Wine 101: Italy Region Deep Dives: Sicily

Today’s episode features Maze Row Wine Merchant’s esteemed partner, Tornatore, which is produced on Sicily’s Mount Etna. Yes, that Mount Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. In fact, the Tornatore family started growing grapes in Etna in 1865, making them the most established wine-growing families there. To try Tornatore wine, follow the link in the episode description to, where you’ll find Rosso, Red, and Bianco White wine.

On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers dives into Sicily, a world of its own when it comes to wine. It has been on a roller coaster ride since antiquity and we are enjoying the results of that ride. Tune in for more.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers and I’ve been doing these fun little quippy intros for four years now and I’m kind of running out of ideas. I’ll be okay, but if you guys have any DM me, @VinePairKeith.

What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair Podcasting Network, this is “Wine 101.” My name is Keith Beavers. I happen to be the tastings director of VinePair. Hi.

Okay, we’re leaving the mainland, but we’re still in the south and we are heading to Sicily. Yes. Etna, Nero d’Avola, Grillo, Catarratto, Carricante. Let’s do this. 

Okay, wine lovers, we have to talk about Sicily because what’s very cool about this wine region is that here on the American market, we have been celebrating a wine-specific region actually from Sicily for a while now. I think since 2005 it’s been getting more and more popular. It’s called Etna. And if you are an Italian wine drinker, or I don’t know where you are on your journey, but if you’re drinking Italian wine, you’ve probably had Etna Rosso, Etna Bianco. And those wines are so wonderful and they express themselves in a certain way that it really tapped into the world palate and everyone fell in love. And that’s awesome because that is just scratching the surface of Sicily.

So if you’re into Sicily and you’ve had the Etna Rosso or the Etna Bianco, get ready. There’s more to try. If you haven’t had Sicilian wine yet, get ready, I’m about to blow your mind. Now we talked about Campania in the last episode. We talked about how ancient it is, right? Well, Sicily and wine is maybe even more ancient than Campania. And it’s actually thought that vines from Sicily made it to the mainland of Italy. And that’s how vines got to the mainland of Italy.

Even all the way up to Etruria, which is now Tuscany, it’s pretty far north from Campania. Because Campania and Sicily are kind of like neighbors, but with a bunch of water in between them. There is very ancient documentation that vines were brought from Tauromenium, which is now Taormina, it’s a coastal town of Sicily, to the mainland of Italy. And I don’t know much about naval navigation or anything, but it kind of makes sense that an island would be explored first rather than a main peninsula. I don’t know, maybe because the islands are easy to get to. I don’t know. Am I making that up? I don’t know. Sounds right. Anyway, from the 5th to the 8th century B.C., the Greeks were all over here and they started out sort of on the edge and the perimeters of the island, mostly on the east and southern coast of Sicily.

And then by the 8th century, vineyards were flourishing in major towns like Agrigento. And from there wine began to spread inland. But the thing about Sicily is that wine wasn’t the main focus here in Sicily. Sicily was a production center for the ancient world, and I mean including the mainland of what is now Italy. And there were, well, fruits like citrus fruits, olives, and wine and grain. Grain was the big deal. Wine was important, but not as much as grain. And as we move into and throughout the Middle Ages, this continued. Grain was a big deal. Citrus fruits were a big deal. Olives were a big deal. Wine was a big deal, but grain was the hero of everything. And as wine moved, vines, wines moved into the interior of the island. The Middle Ages saw an island of just small landholders that made wine on a very small domestic scale and were often traded and consumed on the island.

So grain was the number one product. And as people made more and more wine from grain, their wealth had them turn to wine. And by the 14th century, there was a very big demand for wine in Sicily. So a lot of land was bought up or owned by the wealthy and the local nobility who would trade personally with their friends on the mainland and other places in the world. And with the wealth and the aristocracy and the nobility and the want for more money, this is a moment in Sicilian wine history. And the reason why I’m coming all the way here to get here is because this is what begins the bulk wine industry of Sicily. A reputation that, to this day, has stuck with the island and its wine. It’s not like that anymore, but this was a big part of Sicilian history.

