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Island Wines of Italy
By Jim Clarke
Jun 8, 2021
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Sicily and Sardinia are the two largest islands in the Mediterranean, and both are home to distinctive wine traditions.  In some ways the history of wine production on the two islands have not been terribly different; for a long time, quantity-over-quality, cooperative winemaking dominated.  However, in recent decades that has changed, at least in part.  Boutique or medium-sized family-owned wineries have emerged, and even some cooperatives have refocused their efforts with pleasing results.

In some cases this transition involved a ditching of indigenous grape varieties in favor of internationally favored ones such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, but in many cases it’s the native varieties that have begun to shine.  In this context there is a definite contrast between the two islands.

Sicily’s native grapes are very much its own.  That is to say, a good many of them are found there and pretty much nowhere else.  The first to make waves abroad was the red grape Nero d’Avola, which was well-suited to an era when red wines drew praise for the depth of their color and extraction; however, that intensity often came at the sacrifice of complexity and freshness.  More recently some producers have taken their foot off the gas and are giving the grape more room to speak, and the resulting wines have displayed a wider range of fruit expression and energy.  The Nerello Mascalese wines, grown mostly on the slopes of Mount Etna have also emerged as sommelier favorites.  While lighter in body, the wines are nonetheless quite structured, and seem to lend themselves to a complex expression combining brooding fruit notes with hints of tar and volcanic soil.  Nerello Mascalese is often compared to Pinot Noir or even Nebbiolo, although its tannins are rarely as intense as those of a Barolo or Barbaresco.

More recently Sicily’s whites have been receiving more attention.  Many Italian whites have an undistinguished, even bland character that owes itself not to the grapes themselves as much as to a style of winemaking that prioritizes freshness and gives little attention to aromatic character.  The resulting wines are often generic Pinot Grigio look-alikes more than anything else.  But in various provinces, including Sicily, astute winemakers have rethought that approach and discovering some hidden depths in their native white grapes.  Again, Etna’s vineyards have taken the lead with a grape called Carricante, showing off spice and herbal notes and an impressive spine of acidity given the warm growing conditions.  

Catarratto Bianco is much more widely planted.  Notable examples are harder to come by, though they do exist; the wines tend to be simpler.  After phylloxera, one of Catarratto’s children, Grillo, was planted in greater quantities than it had been previously.  At the time, it was largely destined for Marsala production, but today there are many unfortified, fresh examples; the wines are typically fuller-bodied and more vibrant than those of the Grillo’s parent grape.  A fourth white grape, Inzolia, can offer pleasant floral and nutty notes, but doesn’t typically have the same ability to retain acidity as Carricante or even Grillo.  Oftentimes Catarratto and Inzolia play well together in a blend, the former providing left and freshness while the latter rounds out the aromatic and flavor profile of the wine.

Sardinia has a smaller set of native grapes, which is in keeping with the smaller number of vineyards there.  While Sicily produces as much as 15% of Italy’s wine, Sardinia is, in volume terms, a minor player.  Its leading, traditional grape varieties are also not as exclusive to the island.  Sicily’s grapes are rarely found elsewhere (Inzolia, under the name Ansonica, appears on occasion in Tuscany) but Sardinia’s top red and white, Cannonau and Vermentino, can be found not just elsewhere in Italy, but in France and even Spain – they are truly Mediterranean.  

If the former doesn’t ring any bells, that’s because in those other countries it’s known as Grenache or Garnacha.  Its origin is in dispute, and it may truly be native to the island, but in any case, well-made Sardinian Cannonau bears the distinctive stamp of its home, often manifested as a wild herb character.  This becomes less evident the more winemakers attempt to extract weight and color from the grape.  
While a handful of Cannonau wines stand up to the achievements of Garnacha-based bottlings made in places like Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Priorat, Sardinian Vermentino in many ways sets the standard for the grape – only Liguria comes close, really.  There are a handful of attractive examples from Elba, but other French examples of Rolle, as the grape is known across the border, are rare and often simple affairs.  Sardinian Vermentinos, like the Cannonaus, often possess a pastoral, wild herb aroma, combined with a savory mineral character and tension; there is a vibrancy in the best examples that distances the wines from the often bland but easy-drinking character of many generic Italian whites.

Aside from the added diversity these grapes bring to one’s winedrinking experience, the fact of the matter is that climate change has motivated winegrowers from many regions to look beyond the usual, international varieties for others that have a proven track record in hot, dry growing conditions.  This is especially true in the case of white grapes, as the major international examples – Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay – favor cool growing conditions.  Producers in Australia, California, South Africa in elsewhere are planting these varieties, so now is a good time to enjoy examples from the grapes’ home turf and get a good baseline on what they can offer.

Some Recommended Producers:

Nero d’Avola: Arianna Occhipinti, Vittorio Savino

Nerello Mascalese: Passopisciaro, Tornatore

Carricante: Barone di Villagrande, Benanti

Grillo: Baglio del Cristo do Campobello, Cusumano

Inzolia: Chiaramonte, Duca di Salaparuta

Cannonau: Giuseppe Gabbas, Argiolas

Vermentino: Capichera, Quartomoro         

Read more columns:   Jim Clarke 
Connect with Jim on Twitter:   @JimWineBeer