Sicily is a special island, and one close to our own hearts.
Having spent a month on Mount Etna, we became enchanted by the island and were lucky enough to visit amazing producers like Frank Cornelissen, to learn about the progression of the region and how a recent wave of winemakers have totally transformed the wines being made there, now with a ‘quality over quantity’ approach.
Much of what we learnt on Etna in this aspect, comes down to the island’s history of sending bulk wine for blending to France, and a lack of focus meant vines were not trimmed down or well-looked after to ensure higher quality grapes, instead grapes were seen as a currency - the more quantity, the more revenue. Quality was not really on people’s minds.
Locals thought new producers like Frank Cornelissen (a Belgian) were crazy, cutting up to a third of the amount of grapes from the vines in order to force more concentration into the remaining bunch… after all, a local Sicilian and generally South Italian mentality of ‘throw nothing away’ (even street food features offal & even animal cartilage) meant everything was used…. so who in their right mind would throw away grapes?
Well, when local producers saw the higher prices new Etna winemakers’ bottles were commanding, showing the grapes made properly over the past 20 years, the whole attitude shifted.
Yes, Sicily as a whole is a great place for value but there are serious producers commanding high prices for terroir driven wines, especially on Etna which many view as the new Burgundy. Just see the prices for the legendary, and highly awarded MAGMA as a good example of this...
For examples of Etna’s incredible terroir, where minerality really shines through, try the '2019 Susucaru Rosso 2019' by Frank Cornellisen or the Ayunta 'Nerello Mascalese Bianco' (a direct press of the powerful red grape Nerello Mascalese) .
For more serious expressions of Nerello Mascalese, we recommend the fantastic Tartaraci 2016 by Vino di Anna, which whilst not a cheap wine, will really show you the power of the grape in our opinion even more than the more popular Munjebel vintages by Frank Cornelissen. Beautiful energy instantly hits you and the tannins coat your mouth like a warm hug. Expect notes of tart cherry, stewed plum, cardamom and an ashy presence, with that strong volcanic minerality really shining through. An incredible, deep wine worth enjoying over a few hours, ideally after decanting.
Etna's now illegal winemaking traditions
Previously, wines on Etna were made in Palmento buildings, and mostly all grapes were thrown in together as a big mix, foot stomped in (rather unhygienic) lava stone pools and flowed through to the cellar.
This practice of using Palmento buildings for wine production is now illegal (and actually we believe foot stomping is too, despite still being common with artisan producers). This means there are a lot of Palmento buildings in the area, which are now converted into holiday accommodation, or historic sites to visit like this one here we enjoyed visiting from a conventional producer.
Vino di Anna, run by Australian Anna Martens & Frenchman Eric Narioo (the founder of successful and pioneering UK import business 'Les Caves de Pyrene') pay homage to the Palmento in one set of wines, although the wines are in fact pressed in more hygienic ways - not in the Palmento buildings. Instead, the tradition of mixed red/white grapes are made with a short maceration to pay respect to the previous ways of working (and the grapes are aged in the Palmento too)
....What do you mean REAL Marsala?
Our time in Sicily has also been spent in Marsala, where we met the domain of Marco de Bartoli, a wine legend who has now passed, and whose family carry on his legacy. Here we learnt of the struggles he had in the rather crazy laws of Marsala wine, and how he wanted to make REAL Marsala, which is not fortified. This process was only done for the British, and became so popular that it became the official Marsala method, but actually the Samperi method is the way it used to be done. Read about Marco Bartoli’s Vecchio Samperi Masala for some information on this special wine, that really will surprise you.
Also around the Marsala region we enjoyed visiting Nino Baracco, who has some vines reaching 5 metres to the sea, and you can really taste that salinity in some of the wines like Vignamarre, sadly only a handful in stock at the moment but do try his others like the beautiful, aromatic Zibibbo.
Are all Sicilian wines more serious than fun?
Also on our travels, we spent a month around the city of Palermo and the surrounding Alcamo region, visiting producers like Aldo Viola, who has the most beautiful flower-covered vineyard and some seriously fantastic wines - full of depth and soul. One thing you'll notice about Sicilian wines, is there is an underlying sense of classical, or dare we say 'serious' winemaking rather than crazy funkyness or glouglou wines.
Yet, whilst most Sicilian reds have a good tannic structure, some producers are experimenting with more modern, easy drinking styles. Ayunta do this on Mount Etna with their lighter 12.5% expression of the big grape, Nerello Mascalese, which whilst light, still has touches of that bigger mouthfeel you might expect but it remains soft and delicate, with notes of blackcurrant, liquorice, vanilla and a touch of oak. Whilst also, Elios are a newish team of two brothers, who produce a wine called 'GlouGlou' which aims to replicate that carbonic maceration style often seen in Beaujolais.
One producer we enjoyed drinking (somewhat drunkenly!) on the wild streets of Palermo, which we discovered in a small artisan deli is 'Voria' by Porta Del Vento, based nearby. This really fun, easy going pet nat was not only very affordable, but super refreshing and delicious.
When we tried it enjoying our holiday in Palermo, we didn’t know we would later work in wine with MORE Natural Wine, and so after looking at some photos of our holidays, we thought how much we wanted to retry the wines of Porta Del Vento again, so asked them for some samples. We’re glad we did because they ALL blew us away! Seriously...these refreshing Voira Pet Nats are some of the very best on the site and come in at under 15 euros! What’s more, the more serious Arcai and Trebbi are truly wonderful wines showing their more artisanal craft in making natural wine, so we are very thrilled to offer these too!
And what about other Sicilian producers?
One special place we are yet to travel to, is the hot island of Pantelleria. This is off the coast of Sicily, but really more close to Africa! This is where the aromatic, muscat varietal ‘Zibibbo’ really thrives, which is one of our favourite grapes, often giving bursts of Bergamot and sometimes a certain Flintiness to it.
We’re very happy to offer a skin-contact wine from the island from respected producer Abbazia San Giorgio, which was co-founded by one of the main winemakers of the legendary producer Gabrio Bini, whose wines will return to MORE Natural Wine later in the year.
Also in this Sicily Focus collection we are launching, you will find popular producers like Occhipinti, COS, i Vigneri by Salvo Foti, alongside smaller producers we suggest you try like respected producer Francesco Guiccone & the more budget-orientated Valdibella.
For personal recommendations to your taste not answered in this article, do feel free to email us or contact on Instagram. We really want to share our love for Sicily with you, and would suggest trying some of the lesser known producers rather than just the big names...