Merlot and Chardonnay, who? Lately, I’ve been browsing the shelves of Manchester wine shops for Sicilian wine made from Frappato or Catarratto or Grillo. Blame it on a press trip to Palermo Sicily that I was invited along to last November. Spoilt rotten by my hosts Wines of Sicily, I was charmed by winemakers and stuffed like a squid tube full of swordfish and caponata and cassata cake. I’ve definitely had worse weeks.
Staying in the chic Casa Nostra boutique hotel, right in the thick of spicy Palermo, I spent four days exploring the island’s unique grapes and terroir. Even if you’re not into wine, it’s the perfect city break, with everything from pretty coastal villages in pastel colours to grandiose architecture as well as big-city shopping and the food markets of your Bourdain-est dreams.
We visited stunning wineries in the hills, whitewashed buildings on a backdrop of rolling vineyards. Cellars full of huge oak barrels, echoing with history but still pushing forward – one very traditional winery showed us a mystery wine hatching in a concrete egg – is their future orange?
Both Duca di Salaparuta and Tenuta Rapitala are growing Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) alongside more traditional Sicilian varieties. The latter is owned by an actual Count whose French father took the best of his country’s wine knowledge and applied it to the unique landscape of Sicily in the 70s. If you get a chance to visit a winery in Sicily, do.
It was my first time in Palermo. Turfed out of a cab with my newly acquainted fellow journalist onto a back street in the golden-hued, graffitied city, we dragged her hefty suitcase up steep, narrow streets past ancient antique shops, parked scooters and shrines to mother Mary. Choice of religious imagery aside, it reminded me of Marrakech. Which made sense when our knowledgable wine tutor Filippo Bartolotta reminded us that Sicily is closer to Africa (specifically Tunisia) than any Italian city.
This proximity to that sun-soaked continent has significant effect on Sicily’s grape-growing conditions. But the largest island in the Mediterranean sea is almost a continent-in-miniature with four distinct microclimates that have different grapes living their best lives – just like me on that trip. Sicilia DOC covers the entire island, that’s roughly 100,000 hectares of vineyards – three times that of New Zealand and the same amount as South Africa and Germany.
The island’s intense sunniness makes for virile vines – not a good thing. That virility needs to be reined in to ensure the end result is satisfactory (*knowing look*) and one way to do that is to cool things down a bit. This is where Sicily’s most famous landmark, sassy old Etna, comes in. Her slopes are cool when she’s not erupting (also like me) and her soils provide that volcanic ‘minerality’ that wine folks love to bang on about.
High altitude wines are having a moment right now, and Sicily is definitely getting in on the act. The wines we tasted in masterclasses and at wineries showed an impressive diversity of styles that make it clear that Sicilian wine is not to be overlooked.
Sicilian wines we tasted and where you can find them in Manchester.
Sicily’s trademark is a bounding black Labrador of a grape known for making lovable if not very complex wines. But the variety of soil types in Sicily make for a startling diversity in the Nero D’Avola wines being produced nowadays. Yes, there are wines to accompany a binge session of Sopranos season three and a pizza, and some are giving fruits of the forest compote with a stick of cinnamon in it. But others we taste come off more like an elegant Barbera d’Asti with floral notes fluttering over wild raspberry – so light you could read a copy of Noble Rot magazine through it. Another, an inky coloured number, Filippo describes as “Madonna in the Like a Prayer video” is all blue flowers, dark chocolate, leather and churches. If that description doesn’t leave you begging for it to be poured immediately into your communion cup I don’t know what will.
Buy Nero D’Avola in Manchester:
- Tenuta Ibidini Nero D’Avola 2021 £18 from Ad Hoc
- Da Vero Biologico Nero d’Avola, DOC Sicilia 2022 £10 from Blossom Street Social
Sicily’s other big grape is Grillo, the result of an arranged marriage between sexy Zibibbo (AKA Muscat of Alexandria) and cool Cattaratto (see below). It’s a zesty little number that evokes micro-planed grapefruit peel and gooseberry in one glass while in another it romances you with orange blossom and white nectarine. One Grillo we tasted was, (like that 80s fizzy drink) totally tropical, all ripe banana and passionfruit. Another evoked witches wafting bunches of dried herbs around a green tea plantation. Yet another was pure petrichor, which Mancunians know very well as the smell of a damp pavement after the rain. Grillo is also the key grape in the island’s famous fortified wine, Marsala.
