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Sicily is changing its wine system. With the 2012 vintage, there will in future be the IGT Terre Siciliane, which replaces the IGT Sicilia, and a region-wide DOC Sicilia, into which certain wines of the former IGT Sicilia can move up. One can ask whether an island with the most diverse growing conditions and the most diverse varieties should be packed into a single DOC. Is Sicily, with 25,000 square kilometres, an appellation or not rather a wine region with numerous appellations that produce very different wines? Why this huge DOC? Were the small existing territorial appellations not enough? Merum wanted to know from two important players on the ground why the Sicilia DOC was needed. Raffaella Usai and Andreas März visited the president of the new consortium, Antonio Rallo (Donnafugata), in Marsala and Alessio Planeta (Planeta) in Sambuca di Sicilia.

Antonio Rallo

Antonio Rallo% Donnafugata Winery (Photo: Merum)

"DOC Sicilia doesn't want to mix, it wants to bring order to the system."

Merum: Mr Rallo, you are president of the consortium of the new DOC Sicilia, which has existed since June 2012, furthermore you are president of the Sicilian Assovini and in the chair of the Unione Italiana Vini...

Antonio Rallo: Yes, I am committed to the Sicilian wine industry. These are all offices that cause a lot of work, I get up earlier and go to bed later, but I don't get paid for it.

Merum: The Sicilian winegrowers are certainly grateful to you for that?

Antonio Rallo: Well... But if I get a positive result for Sicily, that's enough for me! These are the very days [December, ed.] when producers have to declare their grape and wine production. In Sicily we are lucky that the wine control is taken care of by a single body, the Istituto Regionale Vini e Oli.

Merum: Is Sicilian wine production better controlled thanks to the DOC?

Antonio Rallo: Since 1 August 2012, both IGT and DOC wines have had to undergo documentary, analytical and sensory checks. Since a single body takes care of the control, we will know exactly about the production of Sicilian quality wine in the future. This is important because Sicilian wines have been very successful in recent years. A lot of Sicilian wine is also bottled on the mainland. Thanks to the new regulation, we now have the legal means to check even Sicilian DOC and IGT wines sold abroad for their authenticity. This is not only important for consumers, but also for the reputation of Sicilian wine.

Merum: Now, if a bottler buys a tanker of wine from you and bottles it somewhere in Lombardy as IGT Terre di Sicilia or as Sicilia DOC, is the Sicilian wine control able to trace these wine bottles and check their authenticity and quality?

Antonio Rallo: Absolutely! The bottler must first be accredited by the Istituto Regionale Vini e Oli and announce that he intends to bottle Sicilian wine. As soon as he collects the wine from me, I enter the corresponding quantity in my cellar book and the bottler enters it in his. Since the cellar books are kept online, the control authority is informed about all operations in real time and without gaps. As soon as the bottler in faraway Lombardy wants to bottle my wine, he gets permission from the Istituto Regionale Vini e Oli and enters the number of bottles in the online cellar book.

Merum: Until today, the majority of Sicilian quality wines have been marketed as Sicilia IGT. Who wanted the DOC Sicilia and why?

Antonio Rallo: Until yesterday, we lived in a situation where no authenticity control was possible for Sicilia IGT wines. The Sicilian quality producers had no means of protecting their "Sicilia" brand.

Merum: Now, however, at the same time that you are painstakingly pushing through the DOC, the EU is changing the wine law and demanding exactly this authenticity control for IGT wines as well. The DOC has been cheekily overtaken by IGT from the right. Doesn't this make the DOC superfluous?

Antonio Rallo: Now, in retrospect, you can see it that way. But you have to understand that we had demanded the DOC at a moment when there was no control whatsoever and Sicilian wine was fair game. A group of quality winegrowers wanted to change this situation, and at that time this was only possible with the DOC.

Merum: How big will the production of Sicilia DOC be?

