A Brief History Of Sicilian Wine
- By Jacky Blisson MW
- 17 Feb 2021
- 5 MIN
- Level 101
The island of Sicily, just off the “toe of Italy’s boot”, has a long and storied relationship with wine. With grape varieties dating back to antiquity, alongside modern innovations, and avant-garde practices, the story of Sicilian wine is a fascinating tale.
The Origins of Sicilian Wine
Archeological evidence suggests that winemaking in Sicily dates back to the 4th millennium BC. Chemical analysis on terracotta storage jars from the Late Copper Age revealed evidence of wine residue. These vessels, found in a cave in the Agrigento region, are thought to have been used for wine production and storage.
It is the Phoenician’s, however, who are largely credited with developing the reputation of Sicily’s wines beyond their borders. These seafaring people, who colonized western parts of the island in the 11th century, traded them across the Mediterranean basin. These early “must-have” wines from Sicily were likely sweet in style, made from late harvested grapes.
Sicilian Winemaking in Antiquity
The Greeks arrived in Sicily around the 8th century BC. They implemented more advanced viticulture techniques in terms of pruning, varietal selection, and bush training. They also brought new grape varieties such as Inzolia, Catarratto, and Grecanico, that are still grown today.
Under Roman rule, Sicilian vineyards continued to thrive and spread across the island. Julius Caesar is said to have consumed great quantities of Mamertino red wine, from the Messina area. Pliny the Elder was more partial to the white wines produced around Taormina.
Decline and Revival
The history of Sicily followed its turbulent path, with successive colonisations by the Byzantines, the Muslims, and the Normans. During this period, wine production was all but eradicated from the island.
The Aragonese period in the 14th century saw a slow-building winemaking renaissance that gathered steam under the Spanish. It was a British merchant however, who catapulted Sicilian wine back into the spotlight.
Wine merchant, John Woodhouse, first came to Sicily in the 1770s. Here, he discovered Marsala, a wine aged in perpetuum within a solera-like system of oak cask ageing. He found Marsala similar in style to the Port and Sherry wines popular at the time in Britain and started exporting them to England.
The wines were so well received that Woodhouse eventually settled in Marsala, expanding both production and sales. Future generations of merchants grew sales across Europe and the Americas.
The Phylloxera crisis in the late 1800s put pause to much of this hard-earned growth. Sicily’s vineyards were devastated and replanting on resistant rootstocks proved a slow process, lasting over half a century.
Sicilian Wine Today
Some say the modern era of Sicilian wine began with the planting of international grape varieties in the 1970s. Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah were just some of the grapes introduced to the island during this period. Producers have worked tirelessly to showcase these wines around the world.
In recent years, many of Sicily’s top producers have reoriented their efforts toward the island’s diverse range of indigenous grapes.
Sicily boasts over 70 documented local cultivars. Major focuses include the crisp, subtly floral and savoury white wine blends featuring the Grillo white variety and powerful red wines from the peppery, dark-fruit scented Nero d’Avola grape. Light, easy-drinking reds from Frappato with floral notes and fruity hints are becoming more and more popular. Finally, the historic white Catarratto variety, now commonly referred to as Lucido, is prized for its full-bodied, lemony character.
The island counts seven Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT), 23 Denominazioni di Origine (DOC), and one Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). In 2011, the Sicilia IGT was upgraded to DOC status reflecting a move to more premium viticultural practices and winemaking across the island. The following year saw the founding of the Consorzio di Tutela Vini Sicilia DOC, an association of winegrowers, winemakers, and bottlers dedicated to promoting the recognition of the Sicilia DOC.
Today, the region makes a wide variety of wine styles, from affordable everyday bottles, to premium ageworthy wines.