You will encounter unexpected aspects of life and culture when you visit the Italian island of Sicily. These may include discovering that pockets of locals are fiercely averse to wearing seat belts; that train cars are regularly loaded onto a ferry boat that crosses the Straits of Messina; that other ricotta-based desserts can truly compete with cannoli; that red bluefin tuna caught off the coast are so deliciously valuable that most are exported to Japan; that the island historically lacks a culture of rosé wine production, and that the Sicilian wine scene is so dynamic that grapes you likely never heard have become the latest highlights.
Wine drinkers from outside Sicily likely know of Frappato red grapes, or Catarratto or Grillo white grapes. Less familiar are wines made from Perricone red grapes or whites made from Zibibbo. Although they have been grown and harvested for centuries in Sicily, these grapes are now being bestowed more marketing and viticultural focus. Reasons include better over quality of wines they produce. The tannins of Perricone, for example, can be better tamed with today’s cellar techniques than would have been possible decades ago. For international grape varieties, Syrah appears to be assimilating particularly well into the Sicilian scene in producing excellent quality wines—both monovarietal and blended.
In the late 19th century Perricone (Pignatello) grapes grew profusely on vineyards outside Palermo city in Sicily. The wines were exported to the European continent and became a favorite of Enrico d’Orleans—son of the king of France—who in the mid 1800’s purchased a 23 square mile [6,000 hectare] estate named Zucco outside of Palermo—and produced wines that included Perricone. The grape is sometimes compared to Barbera with its earthy aromas and high acidity. A producer I spoke with said this grape, found in western Sicily, is difficult to cultivate because it ripens late at the end of September or early October, when the risk of harvest rainfall increases. This strong and tannic wine was historically difficult to sell in bulk because it tended to change the characteristics of whatever dominant grape it blended with.
Zibibbo is also known as Muscat of Alexandria because the grape apparently originated near that Egyptian city. It includes abundant organic compounds called terpenes, which provide intense aromas.
During a trip earlier this year I sampled both classic and new wines from throughout the island. Here are highlights—beginning with older wineries and progressing to the youngest.
The landscape around the city of Palermo is surprisingly mountainous and often sparsely populated. Think South Africa’s Stellenbosch melded with Italian foothills of Piemonte; Ireland’s Wicklow hills meeting the Spanish vineyards of Tenerife; California’s Paso Robles intersecting with the eastern approach to Spanish San Sebastien, and highway tunnels of Portugal’s Madeira island rolling into southern Alpine foothills of Italy’s Val D’Aosta.
Within this rolling expanse are hills that hold the Di Lorenzo family estate of Feudo Disisa—purchased almost 150 years ago as a cow and sheep farm that also produced olives. ‘Feudo’ means ‘estate, while ‘disisa’ originates from an Arab word meaning ‘splendid.’
‘We believe a lot in Perricone,’ co-owner Mario Di Lorenzo said when we spoke. ‘Although production is limited.’
Feudo Disisa. Granmassenti Perricone. DOC Monreale. 2020. 93 points.
From the difficult Perricone red grape comes this wine with slightly wild aromas that include Oreos, cocoa and black cherries with a hit of balsamic. In the mouth flavors mid palate include malt balls, red cherries, morels and slight ginger on the finish. A unique wine named after a legendary pile of money found in a cave which the discoverer could only exit once he had left all the treasure behind.
Feudo Disisa. Vuaria. Nero D’Avola. Monreale DOC. 2019. 93—94 points.
Grapes from a single vineyard named Vuaria aged two years in French oak. Husky and earthy aromas of moist forest, mushrooms, ferns, red cherries, brandy and raspberries. In the mouth, a smooth and voluptuous mid palate that includes flavors of cocoa and a sparky finish with flavors of red fruit.
Feudo Disisa. Tornamira Rosso. Terre Siciliane. 2018. 93—94 points.
A 50/25/25 blend of Syrah/Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon aged in new oak. Bright, crunchy and crisp aromas that include some mint. In the mouth flavors mid palate include black pepper, oranges and balsamic with raspberries on the finish. Firm structure and tannins.
Feudo Disisa. Roàno. DOC Sicilia. Syrah. 2018. 94 points.
Aromas of chocolate, fig newtons, treacle and smoke. Suave and structured mid palate with flavors that include cumin and molasses.
Feudo Disisa. Krysos. Late harvest. DOC Sicilia. 2019. 94 points.
