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Formerly a mass wine supplier, today a dynamic wine-growing region with the largest organic wine area in the country: No other wine-growing region in Italy has changed as much as Sicily over the past 30 years. Raffaella Usai reports on an astonishing transformation.

The landscape in the south-east of the island is characterised by vines, olive and almond trees.

Raffaella Usai

As I type these lines, I am recalling the scents and colours of my trip to Sicily at the beginning of May: citrus fruits, wild fennel, fig trees, spicy maquis with herbs of all kinds. A walk through the Sicilian wine landscape is always a particularly intense sensory experience.

Ever since I first travelled to the island many years ago, I have been in love with it. With its fantastic culinary traditions, which are so diverse that you never get tired of them. Their distinctive wines can be so different that it's sometimes hard to believe that they all come from the same island. A large island, mind you. Which has everything to offer, from the continental-alpine climate on Mount Etna in the east to the Mediterranean-subtropical climate in the west.

The "Sicilia en primeur" event organised by Assovini Sicilia was held for the 20th time this year.

Raffaella Usai

Annual meeting place for wine community: Sicilia en primeur

During the "Sicilia en primeur" event, which lasts several days, Sicily feels like the centre of the wine world. Over 100 international journalists have travelled here from Japan, the USA, Canada and all over Europe. Smartly dressed sommeliers, in black suits of course, stand ready with stoic faces to pour over 300 wines for the tasters. They want to taste the new vintage, eagerly swirl their glasses and hammer notes into their notebooks. It's a good opportunity to get an overview of the island's wines: Grillo, Catarratto, Inzolia, Zibibbo, Carricante, but also red wines from Nerello Mascalese, Nero d'Avola, Frappato, Syrah, Perricone and other varieties are on offer.

After the blind tasting, I am particularly enthusiastic about the indigenous white wines, not only the Carricante from the hyped Etna, but also the wines from Catarratto, a grape variety that was hardly ever vinified as a single variety in the past. The Grillo wines with their distinctly aromatic and fruity components are also fun to drink, although they are somewhat less serious than the other two. So if you think of Sicily primarily as a red wine region, you should take a closer look at the white wines!

I was more impressed by the Sicilian white wines than the red wines.

Raffaella Usai

"Less is more"

2023 was a particularly difficult year for Sicilian winegrowers. Around 35 per cent less DOC and IGT wines alone were produced than in 2022, and around 42 per cent less than the average of the past 13 years. The motto of the vintage is accordingly "less is more". The unusually rainy spring brought with it unusual and extreme peronospora problems for Sicily, which some wineries got to grips with far too late - or not at all. This was followed by very hot summer and autumn months with little rainfall.

As a result, the 2023 white wines are very expressive and accessible, with ripe acidity, pronounced flavours and above-average concentration - a consequence of the intense sunshine in September and October as well as lower yields than usual. Nevertheless, 2023 was not a particularly typical vintage for the island, which, like all other regions in southern Europe, is struggling with drought problems.

"The drought in Sicily has been getting worse and worse since 2015, rainfall is decreasing, and this was also evident in the winter of 2024. The higher autumn and winter temperatures are also causing increasing problems," says Mattia Filippi, agronomist and co-founder of the company Uva Sapiens, about the changing climatic conditions on the island. He reports that the indigenous grape varieties are adapting to the new climate better than international varieties. "Catarratto coped best with the climatic adversities in 2023," explains Filippi.

Alberello is the name of the traditional Sicilian grape variety, which can also be seen in many newly planted vineyards.

Raffaella Usai

A unique change

When talking about Sicily and its wines today, one should always bear in mind the extraordinary wine-growing history of this island. At the end of the 19th century - before phylloxera hit Sicily - around 300,000 hectares were planted with vines. At that time, Sicilian wineries supplied half of Europe with blended wines. The cisterns with still fermenting must not only went to northern Italy, but also to France. The huge fermentation cellars, the historic winery buildings known as "Palmenti", which can be found all over the island, still bear witness to this era. Many of them have since been converted into hotels and restaurants, but they give you a rough idea of the enormous quantities that were once processed here.