Antonio Rallo: Theoretically, Sicilia DOC can be produced on 40,000 hectares. Of course, DOC is only at the beginning, which means that most of the wine will continue to be bottled as IGT, now called Terre Siciliane, for the time being. Some of today's Sicilia IGT wines cannot even advance to DOC wine, because certain combinations of varieties are not provided for by the production regulations.

Sicilian wine landscape (Photo: Merum)

Merum: How is the DOC Sicilia compatible with the other designations of origin on the island?

Antonio Rallo: The idea behind the DOC is not only to protect the name Sicily, but also to create a quality pyramid. All other Sicilian DOC and DOCG wines have the opportunity to join this quality pyramid. If they do, then an Etna DOC or a Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG, for example, may be branded on the label as a wine from Sicily! If we assume that Sicily is a strong brand, then I do believe that it makes a difference whether the wine presents itself as Etna DOC or as Sicilia Etna DOC. Until now, this was not possible. The advantage is even clearer for lesser-known DOCs such as Contea di Sclafani. How many wine lovers probably know that this is a Sicilian wine? So the DOC Sicilia does not want to mix everything up, but to bring order into the system and at the same time make the small DOCs recognisable as Sicilian production.

Merum: To the crucial question: Is bottling on the island mandatory for the Sicilia DOC?

Antonio Rallo: Unfortunately, we did not succeed in uniting a majority behind our demand for compulsory bottling in the production area. Bottling for IGT and DOC remains free. However, it is not too late for a compulsory bottling. If the DOC can make more friends in the future, a majority for this change in the production rules may also come about.

Merum: A question about the economic situation. How have prices for producers developed in recent years?

Antonio Rallo: In the past three years, grape and bulk wine prices have more than doubled. Quality white wines increased in price by 35 to 40 percent in 2011 and again by the same in 2012.

Merum: Does this boom affect all Sicilian wines?

Antonio Rallo: The market is split in two. On the one hand, there are high-quality wines with producers who take care of the whole production chain from the vineyard to the customer. These are successful and well-known. On the other hand, there are the mass wines that leave Sicily in tanks and are bottled elsewhere. That's about two-thirds of Sicilian wine.

Merum: These probably come mostly from the cellar cooperatives. Aren't the enormous quantities a threat to healthy prices and the reputation of Sicilian wine?

Antonio Rallo: The Cantine Sociali have also improved enormously in quality. Sicily had 135,000 hectares of vineyards just a few years ago. In 2011, we produced on less than 100,000 hectares, the year before even only on 90,000 hectares. The reason for the smaller area was the subsidies for the vendemmia verde [harvesting and destruction of the still green grapes, ed.] The affected areas mainly produced wine, which did not have a profitable market.

Merum: What used to happen to the wines without a market?

Antonio Rallo: There used to be aid for wine distillation and for the production of must concentrate. That was also a kind of market, but not a healthy one, because producing alcohol and sugar from grapes is neither economically nor environmentally sustainable. Alcohol and sugar can be produced more cheaply with other crops. These subsidies had led to wrong production behaviour.

Merum: The possibility of now being able to guarantee the authenticity of Sicilian DOC wines certainly brings added value back to the island; on the other hand, one could also fear that the strict control will hinder wine sales. Sicilian DOC wines might be less interesting for some bottlers than the former Sicilian IGT wines.

Antonio Rallo: We have to base our considerations on the real situation of Sicilian viticulture. With its yields per hectare, Sicily is one of the bottom performers in Italy. In the past two years, the average yield per hectare in Sicily was only 5,000 litres! We are almost forced to produce quality wine. Fortunately, we can produce good wines here at reasonable prices.

Alessio Planeta

Alessio and Francesca Planeta% Planeta Winery (Photo: Merum)

"With the new DOC, a real quality pyramid is emerging."

Merum: Mr Planeta, you manage wineries spread all over the island and are one of Sicily's most successful producers. Are you in favour of the new DOC Sicilia?

Alessio Planeta: Definitely! The most important progress is the complete controllability of Sicilian quality wines. However, the new DOC is also a suitable instrument with which the individual wine-growing regions can be better brought to bear.

