Sicily is better known for its red wines, even though they are only about a third of the Mediterranean island’s output. Many a pizza or pasta dinner has been accompanied by Sicily’s inexpensive, ubiquitous red wine Nero d’Avola.
The island hosts a large number of red wine varietals. International varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. More interesting are the several dozen, ancient, indigenous red wine grapes, in particular: Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Frappato and Perricone.
Nero d’Avola is Sicily’s best-known red wine grape and, at 18% of vineyard acreage, 34,000 acres, its most widely planted. The grape, grown all over Sicily, is named after the seaside town of Avola in Sicily’s southeast corner in the Syracusa region. Plantings of Nero d’Avola have begun to appear in Australia, and to a lesser extent California, although 98% of all plantings of the varietal are still in Sicily.
It reaches its most sophisticated expression, however, in the neighboring province of Ragusa, to the west, where along with Frappato it forms the basis of Sicily’s only DOCG (Denominazione di origine controllata) appellation: Cerasuolo di Victoria.
Nero d’Avola, also known as Calabrese, is an ancient grape. Its cultivation in Sicily dates back more than a millennium and in all likelihood dates back much further. During the Middle Ages the town of Avola was a major shipping center for the Sicilian wine trade. Nero d’Avola was exported to cooler climates where it was used to add color and body to local wines. Its use as a blending grape persisted into the 20th century. Only in the last few decades has it begin to appear widely as a varietal bottling.
The name Nero d’Avola means black of Avola. The wine is dark, black ink colored. It’s characterized by powerful tannins, medium acidity and a robust body. The grape is highly versatile, capable of being crafted into light, fruity wines redolent of strawberry, cherry, raspberry and fresh plum or, when cropped at low yields and aged in barrique, into a powerful, concentrated, dark wine exhibiting concentrated red and black fruit notes, along with flavors of dark chocolate, spice and, sometimes, coffee.
The varietal is highly expressive of where it grows. When grown on limestone, especially at altitude, Nero d’Avola showcases red fruit notes of strawberry and sour cherry with notable acidity. When grown on warmer clay soils, the red fruit notes are supplemented by elements of rose petal, black cherry, tropical spices, licorice and chocolate.
Nerello Mascalese/Nerello Cappuccio
Nerello Mascalese is another indigenous variety whose history dates back centuries. It originated in the Mascali plain, a flat region between Mount Etna and the coast. Along with its genetic cousin Nerello Cappuccio, its most common blending partner, the two grape varietals form the core of the highly regarded Etna Rosso wines. Nerello Mascalese is considered to be the higher quality varietal.
Sicily has approximately 7,100 acres of Nerello Mascalese and another 1,200 acres of Nerello Cappuccio. The grape varietals are similar, but Cappuccio tends to ripen earlier, is darker and less tannic. Both varietals exhibit pronounced notes of red fruit, especially ripe cherry, along with floral notes, tobacco, dried herbs and a bit of minerality.
When grown at altitude, typically around 3,000 to 3,500 feet, on the slopes of Mount Etna, Nerello Mascalese exhibits a taut, lean character, with pronounced acidity and ripe tannins, featuring red fruits, herbaceous elements, a dry earth and forest floor character and, on occasion, a pronounced minerality.
Genetic testing has suggested that Nerello may be related to Italy’s most common red grape variety, Sangiovese, and may be a cross between Sangiovese and an indigenous variety. Carricante, a common neighbor on Etna, has been suggested as the other likely parent.
Frappato is used as a blending wine with Nero d’Avola in the production of Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG. It can also be found, although still not very common, as a varietal bottling. Sicily has about 1,600 acres of Frappato vineyards. Puglia has about 300 acres.
Frappato wines are light bodied and lightly colored. They are low in tannin and feature aromas of strawberries, violets and dried herbs. They blend well with dark colored, tannic wine, softening the sometimes hard edge of Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese and Nocera.
Perricone is grown primarily in western Sicily where it is used predominantly for blending. Usually combined with Nero d’Avola it produces, highly alcoholic wines. When picked ripe, Perricone produces wines that are high in acidity, with distinctive tannic backbones that feature ripe red fruit, dry herbal notes and earth, with a lingering bitter note on the finish.
Sicily produces wines from a number of international red varieties, principally Cabernet Sauvignon (5,000 acres), Merlot (2,000 acres) and Syrah (13,000 acres). While Sicily produces excellent Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, these varietals are more interesting when blended with indigenous red varieties.
Syrah, on the other hand, seems to have a particular affinity for Sicily. Syrah isn’t new in Sicily, it has been cultivated there for over 150 years. In Sicily, Syrah offers up wines with lush flavors of cherries, blackberries and plums without being jammy, along with notes of pepper and dry herbs. Especially when grown at altitude on volcanic spoils, Syrah in Sicily can retain its acidity, producing powerfully concentrated fruit forward wines.
Sicily’s Mediterranean climate, its complex topography and varied soils make it a superb environment in which to grow grapes. Today, Sicily is one of the most exciting wine provinces in the world, crafting world class wines on the cutting edge of modern winemaking. Its indigenous red varieties are, under the hand of a new generation of modern winemakers, rapidly returning this Mediterranean island to its glory days of wine making. Sicilian red wines are well worth exploring and remember they are not just for pizza anymore!
The whole article with some tips from the author, Joseph V Micallef, is here: Why You Should Explore The World Of Sicilian Red Wines