeta wines are often blends of local grapes and more famous international ones. They have had great success with their chardonnay wines, both pure as well as blended with grecanico. In the Etna region they make floral and fresh white wines from carricante. And we look forward to taste their riesling (!), recently planted at 900 meters altitude.
And finally, a sweet Muscat
Sicily has always been known for its sweet wines. Marsala, of course, a fortified wine made from grillo, inzolia and catarratto.
But sweet wines are made all around the island, and on the Aeolian Islands and the Island of Pantelleria, delicious, sweet Muscat wines are made.
Wine growing on this bare windswept island is close to hardship.
One of the more famous is the Moscato di Pantelleria. Wine growing on this bare windswept island is close to hardship but the result is amazingly concentrated and flavourful wines. The grape is zibibbo, also known as muscat of alexandria. Occasionally made as dry but mostly luscious and sweet.
The sweet wines from Sicily are once again in great demand. And as we leave the island for now, we know that we will soon be back.
We already dream of local specialities like pasta con fave, cannolo, grilled sardines, fresh shrimps from Porto Palo, oursin, octopus, lamb stew… With a good glass of wine and a few sprinklings of olive oil.
All from Sicily. With memories of the sun.
This article was originally published in a shorter version on Systembolaget.se, the web site of the Swedish wine and spirits monopoly.
This post is also available in: Swedish