Sicilian wine culture
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 12th century BC 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.
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 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.
After a brief decline under the Arab’s domination, Sicilian wines witnessed moments of splendour and popularity thanks to the new Spanish colonizers: Aragonese and Bourbons did much to bring Sicilian winemaking back to the golden age and it was during the Viceroys government that a wine from Marsala finally conquered the Americas, becoming a status symbol overseas.
In late 19th century, the phylloxera epidemic almost destroyed 70% of the vineyards in Europe, and Sicily was not spared by the plague: 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.