This late harvest Grillo sweet wine is only made during certain very hot years, and the grapes are let grow for more than a month longer on the vine. This balances alcohol, acidity and sugar with intense fruit. Supple aromas of oranges, nutmeg, honey and red cherries. Flavors include marmalade and sultanas. Complex.
Firriato—which means ‘enclosure’—owns vineyards on Mount Etna in the east of Sicily, as well as in Trapani in the west and also at Calamoni Estate on Favignana Island off Sicily’s western coast. Firriato also runs resort facilities at some of its agricultural estates. The family-owned company initiated by Salvatore Di Gaetano focuses on working with organically certified vineyards at six estates.
Firriato. Favinia La Muciara Bianco. IGT Terre Siciliane. 2020. 92 points.
60/20/20 blend of Zibibbo/Catarratto/Grillo from an island near where the famed red tuna are fished. Hand harvested and then taken by boat to the mainland. Typically the vines on this island die after eight to 10 years from the saline conditions. Aromatic, light and fluffy aromas that include grapefruit and limes. In the mouth a creamy attack and slightly herbaceous mid palate in a wine that includes minerality, salinity as well as slight ginger and caramel flavors. Pair with fish and fat.
Firriato. Cavanera. Rovo Delle Coturnie. DOC Etna Rosso. 2018. 94 points.
From vines that are at least 90 years old, this red wine from Nerello Mascalese grapes includes aromas with an intense Burgundian snap of black pepper as well as licorice. Aged for up to one year in fine grained tonneau barrels. Flavors include black olives, licorice, red plums, black and white peppers. Tannic mid palate and a fruity finish.
Firriato. Harmonium. Nero D’Avola. DOC Sicilia. 2018. 94 points.
Made with grapes from three different vineyards. Brisk aromas of red fruit and smoke, as well as black pepper, red cherries and some licorice. In the mouth flavors are textured and include chocolate and red fruit. This one will have you salivating and asking for more.
Firriato. Ribeca Perricone. DOC Sicilia. 2018. 95 points.
From Perricone grapes and aged for one year in French oak. Complex aromas of light red fruit that includes raspberries, as well as smoke and tobacco. Somewhat sharp attack, followed by licorice and plum mid palate and cocoa on the finish.
Firriato. L’ecrù Passito. IGT Terre Siciliane. 2020. 94 points.
Sweet wine from 100% Zibibbo grapes. Deep and complex with aromas of apricot and honey, almonds, orange rind and marmalade. A textured and rich mid palate that includes flavors of lapsang souchong tea. Bright acidity will let this age for decades.
Casa Vinicola Fazio in Trapani in the Erice appellation of western Sicily was founded in the 1990’s based on a family that had been growing vines and producing wines for four generations. Lilly Ferro, trained as a lawyer, directs the estate that now has 125 acres [50 hectares] and exports wines not only to Europe, the US, Canada and China, but also to Japan—where Ferro has spent significant time. ‘Although Japanese prefer beer or whiskey with their cuisine, we are lucky because Sicilian cuisine is very popular all over the world, and the Japanese are familiar with the famed red tuna from our shores,’ she said.
Casa Vinicola Fazio. Anima Solis. IGT Terre Siciliane. 2022. 92 points.
A 50/50 blend of Catarratto/Zibibbo. Crisp but also rounded aromas that include lime and tropical fruit. Easy drinking, balanced, with a pleasant and oily mouth feel. Pair with swordfish rolls or sweet and sour tuna.
Casa Vinicola Fazio. Müller Thurgau. DOC Erice. 2022. 92 points.
Low key aromas that include florals from this international grape that has been experimented with for decades in Sicily. Rich, sweet and sour and rounded flavors. Pair with shrimp and busiata pasta.
Casa Vinicola Fazio. Anima Solis. Rosé. IGT Terre Siciliane. 2022. 92 points.
Made from Syrah, the aromas of this rosé include mild spearmint and tropicals and even slight olive tapenade. A soft and approachable and balanced mid palate. Consider pairing this light wine with linguini and lemon zest.
Casa Vinicola Fazio. Petali Moscato. DOC Erice. 94 points.
A sparkling wine with brisk aromas of key lime pie, rose petals and lemon drops. Flavors in this fine bubbly include lime and custard. Delicious. Pair with a ricotta based dessert.
Casa Vinicola Fazio. ZY Passito Zibibbo. DOC Erice. 2021. 93 points.
