Optimists proved right as mediocrity loses its grip

The past 20 years have been groundbreaking for Sicilian producers, with new grape varieties planted and winemakers taking a more experimental approach. Tim Atkin MW assesses some of the pioneers

Tutti colpevoli, nessuno colpevole" is one of my favourite Italian sayings. In a land where the law is regularly flouted or just plain ignored, the idea that if "everyone is guilty, no one is guilty" is a wonderful, shoulder-shrugging way of avoiding personal responsibility. The words could be applied in a vinous context too, particularly in Sicily, an island which is still a major contributor to the EU's murky wine lake. Why bother making decent wine if everyone else has accepted subsidised mediocrity?

That maxim was ringing in my head as I sat down to have lunch with Diego Planeta. If anyone in the Sicilian wine industry can be credited with changing the fortunes of the so-called "isola del vino", of choosing optimism over pessimism, it is Planeta. Over the past 20 years, his influence has been huge, both through the example of his own, eponymous winery and through his work as chairman of Settesoli, Europe's largest co-operative.

Listening to Planeta is like getting a concise history lesson. He says that in 1985 Sicily was in a mess: " Bulk white wine, distillation problems, open warfare with producers from the south of France and endless discussions about how to get more money out of the EU." There were a handful of good producers on the island, such as Corvo, Regaleali (Tasca) and Marco de Bartoli, he concedes, but the average quality was poor. "The wines were either oxidised or too strong. The image was so bad that people were ashamed to use the word Sicily on the label."

High hopes

Planeta's solution was to plant new varieties, such as Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, to "show local people that there was a world beyond Grillo and Inzolia", two of the island's less distinguished white grapes. To date, Planeta has planted 150 different grapes, as well as new clones of older, Sicilian varieties such as Nero d'Avola. Planeta has high hopes for Vermentino and even good old Pinot Grigio. "In 10 years' time, Sicily will make some of Italy's best Pinot Grigio," he predicts.

At the Settesoli offices in the town of Menfi the Planeta influence is immediately apparent. This 2,300-member co-operative controls around 5 per cent of Sicily's area under vine but it's anything but traditional.

"We started experimenting with other varieties in the 1980s," says managing director Salvatore Li Petri, "and we saw immediately that other grapes would work here and enable us to improve our quality." That meant planting Italian grapes such as Grecanico, Sangiovese, Fiano, Aglianico and Pinot Grigio as well as the usual French suspects. The results, under the Inycon, Casa Mia and Mandrarossa labels, are some of the best value wines in Italy.

The problem, at least at first, was to persuade members to change their mindset. "We had to stop them thinking that more quantity meant more money," adds Li Petri. But change they did. On an island where bulk wine is king, Settesoli bottles 55 per cent of what it makes. "There's a plan here now," he says. "In the past, people just grew their grapes and brought them to the co-operative for us to process. As recently as 15 years ago, things were pretty desperate around here."

These days, there's a lot more optimism . The Mediterranean's biggest island still sells roughly 80 per cent of its production in bulk, much of it as so-called "correctivo" to northern Italy (and, allegedly, France), but the 20 per cent that makes it into bottle is improving rapidly.

Part of the problem is that two-thirds of Sicily's vineyards are planted with Catarratto, Trebbiano and Inzolia (see box), but given the extent of the island's vineyards (118,926ha), it's not surprising that there are high spots too. As one grower told me without exaggeration: "In winemaking terms, Sicily is almost a continent to itself."

How do you get to grips with such diversity? One way is by memorising a few of the island's DOCs and its one DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, although it's worth remembering that these make up less than 5 per cent of Sicily's wine and are dwarfed by more flexible IGTs (which permit the use of international varieties and account for between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of production), not to mention table wine and grape must.

Sublime to ordinary

Of the DOCs, Etna stands out. Thanks to its volcanic soils and local grape varieties white Caricante and red Nerello Mascalese, it is producing some of Sicily's best wines. T op names are Benanti, Barone di Villagrande and Scilio. If you're interested in such things, this is also the place where Simply Red's Mick Hucknall makes his Il Cantante wine. I haven't tasted it, but it has a good pedigree given that it is overseen by the island's top consultant oenologist, Salvo Foti.

More famous, but considerably more variable, is Marsala, which can range from the sublime (try Baglio Hopps and De Bartoli) to the very ordinary. The best, dry examples of this fortified wine often use the solera system (famously employed in the production of sherry) to forge extraordinary wines out of three rather ordinary white grapes (Catarratto, Inzolia and Grillo).

