Things are looking up for Sicily

Despite its long history of wine production, until the late 20th century, Sicily lagged behind other Italian wine regions. Since then quality has improved enormously and considerable investment gone into vineyards and wineries. We round up some of the latest developments.  

The new Serra Ferdinandea winery is a joint venture between the French Oddo family and Planeta; the winery has yet to be built.
The new Serra Ferdinandea winery is a joint venture between the French Oddo family and Planeta; the winery has yet to be built.

Unlike most other regions that are looking at severely reduced crops this year, the Sicilia DOC seems set to make up for the five-percent shortfall in production it saw in 2020 and is likely to see another five-percent increase in bottling by the end of the year. Bulk prices are rising too, and money is also flowing into a number of projects. As the harvest approaches its end in the second half of October, the Nerello Mascalese on the slopes of Mount Etna is the only variety that is still to be picked. 

2021 was another hot vintage. On 11 August, the highest summer temperature on record was recorded at 44.4 degrees. "We had expected the harvest to be brought forward by two weeks, but from the beginning of September the weather changed and it rained in various areas of the island. That's why we are only one week earlier. The harvest is slightly higher than in 2020, but it was also the smallest since 1848," says Antonio Rallo, president of the DOC Sicilia consortium and co-owner of the Donnafugata family winery. 

A total production of just under four million hectolitres is expected – not much for a vineyard area of almost 100,000 ha. By comparison, the Veneto covers a similar amount of land, but the forecasts there are for 10.8m ha. Stocks of wine from previous vintages have shrunk, thanks in part to unsold wine having been sent to be distilled, and a rise in demand over recent weeks. "Bulk wine prices are going up because there is hardly any wine. Across Europe harvest volumes have dropped considerably," says Rallo. 

 

In 2020 only, DOC Sicilia bottling is down by just over 5 per cent, albeit after 19 per cent growth in 2019. In the first eight months of this year, DOC is catching up again. At the end of the year, a rise of five percent is expected.

 

At Donnafugata and other wineries, 2021 sales have been soaring. Donnafugata is already experiencing shortages of white wines, especially Zibbibo (Muscat of Alexandria) and the region’s leading white variety, Grillo, which is a cross between that grape and Catarratto. The new vintage will be released between February and March. From 1 January 2022, the production and market movements of DOC Sicilia wines will be fully traceable, thanks to the introduction of new systems.
So far this year, particularly good figures are showing for Grillo which has seen a 20 percent increase in bottling compared to 2021.

 

Time to invest

Settesoli has given its top Mandrarossa wines a smart, environmentally friendly winery a kilometre from the company headquarters. The building was created from an old winery owned by Settesoli and its completion cost only 1.5 million euros. A huge terrace offers panoramic views, while the 700 square metres of mainly underground space accommodate barrique cellars, tasting rooms and a wine shop. 

With this harvest, Rapitalà, the Sicilian satellite of the Gruppo Italiano Vini (GIV), has completed the complete conversion of its 165 ha of vineyards to organic viticulture. "The plants have survived the drought well and there is no lack of acidity, but the yield is very low. Instead of 8.5-9 tonnes of grapes per hectare, we harvested 6 tonnes this year. I think organic farming in general will become natural and also profitable. Wine will only thrive where it finds the right growing conditions, and that has a positive effect on quality," says managing director Laurent Bernard de la Gatinais. 

 

Laurent Bernard de la Gatinais, managing director of Rapitalà

 

Planeta has similarly completed the organic conversion of four of its five wineries in 2020. The final one in Menfi needs another year, after which, all 400 ha will be certified. More exciting for Planeta however is that, with French investors Oddo Vins & Domains, the family-run business has created a new biodynamic vineyard called Serra Ferdinandea at an altitude of 400-450m between Sciacca and Sambuca di Sicilia.

The project is unusual not only because there this is the first French investment in Sicilian wine, but also because of the distribution strategy it involves. "Of course, we couldn't move the wines through Planeta's existing distribution channels, so Serra Ferdinandea will be handled by the négociant firm DIVA in Bordeaux," explains Alessio Planeta. The wines, 2019 vintages from new plantings, were first released in March 2021. They are blends that reflect the Franco-Sicilian relationship, marrying Grillo with Sauvignon and Nero d'Avola with Syrah. 

Pulling even more aces from its sleeve, this year, for the first time, Planeta will bottle limited volumes of three wines from almost-extinct Sicilian varieties. Reflecting the growing move towards direct selling by the wine industry, the 250 bottles each of Vitrarolo, Catanese Nera and Lucignola will be reserved for members of the Planeta wine club, Repertorio 1694. 

 

A different world

Schenk Italian Wineries has also decided to blend Italian and French varieties, bringing together Nero d'Avola with Merlot. The Italian offshoot of the Swiss-owned business has not found a pure Nero d’Avola that meets their standards. "The cooperatives are offering low prices but questionable quality” explains managing director Daniele Simoni.  “We want to offer our customers better and different quality, which may also be more expensive. It should be a modern round style and that is something we will have to work on.”

The company is already preparing another new red blend that brings together seven of the island’s varieties, but with no Nero d'Avola. It will be made using the appassimento method which is increasingly popular. "People are drinking less and less wine with food, even in Italy, so we have to offer wines that taste good when drunk by themselves" Simoni explains. 

 

Sicily's grape varieties

 

Fascination with Etna

Another “extremely interesting” focus for Schenk will be Etna, Simoni says, but the company, which has just acquired 105 ha of organic vineyards in Apulia is not quite ready to develop a project in this Sicilian region.

Etna also continues to attract interest from other outsiders. Those who have not been able to buy land for themselves are concluding lease agreements with local wineries, and having the wine vinified there, because Etna DOC has to be bottled in the production zone. 

The Marzotto family’s Baglio di Pianetto winery has joined Cantina Valenti on the north slope in Passopisciaro and is currently releasing its first two wines - an Etna Rosso made from Nerello Mascalese and an Etna Bianco made from Carricante - under the Fermata 125 brand. Production of this first edition is only 13,300 bottles per variety. 

In September, Donnafugata also presented red and white Etna wines from its joint venture with Dolce & Gabbana, which was launched last year with a rosé. The white Carricante is called Isolano, while the Nerello Mascalese red is Cuordilava. Both naturally have eye-catching packaging.

Veronika Crecelius

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