Sicilian Wines are Taking Center Stage

It was a long time coming—almost 4,000 years, in fact. But Sicilian wines have finally asserted themselves on the international stage.

More modern techniques in viticulture and winemaking, coupled with the unique blending of local Sicilian grape varieties and international ones, has spawned a new industry.

Among white wines, it’s no longer unusual to encounter an insolia, damaschino or grillo blended with the world’s omnipresent (but ever saleable) chardonnay. Sicilian reds used to be infamously strong and overbearing, but the distinctive nero d’Avola is often preferred in its purest varietal form, with no help from cabernet sauvignon.

Until recently, Sicily was best known for fortified dessert wines such as Marsala, passito and moscato. In some years, the island provided as much as 30 percent of Italy’s total production, with the Sicilian product considered little more than a fortifying agent in other wines or an economical wine sold in bulk. That’s changing, and chefs in New York, London and Tokyo are taking note.

Sommeliers who once associated Sicily exclusively with the sweet Marsala used in cooking now sell the best Sicilian table wines for as much as $70 or $80 a bottle. Some of these “new” Sicilian wines, such as nero d’Avola, which has been compared to syrah, age particularly well.

When it comes to Sicily, there is no question that nero is leading the commercial charge. If any restaurant in Texas has a Sicilian wine on its list at all, odds are good it’s this inky, delicious “black grape from Avola.” Yet while the wine’s popularity is new, its existence is certainly not.

Growers and winemakers around the town of Avola have known for centuries that the grape is capable of grand things. Sicily was always unique in many ways and in no sense more than its long and tangled tale of winemaking and all other types of agriculture.

Founded on Greek roots, the island had an important role during the Roman era as a granary providing soft wheat. In fact, to this day, Sicilians (and the many Americans of Sicilian descent) will tell you that the Romans stole as much as the island could produce. There is considerable resentment about that, one that explains Sicily’s long and bitter insistence to being part of an Italy governed by Rome.

Day-to-day, town to town, however, the flavors and scents of Sicily can be every bit as North African as they are Greek—an exotic legacy of two long-ago centuries of rule by the Arab Moors. When it comes to wine pairing, then, a Sicilian wine enjoyed in Sicily has to be ready to accompany couscous as often as pasta, as well as to encounter “sweet” spices like cinnamon and nutmeg in the middle of a savory dish.

If you have sampled the newest generations of Sicilian wines, you know they’ve had a lot of practice tasting good alongside almost anything.

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