It's also worth looking out for the sweet wines produced here, especially Moscato Passito di Pantelleria, made from the Zibibbo (Moscato d'Alessandria) grape, and for Malvasia delle Lipari. Donnafugata's Ben Ryé is my favourite local dessert wine, but if you're feeling flush you might want to splash out on a bottle of the French actress Carole Bouquet's wine, the rather over-packaged Sangue d'Oro.

And what of that single DOCG? Well, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, a blend of 50-70 per cent Nero d'Avola and 30-50 per cent Frappato, is produced in the south east of the island. The best examples (Planeta and Valle dell' Acate are two of my favourite styles) can be deliciously subtle wines .

Morgante near Agrigento is typical of the new Sicily. The winery was created in 1989 to produce and sell bulk wine to northern Italy but realised within a decade that this was an economic dead end. The winery is unusual in Sicily in that it has staked its entire fortune on the island's best-known red grape, Nero d'Avola.

There is considerable discussion about the origins of this distinctive variety. Some people say it comes from the town of Avola in south east Sicily, but Carmelo Morgante disagrees: "We've always known it as Calabrese, but it isn't planted in Calabria. To be honest, I'm not sure where it comes from." When you taste a wine such as the 2005 Don Antonio, with oak, plum and damson fruit and acidity in glorious harmony, you are just glad that the variety exists in Sicily.

It's harder to define the character of Nero d'Avola than you might imagine, however. Francesca Planeta of Planeta says : " The grape is planted all over Sicily these days and every place is different because of the micro climates we have on the island. There is no template."

In an attempt to find one, I organised a tasting of Sicily's signature grape at the offices of the generic body, Assovini, in Palermo.

The best were structured wines - the variety does not perform well when yields are pushed beyond 10 tonnes per hectare and can be achingly acidic when it is - with considerable perfume and bold, plummy fruit flavours. My favourites were from the Cantine Barbera, Zisola (Mazzei), Regaleali (Tasca d'Almerita), Firriato and Benanti. You might also want to try Tesco's Finest Nero d'Avola.

A significant number of producers in Sicily prefer to blend Nero d'Avola with something else, be it Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon or native Frappato (in Cerasuolo di Vittoria). Top examples include Agareno's Moscafratta (Nero d'Avola with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon), Regaleali's Cygnus (40 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon) and two wines from the spectacularly situated Abbazia Santa Anastasia on north-facing slopes near Palermo: Rosso di Passomaggio (20 per cent Merlot) and Montenero (20 per cent Merlot and 20 per cent Cabernet). If you're looking for rich, structured, age-worthy wines with considerable potential for further development in bottle, these are four of the island's signature reds.

Sicily has come a long way in the 22 years since Diego Planeta and Settesoli started experimenting with new French and Italian varieties. It still produces its fair share of over-cropped dross but, given the proposed changes to the EU wine regime, which will remove the safety net of distillation subsidies in the short to medium-term, the island needs to focus on its quality wines as never before, be they IGT, DOC or DOCG.

It is not short of characterful grapes, both indigenous and international, nor of good terroirs. As Planeta himself puts it: "We are finally in a position to compete with the rest of the world." Now it's up to Sicily's winemakers to prove it.

Sicily at a glance

Total area under vine: 118,926ha

Percentage of white grapes: 64.4

Percentage of red grapes: 35.3

Percentage of other grapes: 0.3

Vineyard distribution by province:

Trapani 57.3%

Agrigneto 17.7%

Palermo 13.8%

Caltanisetta 4.9%

Catania 2.5%

Siracusa 1.6%

Ragusa 1.2%

Messina 0.7%

Enna 0.3%

Principal grape varieties:

Catarratto Bianco Comune 33.21%

Nero d'Avola 15.82%

Trebbian o Toscano 7.16%

Inzolia 6.6%

Grecanico 4.53%

Syrah 4.35%

Merlot 4.05%

Chardonnay 4.02%

Nerello Mascalese 3.34%

Cabernet Sauvignon 3.29%

Grillo 2.85%

Catarratto Bianco Lucido 2.09%

Sangiovese 1.55%

Zibibbo 1.35%

Nerello Cappuccio 0.72%

Frappato 0.67%

Other varieties 7.68%

Average production of wine and must (2000-07):

6.9 million hl

Number of DOCGs: 1

Number of DOCs: 22

Producers to look out for:

Abbazia Santa Anastasia, Agareno, Alessandro di Camporeale, Barone di Villagrande, Benanti, Calatrasi, Ceuso, Cottanera, Cusumano, Disisa, Donnafugata, Feudo Maccari, Firriato, Gulfi, Il Coro di Fondo Antico, Morgante, Planeta, Regaleali (Tasca d'Almerita), Scilio, Settesoli, Tenuta Rapitalà, Valle dell' Acate, Zisola.

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