Sicily is one of those steeped-in-history places you see on the Discovery Channel, where warring tribes battle among the decadent, carnal masses. True to their roots, the Sicilians claim they inhabit the birthplace of vino, where Bacchus himself bent down and buried the seeds in the rich soil. But when I think of this small Mediterranean island, regretfully Coppola's The Godfather pops into my head. I imagine Sicily's citizens would prefer not to be lumped in with the mafioso, but Hollywood has an evil way of penetrating the psyche. My only hope is that a different type of history can help erase Sicily's mobish stereotype.
This fertile, 10,000-square-mile island (about the size of Vermont), floating in the Mediterranean Sea between Europe and Africa, has been fought over since 500 B.C., and more often than heroin deals in the Corleone and Tattaglia families. Fractious warriors including the Greeks, Romans, Barbarians, Arabs, French, Spanish and then finally the Italians marked the Sicilian territory. Each of these thirsty cultures left its footprint on Sicilian wine-making, such as the Zibibbo grape introduced by the Saracen Arabs and Primitivo (aka zinfandel) by the Albanian refugees in the Ottoman conquest. Though probably trampled many times over during battle, those grapes still thrive today, making Sicily a bright, unique wine region.
Today, Sicily competes worldwide as one of the largest-volume wine producers. If you've ever ordered chicken Marsala, you've tasted Sicilian wine -- the sweet, fortified wine, Marsala, is its largest vinous export. Dating back to the early 1800s, it's made from native grapes you've probably never heard of: Nero d'Avola, Grillo, Inzolia and Cataratto. In recent years, Sicilian wineries have begun producing international varietals such as chardonnay, syrah and cabernet sauvignon, but the results have been somewhat disappointing. Among those I tasted -- syrah, merlot and cabernet -- the wines lacked finesse and were overwhelmingly intense and rough.
But I think this is only a temporary setback. Sicily's dense volcanic soil, generous sunshine and moderate climate form an ideal environment for quality international wine grapes. It will just take a few years for the young, upstart winemakers to perfect the recipe for success.
Sicily's indigenous grapes already show remarkable quality. You can find Nero d'Avola, a fruity, vibrant and beefy red reminiscent of syrah, and Grillo, an herby, crisp, lemony white wine, among others. It's these wines that show quality as well as value. Most fall in the $20 category but some are much less. Stretch out and enjoy the wines of Sicily, but stick with the obscure yet locally loved wines and you won't be disappointed.
Planeta 2006 Cometa Fiano di Sicilia (Sicily) Full-bodied with bright tangerine, grapefruit, lime and minerally slate. Elegant, almost creamy and gorgeous. A bit pricey, but well worth it. Sw = 2. $34. **** 1/2
Feudo Arancio 2005 Nero d'Avola (Sicily) Intense and concentrated cherry and raspberry with smooth medium tannins and a plum finish. Lively personality in this wine -- it drinks much like a well-made merlot. Sw = 1. $10. ****
Genofranco 2003 Nero d'Avola (Sicily) Deep, dirty aromas give way to smoky plum and spicy black pepper. A tiny bit one-dimensional but perfect for those wanting something gutsy. Sw = 1. $12. ***
Feudo Arancio 2006 Grillo (Sicily) Bone-dry with herbs like chamomile, green tea and dried lemon peel defining its crisp flavor. Had a bit of unripe mango in there, too. Sw = 1. $10. ***
Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star (H) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.