Notwithstanding its reputation for sun drenched vineyards, over two-thirds of Sicily’s wine production is devoted to white wines. In addition, to international white grape varietals like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, Sicily also cultivates more than a dozen indigenous white grape varieties.
The indigenous varietals include: Carricante, Catarratto, Grillo, Insolia, Grecanico Bianca, Malvasia, Zibibbo and Moscato. The latter three are vinified both as dry wines and as late harvest or raisinated sweet dessert wines.
Additionally, many Sicilian white varietals have multiple biotypes, some of which can produce startlingly different wines. There are undoubtedly many more indigenous grape varieties waiting to be identified and cataloged.
Catarratto occupies around a third of Sicily’s vineyard acreage. In 2018, roughly 73,000 acres of vineyards were planted to Cataratto. The grape has seven different biotypes. The three principal ones are Catarratto Bianca, Catarratto Bianca Commune and Catarratto Bianco Lucido. As biotypes, all three are considered to be genetically identical, even though they look different. This is an ancient grape whose cultivation probably reaches back millennia.
There are noticeable differences in the wines produced by the three grapes, however, although this may be more the impact of winemaking techniques or local terroir than the underlying grape genetics. Current research suggests that Catarratto is probably a descendent or a parent of Garganega, the Venetian grape variety used to produce Soave. Catarratto is also believed to be a parent to around a dozen other Italian white grapes, including Tuscany’s workhorse grape Trebbiano. Along with Zibibbo, it is also the parent of Grillo.
The grape is mostly planted in the western half of Sicily where it is used in the production of Marsala. It is often found bottled as a varietal or as a blend with Grillo, Insolia, Carricante or Chardonnay.
Catarratto produces a medium to full-bodied, easy drinking, low acid wine, which features dried herbal aromas of sage and thyme, along with green apple, tropical fruit notes of banana and pineapple, as well as citrus flavors ranging from lemon zest to grapefruit to orange. It often has a refreshing, bitter finish.
The grape is also widely used in the production of bulk table wines. Under the right winemaker, however, when yields are restricted, Catarratto is capable of producing full-bodied, quality wines with a pronounced lemon and herbal flavor that are reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc, although the more pronounced, lingering bitterness on the finish of Catarratto wines is usually a good marker for distinguishing it from Sauvignon Blanc.
Grillo is another indigenous variety that is found throughout western Sicily. There are approximately 16,000 acres of Grillo in Sicily. It is also known as Riddu and Rossese Bianco.
Grillo was once the principal varietal used for the production of high-quality Marsala. Its elevated sugar levels, when ripe, made it ideal for making fortified wines. It was, however, gradually replaced by the higher yielding but lower quality Catarratto.
Grillo produces wines that range from light to succulent, with moderate acidity and a pronounced sweetness. The wines offer distinctive citrus flavors, especially ripe lemon and, on occasion, grape fruit along with white flowers, dried herbal flavors, as well as apple, white peach and melon. At its best, think of a rich, custard like, lemon cream.
When its herbal notes are prominent, it can be very reminiscent of a cool climate Sauvignon Blanc. It is bottled as a single varietal and in blends with Insolia, Catarratto or Chardonnay.
Insolia is a grape variety that is grown in both Sicily (96% of acreage) and in Tuscany (4%), where it is known as Ansonica. In Tuscany, it is grown primarily in the Maremma and on the island of Elba. The grape produces a naturally tannic white wine that is light to medium bodied in western Sicily, but fuller bodied in Tuscany. In Sicily, it offers aromas of yellow apple and dried apricot. In Tuscany, it is more citrusy. Sicily has over 15,000 acres of Insolia.
Wines made from Insolia are very floral and feature dry herbal, fruit and nutty aromas. They are often accompanied by a distinct minerality. These are delicate wines that offer finesse and elegance, with moderate alcohol and acidity.
Carricante is a late ripening varietal grown principally at higher elevations, typically at altitudes between 3,000 and 3,500 feet above sea level, on the slopes of Mount Etna. There are only about 500 acres of Carricante vineyards. It has been cultivated on Mount Etna for at least a millennium.
Carricante produces a wine that offers high acidity and historically, have been capable of extending aging. It is crisp and zesty with a pronounced lemon-lime citrus note, along with green fruit and herbal aromas of anise and mint.
The better examples can exhibit a streak of Chablis like minerality, especially when vinified in a reductive style with plenty of lees contact and minimal stirring. Late harvest varieties can be exceptionally creamy with a pronounced honey note.
Although the bulk of Sicily’s wine production is still coming from cooperatives and destined for bulk wine sales, a new generation of estate winemakers are producing world class wines from indigenous white grape varieties.
These wines are uniquely Sicilian, produced from indigenous varieties whose history is intimately bound with the island. Reasonably priced and offering an aromatic and flavor profile found nowhere else, they are well worth exploring.
The whole article with some tips from the author, Joseph V Micallef, is here: Why You Should Explore The World Of Sicilian White Wines