Bold aromas from this sweet wine with a full body and succulent rolling layers. Consider pairing with blue cheese and foie gras or a cassata cake dessert.
Tenute Orestiadi is a young company—started in 2008 in the Belìce Valley of Gibellina, Sicily. Gibellina is renowned for its massive outdoor art work—basically a concrete covering the remains of a village that was pulverized by an earthquake in 1968. This sculpture was the idea of Ludovico Corrao, mayor of Gibellina who summoned artists and architects to memorialize the tragedy.
Tenute Orestiadi. Bahar Zibibbo. DOC Sicilia. 2022. 93 points.
From the Sabir word for ‘wind’ comes this sweet and sour shower of power on the nose: brisk and fresh aromas of tangerines, salt, ripe white pears, lemongrass and grapefruit. In the mouth—oily, chewy, rounded and crackling with edgy acidity. Generous flavors redolent of mandarins.
Tenute Orestiadi. Il Bianco di Ludovico. DOC Sicilia Riserva. 2019. 94 points.
A 90/10 blend of Catarratto/Chardonnay. Aromas of flint, iron filings, butter, apricots, almonds and toast. Soft and elegant mouthful with crisp acidity.
Tenute Orestiadi. Mazal Frappato. DOC Sicilia. 2021. 92 points.
‘Mazal’ is from the ancient Sabir language for travelers and means ‘good luck in the fields.’ This wine includes aromas of red plumbs, Oreos, violets and some black pepper. Elegant in the mouth with a taste that will remind you of both Beaujolais and Syrah.
Tenute Orestiadi. Adeni Perricone. DOC Sicilia. 2021. 93 points.
From red soils that are used to make local ceramics grow Perricone grapes for this wine, which is aged without oak. Aromas of cranberries, raspberries and nectarine rind. Rich and well-structured in the mouth, with mid palate flavors of cocoa and red plums. Quite rich and heavy.
Tenute Orestiadi. Douar Nero D’Avola. DOC Sicilia. 2021. 95 points.
From the ancient seafaring Sabir language word meaning ‘small town’—this Nero D’Avola has rich and rounded aromas of cocoa and red plums. Full, rich, generous oily mouth feel and a powerful wine that can remind a drinker of Syrah, Carménère and Cabernet Sauvignon blended. Also reminiscent of an orange liqueur. Top selling wine from Orestiadi.
Giulia Monteleone of Monteleone Wines studied law, then worked as a journalist before she decided to make wine on the slopes of Mount Etna. She oscillates between the Sicilian city of Palermo and Mount Etna a few times a week, often taking a bus so she can work while traveling. Her business partners are her father Enrico and winemaker boyfriend Benedetto Alessandro. They grow grapes on seven hectares of Mount Etna and produce a total of 24,000 bottles annually in five labels. They export primarily to the U.S. and U.K.
Monteleone. DOC Etna Bianco. 2022. 93 points.
This white wine is made with Carricante grapes predominantly from the eastern slopes of Mount Etna, but also from the north—where soils include more clay. The grapevines are mostly 25 years old. Each year 8,000 bottles are produced. Includes a crisp lime / lemon edge that grows on you by the glass. Fresh and mildly saline. Pair with seafood such as shrimp or octopus.
Monteleone. Anthemis. 2021. 93-94 points.
Aged one year in French Burgundian oak, this wine is made with Carricante grapes grown on eastern Mount Etna slopes. It includes rounded aromas and its ample acidity has been mellowed with oak. Evergreen/spearmint on the attack, followed by salinity, minerality and striking crisp acidity mid palate and a rounded finish. Good for aging and will likely include slight and attractive caramel characteristics in a decade.
Monteleone. Qubba. DOC Etna Rosso. 2020. 94 points.
Made from both Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes grown on Mount Etna; aged for 16 months in 30% new oak. Striking Burgundian like aromas with red plums, black pepper and black cherries. Bright acidity in the mouth with lean and tight tannins and a hit of licorice on the finish. Well integrated and stunning.
As for that Sicilian dessert that rivals cannoli pastry? Try la cassatella with origins in the coastal town of Castellammare del Golfo in northern Sicily [La Tonnara Restaurant there is outstanding]. This is a fried pastry that includes ricotta cheese. Or try cassata—a liqueur-soaked sponge cake. Pair either with any sweet wine, including those mentioned above.