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The remarkable resurgence of Sicily's table wines

One of the many charms of Sicily is its ability to appear at once both timeless yet it reinvents itself over and over again.

Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean has been producing wines for centuries, though only quite recently have table wines emerged onto the global table and hailed as a ‘new discovery’.

A growing number of small wineries, in many instances family owned for generations and previously producing wines for the Marsala industry or used to fortify weak French or northern Italian wines have began to make their own varietal wines for an increasingly sophisticated consumer market. These wineries today produce some of Sicily’s best table wines and have mushroomed in recognition, popularity and international standing.

So, just how did this all come about? We’ll need to go back a little further still... For more than 2500 years Sicily has been a significant center of Mediterranean viniculture, its reputation and style of wines have changed considerably over time. Once famous for sweet Muscats and fortified Marsala, the island's best known wines are now its dry table wines produced under the regional IGT title, Terre Siciliane.

At its widest point Sicily measures 175 miles (280km) east to west, and about one third that distance north to south. Blessed with consistently bright sunshine and moderate rainfall, Sicily's classic Mediterranean climate has always been ideally suited to the production of grapes, the warm, dry climate keeping mildews and rots to a minimum, particularly in the well-ventilated areas benefitting from coastal breezes. This low disease pressure has meant that chemical sprays are hardly needed, resulting in a higher than average percentage of Sicilian wine being produced from organic grapes.

Ironically, the island's near-perfect vine-growing conditions played a key role in the downfall of Sicilian wine in the late 20th Century. Reliable sunshine and low disease pressure made it easy for Sicilian vine growers to push their vineyards into generating higher yields. When the Italian government offered subsidies for 'upgrading' to higher-yielding vine management techniques, the temptation was too much for many to refuse. Many thousands of acres of low-yielding bush vines were rapidly converted to high-yielding tendone (pergola) or guyot (cane pruning) training methods. The higher yields inevitably led to imbalanced, flavor-lacking wines – the drop in quality which was soon mirrored by a drop in consumer confidence and sales. The market was soon awash with low-quality, low-priced Sicilian wine.

Happily, all was not lost and the movement has been able to reverse, due in no small part to the many smaller wineries competing for higher quality output along with a combination of vines being planted higher up on the volcanic slopes, capitalising on the cooler air and richer soils. The key grape varieties used in Sicilian viticulture are a combination of 'native' varieties (those historically cultivated on the island), Nero d’Avola and Catarratto being among the most important natives, now occupying well over 20% and 35% of Sicily’s vineyard area respectively. Along with newer, more fashionable imports, like the robust red Rhone Valley varieties have also adapted well to the Sicilian heat.

Added altogether it has resulted in renewing both the reputation and improved quality grapes, with Sicily now considered one of Italy's most promising and interesting wine regions.

Re-enter the small and family owned vineyards looking to reap the rewards for more recent government subsidies for wine producers, which have also encouraged lawyers, doctors, haberdashers and other non-vintners to make wine for sale, usually with mediocre results. These should not be confused with the wines offered by various small but distinguished family-operated wineries. To outsiders, it's not always an easy distinction to make. When Italians speak of "il vino della casa," they usually mean "house wine" in the sense of the wine that a restaurant or farmer has made from local grapes, images come to mind of strong home-made red wines that taste like vinegar.

Among Italian vintners, however, mention of a "casa" (literally "house") is like a French vintner referring to a chateau, and in Italian aristocratic parlance a "house" is a noble family. Some of Sicily's best houses make excellent wines that don't officially make their way to the consumer market, often because the quantity of a few hundred bottles is not sufficient to justify an advertising or sales campaign. These rare vintage wines are among Sicily's true treasures. Apart from these, some family firms have emerged which offer some exceptional wines.

Join us on the May 2017 Unspoiled Sicily in Style tour and be guided by your local Sicilian tour director Luigi’s local recommendations. Luigi has worked closely with TIKI TOURS for 15 years and brings a wealth of local information and experience.