And to this day, 86 percent of Sicilian wine is bulk. But the thing is, this bulk thing had to happen to get to where we are right now. It’s very exciting. And really the big moment was between the ‘60s and the ‘80s. I know it’s a few decades there, but between that time bulk wine was a major part of Sicily. And what was happening here was there were international varieties in Sicily, but there are also all these native varieties in Sicily. And after the ‘80s, a lot of regions in the world that make wine, and Europe specifically, the ‘80s were a reckoning. It was a moment where it was like, “Okay, we gotta stop doing what we were doing and we need to change what we’re doing for the future and bring this into the modern era.” And Sicily’s way of doing so was blending their international varieties with their local varieties.

But what they did was, and this is especially over in the western part of Sicily, they would package their wines with a modern label. So there wasn’t any sort of the old confusing European wine label that looked very classical, which is beautiful but a little bit confusing to the American market. They were very, very bright. I remember when this was happening, this literally was happening when I was buying wine for my restaurant back in the day. The Sicilian wines were coming to me and they had these beautiful, bright, modern, full-of-color labels that said Merlot. There was no confusion at all. And this really helped Sicilian wine on the American market gain traction and also gain outside interest. And at the time there was no DOC system in Sicily. So this is kind of a big effort and a really big win for them.

And what’s really neat is the interior of the island had all these old granaries, all these old facilities, to make tons and tons of grain, that were now abandoned. Those were then transitioned and transformed into wine-making facilities. So the wine industry kind of grew from the center out of Sicily. The bulk wine thing has always been part of Sicily’s history. But every time… I mean, the entire time bulk wine was being made, there were always quality winemakers making wine in Sicily — it wasn’t all bulk wine. And it is these winemakers that start to transition the Sicilian wine culture into something that we see today, which is very, very cool and exciting. Although Sicily is part of Italy, it’s a very individual place in that for a long time there was Vino da Tavola because there was no DOC system, then they had the IGT thing come out.

So they had IGT, Sicilia IGT. But with everything changing by 2012, it was obvious that they needed the DOC. So they transitioned the IGT Sicilia into DOC Sicilia. But the caper is, they changed nothing except for the acronym. They didn’t restrict the laws, they didn’t do anything like that. They’re just like, now it’s a DOC. But here’s the confusing part — there always is, right? By law, a DOC cannot be the same name as an IGT. So they couldn’t have IGT Sicilia and DOC Sicilia. So what they did is they changed the IGT to a different name: IGT Terre Siciliane. I started with these two because this is the majority of the wine you’re going to see on the American market.

Today, Sicily has 23 DOCs and only one DOCG, which we’ll get into, and a plethora of IGTs ,or they call them IGPs now. But the thing to understand about Sicily, and I’ll mention a couple of the wine regions, but what’s really cool about Sicily is a lot of the varieties that are grown in Sicily that are native to the island that were used for blending throughout the late ‘90s and the early aughts, there was a lot of work to bring these native blending varieties into the light and produce them as single-variety wines. And it’s been a major, major success. And this is what you’re going to see on the American market from Sicily, especially with white wines with names like Grillo, Catarratto, and red grape names like Nero d’Avola and Frappato. But here’s where we get to the DOC that you guys know.

The one that is so popular on the American market, it seems sometimes to be the only wine from Sicily on the American market. And that is Etna. It’s a DOC on the eastern coast of the island that is an amphitheater-like wine region that goes up an active volcano, Etna. And in this area, they grow three varieties. For red, they grow a grape called Nerello Mascalese and another red grape called Nerello Cappuccio. And they grow a white wine grape called Carricante. And for Etna Rosso, it’s often going to be Nerello Mascalese with some Nerello Cappuccio. But a lot of the time, 100 percent Nerello Mascalese. And Etna Bianco has to be 100 percent Carricante. I’m sure you can blend a little bit of wine in there, but it’s a Carricante. Etna Rosso has blown up on our market. And I think it’s because these wines are very… They remind you texturally of a Pinot Noir or maybe a Gamay. They have a bunch of acidity, a beautiful fruit to them, somewhat elegant even though they’re still rustic because they’re Italian. Oh, they really hit, they’re really awesome.

