The wine drinking began before we left Newark, N.J., with a clink and a “salud” in the airport lounge over some unidentified white.
My father and I, belatedly fulfilling the college graduation gift he had promised me 11 years earlier, were embarking on a 10-day journey across Sicily, land of our ancestors—specifically, of my dad’s great-grandfather, a merchant ship captain who lived on the Aeolian island of Lipari before sailing to Peru to found a winery.
It was fitting, then, that in addition to ancient ruins, medieval churches and spectacular Mediterranean views, ours was a trip overflowing with wine. We are no experts, but we drank our way across the almost 10,000-square-mile island—lucky for our livers that it’s no bigger—sampling the indigenous varietals, many grown in the volcanic soil of fuming Mount Etna. Those varietals set rustic Sicilian wines apart from their more polished northern Italian neighbours.
“If Tuscany is suits and ties, Sicily is wife-beaters (T-shirts),” is how Jason Wagner, wine director at hospitality group Element Collective, described the different wine personalities, though, he said, over the last few decades the ancient Sicilian viticulture has become more diverse. For example, Sicily is home to a rock star of the biodynamic wine movement, Arianna Occhipinti (agricolaocchipinti.it), who produces certified organic wines in the southern Vittoria region.
“They’re starting to have a new identity,” said Wagner, who offers many Sicilian wines at the Element-owned restaurant Nellcote in Chicago. “It used to be that they were big, clunky, hard-to-drink reds, and now they’re getting a reputation for making more delicate, thoughtful wines.”
That, at least, is an American sommelier’s perspective. In Sicily, ask a waiter for a recommendation, which is how we made most of our wine decisions, and usually a hearty red arrives.
That was perfectly fine with this duo.
After a morning spent walking amid ancient Greek temples in former colonies, we were sitting on the outside patio at Trattoria Il Pescatore (www.trattoriailpescatore.it), a seaside restaurant in Agrigento on the southwestern coast, eating a grilled cuttlefish the size of a grown man’s hand, when my father grunted admiringly at the Duca di Salaparuta Passo delle Mule ($25, duca.it) in his glass, a dense red made of the popular nero d’Avola grape.
“This,” he said, “is a man’s wine.”
My dad’s taste for weighty wines meant we had a lot of nero d’Avola, a juicy, earthy grape, heavy on dark fruits. One of the best was Duca Enrico ($55), also from Duca di Salaparuta, a large winery behind the budget-friendly Corvo line. We drank it near Palermo, the Sicilian capital, while dining on grilled ricciola (fresh-caught amberjack) at Da Peppino restaurant in the seaside suburb of Mondello.
Duca Enrico, first produced in 1984, was the first single-varietal wine to be produced from nero d’Avola grapes.
Another nero standout was the Rosso del Conte ($62) from the Tasca d’Almerita winery (tasca dalmerita.it/en). We drank the spicy, bright red wine seaside (this is a pattern) at the Lungo la Notte Cafe on the picturesque Ortygia island in Siracusa, sophisticated home to the island’s best Greek theater. In thematic harmony with our wine-soaked adventure, the play we happened to see there that night was “Le Baccanti” by Euripides, starring good-time god Dionysus.
Sicily also counts lighter red grapes among its indigenous varietals.
Light, friendly frappato is a low-tannin, high-acid grape that Wagner compares to gamay, the primary grape of Beaujolais. Nerello mascalese and nerello cappuccio are an “aromatically dynamic” pair often blended together to evoke decomposing earth, red leaves and black tea, Wagner said, comparing them to nebbiolo, the grape used in Barbaresco.
One of the last wines we drank in Sicily was a grand blend of almost all: Firriato Quater Rosso ($32, firriato.it), made in the Trapani province on the western coast, was a full-bodied combination of nero d’Avola, frappato, nerello cappuccio and perricone, another robust indigenous red grape. We were in sleepy Lipari, on a fruitless search for my great-great-grandfather’s house, and found ourselves in the airy, leafy terrace of Ristorante Filippino (filippino.it), where the supremely attentive servers brought to the table a choice of no fewer than four bottles of olive oil. I had the best pasta I’ve ever eaten: tubular noodles with mozzarella, tomato, eggplant and grated baked ricotta. The wine was a welcome exclamation point.
Though not as famous as the reds, Sicily has indigenous white wines, too often more tropical-tasting than their northern Italian peers because of the hotter climate. Inzolia, catarratto and grillo, grapes often used in the sweet Marsala wines that Sicily is famous for, also produce table whites, as does the popular grecanico.
In the Moorish town of Mazara del Vallo, where we were staying after a long day of sightseeing along the western coast, including a memorable stroll through the medieval walled town of Erice, perched high on a mountain with views of Tunisia, we enjoyed a bottle of Kheire ($52), a grillo from the nearby Gorghi Tondi winery. It was full, soft and citrusy, a fine complement to a typical regional dish of trout over couscous.
Another good white was the refreshing Baccante ($48), a grillo-chardonnay combo from the winery Abbazia Santa Anastasia (abbaziasantanastasia.it), a wine we drank at the Michelinstarred La Capinera (ristorante lacapinera.com) in the tourist resort town of Taormina—on the seafront terrace, of course.
Maybe everything tastes good amid the worn, soulful beauty of Sicily, with the deep blue of the Mediterranean on one side and rolling pastoral hills on the other. Sicily’s legacy of being invaded by pretty much everyone—Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Normans, Arabs, Bourbons—left layers of cultural complexity that enriched the food and drink as much as the architecture and people (dark hair, olive skin and light green or blue eyes is a typical Sicilian look).
It felt like home, my dad and I agreed as we debriefed on the plane ride home over some Italian red. Clink. “Salute.”
(All wine prices reflect what we paid for a bottle at the restaurants.)
Sicily produces a tremendous amount of wine, but it doesn’t have a big presence in the U.S.
“It’s slowly, steadily growing,” said Dan Skoda, wine consultant at Binny’s in Chicago, as he went over the approximately two dozen Sicilian brands at the store.
The bottles, ranging from $7.99 to $59.99, come mostly from such large, internationally respected Sicilian wineries as Planeta, Cusumano and Colosi, though some of the small artisanal producers, such as Tenuta delle Terre, are making the most interesting wines. Many are good values, Skoda said.
Here are three to try: Colosi Nero d’Avola, $13.99; Planeta La Segreta, $12.99 (blend of grecanico, chardonnay, viognier and fiano); Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso, $14.99 (blend of nerello mascalese and nerello cappuccio).
Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.