Sicilian viticulture tells the story of the Mediterranean, from ancient Greece to the modern age, and Sicilian wines are today renowned worldwide for their outstanding quality.
Botanists say that vines grew in Sicily long before man is supposed to have appeared on Earth, as many important fossil discoveries on Mount Etna have recently revealed, and historians agree that wine consumption was popular since the Bronze Age among the Elymians, an ancient people who inhabited the western part of Sicily and that may have been migrants from Anatolia after the Trojan war.
The word "wine" was in use in Sicily long before the Latins welcomed it into their vocabulary. In fact, it derives from the Mycenaean word wo-no, then absorbed into the Greek oinos, and was in use during the Castelluccio civilization (Pantalica) between 1800 and 1400 BC, where Mycenaeans merchants and colons introduced the Sicilians to the use of wine for libations.
Viticulture started to spread all over the island during the Phoenician colonization and it became a key factor in the development of the economic power of Sicily during the Classical antiquity, after Greek colonies were founded along the coast as early as 8th century BC.
Ancient Greeks introduced new techniques such as pruning, varietal selection and low bush training, as well as new grape varieties like Inzolia, Grecanico and Catarratto, which are still widely cultivated now-a-days. Wine played a very important role in ancient Sicilian culture, as many archaeological finds demonstrate: from richly decorated craters, cups and other drinking-vessels to silver coins minted around 550 BC by the city of Naxos, depicting the head of Dionysus on one side and grapes and grape leaves on the other.
An example of the importance of the wine culture in Sicily during the Greek domination is offered by the ancient palmento recently found in the Risinata woods of Sambuca di Sicilia, in the heart of the Terre Sicane. The monumental building dates back to the Hellenistic Period, about 4th century BC: entirely hand carved into ancient rock formations, it testifies the relevance of the wine-based economy in West Sicily, which contributed to the rise of Selinunte, one of the richest and most powerful cities of the Mediterranean.
The Romans did much to further develop and spread viticulture across the island, and from here to the most isolated Regions of the Empire: they brought wine and winemaking to Spain, France and Germany, and diffused at once wine and literature to unify Europe under one language and one citizenship.
The Mamertino is said to have been Julius Caesar's favourite wine in those years, the Faro was appreciated by poet Plinius the Elder and wines from Triocala and Entella were exported to every corner of the Known World, as evidenced by the presence of Sicilian wine in Gaul during the Caesarean age (68-44 BC). Precisely in the Imperial Era, the Sicilian wine economy experienced an extraordinary expansion: the mosaics of Villa del Casale in Piazza Armerina and the rustic villas of Syracuse, Patti, Eraclea Minoa, Marsala and Gibellina (4th-5th century A.D) are amazing examples of wealth and exquisite culture.
In the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire, Sicilian viticulture experienced periods of prosperity alternating with moments of decay.
Viticulture did not prosper during the Arab domination (827-1091), but it was not completely suppressed: despite the religious ban on wine consumption, many Muslims - especially those of Berber origin - had continuous access to wine, and many Sicilian-Arab poets exalted the quality and the extension of the Sicilian vineyards. It is significant that the Arabs favored the cultivation of Z'bīb (Muscat of Alexandria, still called Zibibbo in Sicily), mainly used for culinary preparations but also for the production of dessert wines (passito). In this article I mention the existence in Palermo of the "Fondaco dello Zibibbo", a sort of tavern where wine was poured with no restrictions.
Sicilian wines experienced moments of true splendor with the Normans (as evidenced by the Book of Roger or Tabula Rogeriana, written by geographer Idrīsī in 1154) and above all with the Aragonese, who began to export them throughout Europe. Between 1300s and 1400s various guilds (ancient trade unions) were born to defend the economic interests of wine entrepreneurs, such as the Maestranza dei bottai in Palermo in 1385 and the Maestranza dei vigneri in Catania in 1435.
The Spanish colonizers that followed the Aragonese domination did much to bring Sicilian winemaking back to the golden age. In the 1700s, during the Viceroys government, the highly prized Marsala wine was born and Sicilian wines - first of all wines produced in Italy - finally conquered the Americas, becoming a status symbol overseas.
In the second half of the 19th century, over 320,000 hectares were covered with vineyards - Catania, Trapani and Syracuse being the largest wine regions: an extraordinary expansion that was initially favored by the spread of the phylloxera pandemic in France between 1870 and 1885, which decimated over 70% of the vineyards in Europe. Unfortunately, Sicily was not spared by the plague as soon as the parasite moved South: the process of replanting new vineyards on resistant rootstocks took about 60 years, causing a tremendous damage to the island’s wine-related economy and traditional culture.
Slowly but continuously Sicilian winemaking finally recovered from the effects of that disaster, until it ended up in a true Renaissance, with more and more producers starting to abandon wine mass production to focus on quality and to experiment with new grape varieties and techniques.
In early 1970’s the so-called “international grapes” were introduced in Sicily: Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah showed both exceptional ability to adapt to the Sicilian climate and terroir, and amazing flexibility to represent a new style in Sicilian winemaking. More recently, a group of forward-minded small producers, while rediscovering unique indigenous grape varieties and more natural winemaking methods, have brought the Sicilian wine culture to its peak.
Over a hundred indigenous grape varieties are grown today in Sicily, and at least twenty of them are able to give birth to exceptional quality wines. Nero d’Avola is of course the most known red grape, but there are also Nerello Mascalese and Cappuccio, Frappato, Alicante, Perricone and Nocera. Among the white grapes, besides Grecanico and Catarratto (of which we have already talked about) and the beautiful Inzolia, we can’t forget to mention Carricante, Malvasia from the Lipari Islands, Zibibbo, Moscato di Siracusa and Grillo.
All of them are typical and unique: a truly exciting wine experience for all those who want to learn more about the extraordinary culture that makes Sicily the Island of Wine.
I'd like to thank Bruno Pastena (1922-1993), whose research on the Sicilian wine culture and history has inspired this article and provided valuable information.