And then Carricante, Etna Bianco is a very expressive, somewhat age-worthy wine that has some grip to it. It just has its own sort of personality to it and it has gained in popularity as well. And the thing is, Etna is a DOC. Usually, when a wine region or an appellation becomes very popular, they eventually upgrade to a DOCG, but they don’t seem to be doing it there. But Etna’s a very wild place, and I should probably do a little bit more, kind of hone in at some point on Etna because there are winemakers planting vineyards as far up as they can on the volcanic mountain to see how far they can go up until wine vines don’t grow anymore. It’s that kind of crazy. And of course, it’s a volcano, volcanic soil, really good for wine. And obviously, because of history, there’s a lot of concentration on the eastern part of the island.

Faro is a DOC that is kind of making it onto our market. This appellation focuses on Nerello Mascalese and we haven’t seen a lot of the wines. There’s about one or two winemakers coming on our market, but keep an eye out for Faro because it’s going to be a thing. But I must mention the only DOCG on the island, and that’s in the south eastern tip of the island in a place called Vittoria. And here we have a very, very, very awesome, refreshing, crazy great wine called Cerasuolo di Vittoria. In Italy, “Cerasuolo” means “cherry-like.” It’s part of an aroma profile, and there are two varieties of red wine varieties in Vittoria. There is Frappato and there is Nero d’Avola. Keep a pin in that Nero d’Avola. These wines are a blend of these two varieties and I really can’t explain to you how… These wines are so unique.

They’re bright, they’re beautiful, they’re aromatic, almost perfumed. Frappato is a very perfumed wine. They’re juicy, they’re bold, they’re all just absolutely wonderful wines that are very hard to explain unless you’ve tried them and they’re all over our market and you have to go out and find them because they’re awesome. It’s just very interesting that Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG is not as popular as the Etna DOC. Wild. But I think one of the big takeaways from Sicily for you as a wine lover and someone who buys wine in the United States is the native grape Nero d’Avola.

“Nero” means “black,” Avola being a town, I guess a little bit east of Vittoria and around an area called Noto. There’s a town called Noto around there on the coast. This variety, when you look at DNA profiling, it’s basically just a big old mix of a bunch of DNA around Sicily. And this grape, Nero d’Avola, is the variety that defines Sicily for us on the American market. When you go to a wine shop and you go to the Italian section, if there’s a Sicilian section, if it’s a red wine, you’re going to see Nero d’Avola, you’re going to see Cerasuolo di Vittoria, and you’re going to see a lot of Nero d’Avola. This is Sicily’s everyday wine. I mean, it can be more than that, but it is the wine that, how do I say this? It’s the Sangiovese of central Italy. It’s that important to the island. So the way to understand and the way to enjoy this on our market is to go to the Sicilian section, get Nero d’Avola, and get as much Nero d’Avola as you can get.

They’re very affordable, between 15 and 20 bucks a bottle. Then you start enjoying Nero d’Avola like, “Oh man, this is really good stuff.” Then opt for Cerasuolo di Vittoria, and there you’re going to have the DOCG, the only DOCG wine in Sicily, and that is Nero d’Avola blended with Frappato. So now you understand that. Now from there, you want to break away from the Nero d’Avola thing and start playing around with Etna Rosso. Now, just so you know, Etna Rosso, Etna Bianco, these are wines going to be a little bit more expensive, but they’re really awesome and definitely worth the price. This is going to give you a really good understanding of Sicily and I know the majority of these wines are on the eastern coast, but once you have those, you can explore everything else. There’s an area all the way over on the west coast called Trapani, and there’s some really unique, interesting international-variety wine still being made there, you’ll find on the American market as well.

And that is also part of Sicily’s identity. So what Sicily is for us is a place that was known for bulk wine. Meanwhile, always great winemakers while that’s happening, that pivot to quality in the 1980s is what we’re enjoying right now in Sicily. It’s a great time to enjoy Sicilian wine because of this. So I hope this gives you a nice roundness, a nice general idea of Sicily. There’s a lot of other DOCs out there and if you see one on the American market, grab it and try it. And then again, tag @VinePairKeith. I want to see the wines. I’ll talk to you guys next week.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

 And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.

E& J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePair’s “Wine 101.” Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazing wide range of favorites, ranging from every day to luxury and sparkling wines. I mean, Gallo also makes award-winning spirits, but this is a wine podcast. So whether you’re new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine. We look forward to serving you enjoyment in moments that matter. Cheers. Visit today to find your next favorite, where shipping is available.