In the 1980s, Sicily still produced wine on 185,000 hectares - mainly from the four grape varieties Catarratto (Lucido), Nero d'Avola, Trebbiano Toscano and Nerello Mascalese. Other indigenous white grape varieties such as Grillo, Zibibbo or Carricante played only a marginal role at the time, while international grape varieties such as Chardonnay or Syrah were almost non-existent.

It is worth noting that at the time, only 2.5 per cent of all Sicilian wine production was bottled on the island. The majority was vinified by winery co-operatives and reached bottlers as anonymous bulk goods: without identity, the main thing being cheap.

A trio with six fists

It was three visionary winemakers who were to change the fate of Sicilian viticulture: Diego Planeta (Cantine Settesoli and Planeta), Giacomo Rallo (Donnafugata) and Lucio Tasca (Tasca d'Almerita). United in their aim to help Sicilian wines achieve international renown, they founded the Assovini Sicilia association in 1998. Quality instead of quantity was now the motto. And they were successful.

Within 20 years, Sicily had cleared 28 per cent of its vineyards - thanks in part to the enormous clearing subsidies from the EU. At the beginning of the 2000s, only 133,000 hectares were still under cultivation - a trend was emerging. The grape variety portfolio had also changed considerably. In particular, the Nerello Mascalese variety, which is now predominant on Mount Etna, declined by 70 per cent, but Nero d'Avola and the white grape variety Catarratto were also replaced by international varieties such as Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.

For the first time, more and more wineries focussed on quality and bottled their wines on the island. It was the time of the "flying winemakers". Sicily was soon recognised abroad as a dynamic wine-growing region, and the first bottles from famous producers ended up on the menus of Michelin-starred restaurants. Investors from abroad came to the island. "The conviction that wine is a cultural product with extraordinary and unique potential and not just a simple product revolutionised viticulture in Sicily," says Mariangela Cambria, President of Assovini Sicilia, about this time.

The almost extinct Orisi grape variety in the experimental vineyard of Santa Tresa in Vittoria.

Raffaella Usai

More finesse and identity

And today? Over the past 20 years, Sicily has cleared more vineyards and increased the average quality of its wines enormously. Of the former 300,000 hectares, only 95,760 hectares are currently cultivated. The focus is on a return to indigenous grape varieties and a fresh and elegant style: Grillo, Nerello Mascalese, Nero d'Avola and Frappato are the main draws, while Syrah, Chardonnay and other international varieties are becoming noticeably less common. The image of Sicily as a whole is benefiting from the fact that Etna wines, which are full of character, are increasingly taking off in the fine wine league.

The rediscovery of forgotten indigenous varieties is another trend. Around half of the island's 95 indigenous grape varieties have been threatened with extinction in recent decades. With the BI.VI.SI project, the Sicilia DOC consortium is promoting the research and replanting of so-called relict varieties, as these have proven to be surprisingly resistant to heat. This makes them strategic varieties for the increasingly dry growing conditions that most of the island suffers from.

Sicily also consistently favours sustainability and impressively demonstrates that the industry is pulling in the same direction. Already 37,650 hectares of vineyards are certified organic. This corresponds to 28 per cent of Italy's total organic area - and eight per cent of the world. Sicilian wineries are facing up to the current problems with pragmatism, innovation and zeitgeist. And not just in the vineyard.

The SOStain foundation, founded in 2020, is committed to energy efficiency, the protection of sensitive natural ecosystems and the circular economy. Alberto Tasca, President of SOStain Sicilia, presented the new project called "100% Sicily" during the event. Together with the leading glass manufacturer O-I, an ultra-light bottle was developed that consists of 90 per cent recycled glass from the island - and is also produced in Sicily. "This allows us to reduce the indirect CO2 emissions caused by the transport of glass," says Alberto Tasca.

There is also a promising picture when it comes to generational change in family businesses: around 78 per cent of wineries have already integrated the generation under the age of 40 into the company management. Another important step towards the future, which will not be easy for Sicily either.

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