Merum: What does that look like?

Alessio Planeta: I am rather critical of small DOCs, they are too insignificant to assert themselves on the market. Thanks to DOC Sicilia, they have better chances. Planeta has a vineyard in the DOC Mamertino. Who knows that this is a small appellation in the extreme north-east of Sicily? If the wine is now called Sicilia Mamertino DOC, then that is a real marketing aid.

Merum: And what do the critics criticise about the Sicilia DOC?

Alessio Planeta: They fear that the all-regional DOC threatens to level Sicilian wines. But the opposite is the case: The DOC Sicilia not only gives all high-quality IGT wines a more dignified home, the already existing DOCs and DOCGs also receive better visibility.

Merum: How will the DOC Sicilia change the wine offer?

Alessio Planeta: With the new DOC, a real quality pyramid is being created. The DOC Sicilia forms the solid base for the top of the small DOC and DOCG. Planeta, for example, produces numerous wines in DOC areas. Our Chardonnay used to be called Sicilia IGT Chardonnay, although it actually comes from the Menfi DOC area. But we didn't want to call it Menfi DOC because the word Sicily was missing on the label and people thought Menfi was somewhere in Puglia or elsewhere. Until now, the word Sicilia could only be used in connection with IGT, for DOC wines the reference to the Sicilian origin was not possible. From now on, our Chardonnay Sicilia Menfi DOC will be called.

Merum: Will the different consortia take the chance and put their appellation under the Sicilia DOC umbrella?

Alessio Planeta: There are weak and strong consortia. The strong ones are those with many members. But there are also consortia with just a handful of members. In the 1990s, many DOCs were created because people feared that they would otherwise be excluded from EU subsidies. In many of these newly created production areas, no bottles had ever been bottled before.

Merum: How do the better-known appellations react?

Alessio Planeta: The Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG consortium has already placed itself under the Sicilia DOC umbrella. The producers can now choose whether they want to put the word Sicilia in front of the name Cerasuolo di Vittoria on the label. However, they are not obliged to do so. Furthermore, there is now a large Sicilian wine consortium. This consortium will take care of the communication of the Sicilia brand in the future.

Vineyards near Calatafimi (Photo: Wein-Plus)

The DOC Sicilia production rules

Production regulations usually do not allow direct conclusions to be drawn about the quality of the wines. Moreover, the "disciplinare" of the Sicilia DOC does not only regulate the production conditions of a single type of wine, but aims to provide a home for all quality wines of the island. Thus, a large number of grape varieties and all conceivable wine typologies are envisaged and the yields per hectare, at 12,000 kilos for the reds and 13,000 kilos for the whites, are not exactly low... but nowhere near high enough to produce mass-produced wines under the Sicilia name. (For comparison: the previous IGT Sicilia allowed 18,000 kilos per hectare for the whites and 15,600 kilos for the reds).

The new, all-regional DOC is loosely defined on purpose and guarantees only a minimum quality, but above all the origin Sicily. If a label says Sicilia together with the name of a smaller appellation (Cerasuolo, Mamertino, Menfi etc.), then the stricter production rules are binding.

One flaw in the DOC Sicilia is the lack of a requirement that the wines must be bottled on the island on a mandatory basis. However, it is not too late for the compulsory requirement; as soon as the majority of winegrowers wish to do so, the omission can be made up for.

The DOC Sicilia is only at the very beginning and will come into force with the 2012 vintage. The next few years will show how the all-regional designation of origin will prove itself. It is even conceivable that it could serve as a model for other regions.

This article was made available to us by the Merum editorial team. Find out more about Merum, the magazine for wine and olive oil from Italy, here:
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The winery Donnafugata in the wine guide of Wein-Plus

The Planeta winery in the wine guide of Wein-Plus

To the "BEST OF Autochthonous white varieties of Sicily

To the "BEST OF Nero d'Avola from Sicily".

To the magazine article "Etna: Fire-breathing wines".

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