Buy Grillo in Manchester:
- A fresh and summery Donnafugata ‘Sur Sur’ Grillo £17.50 from Cork of the North
- Or go fortified with Curatolo Arini Marsala Riserva 1995 £44 from Ad Hoc
Sicilia DOC is also proud of its lesser known, heritage grapes. These are:
A fantastic food wine. This confident white grape makes wines that can handle the Sicilian’s beloved scrappy nibbles with big flavours like capers and anchovies. It also stands up to rich, spicy pasta dishes, especially in its on-trend orange form. You’ll find the usual white wine trinity of apple, lemon and peach in these wines but often top notes of really savoury herbs and spices like rosemary, bay and nutmeg and sometimes a whiff of struck match.
Buy Catarratto in Manchester:
- Ciello Catarratto £10 from Beeswing
- Or go orange with Baglio Antico Catarratto £16.50 from Cork of the North
Frappato is the grape people are calling the next star of Sicily. It’s like a grown up strawberry jelly infused with hibiscus and rose with a top note of white pepper.
Buy Frappato in Manchester:
- Baglio Gibellina Incanto del Sud Frappato £10.99 Kwoff
- Cantine Paolini Frappato 2021 £11.50 from Ad Hoc
Kinda like Sémillon, this grape makes white wines with almost an oily texture and notes of almond flower, almond, marzipan and fennel. It’s also known as Garganega in other parts of Italy which is most famous as a key grape in wine from Soave.
Buy Grecanico Dorato in Manchester:
- We couldn’t find this in its Sicilian form anywhere in Manchester (please let us know if you stock it) but you can buy Garganega from elsewhere in Italy like the Ilatium Soave £17 from Tiny’s Tipple
Most known for its supporting role in the island’s famous fortified wine, Marsala, this most ancient of grapes gives lush, juicy cantaloupe melon, mango, peach, and mandarin. It can also produce wines with a salinity that, coupled with its citrus zing, might bring to mind a Margarita.
Buy Inzolia in Manchester:
- Curatolo Arini Inzolia £13.99 from Cork of the North
- Or try it blended with Chardonnay in Maria Costanza Bianco Cantine Milazzo DOP £45 from Sicilian NQ
This grape is a rare clone of catarratto and its wines are super juicy with a herbal note of fennel or even spearmint.
This cherry bomb is another on-trend wine at the moment. Bright and crunchy red fruits, blood orange, and a little spiciness to keep things interesting.
Buy Nerello Mascalese in Manchester:
This is the Tom Waits of grapes, all musky tobacco, marzipan, sour cherry and forest floor.
A grape for people who would rather have a starter than dessert. Builder’s brew level tannins with notes of coffee, shiitake, wet leaves, and dark bitter chocolate. Like some really good French Syrahs, it’s almost got a whiff of charcuterie about it.
Buy Perricone in Manchester:
- Criante Perricone £20 from Wine Boy Stockport
Also known as Muscat of Alexandria, Zibibbo is sometimes known as the grape of love because it was the preferred tipple of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Always fragrant with fleshy mandarin notes and orange blossom, you’ll sometimes find bergamot, candied fruit and ginger in there too.
Buy Zibibbo in Manchester:
- Barraco Zibibbo, Marsala, Sicily £38 (or £49 to drink in) from Higher Ground
But Sicily’s not just for wine nerds, head to the sun soaked island for a different kind of Italian holiday. The food is stamped with its own identity: think classic Italian meets the Middle East. There are tomatoes and seafood, yes, but saffron too, cinnamon, and dried fruits. On our visit in autumn, it was all great hunks of meaty swordfish with tangy, complex caponata on the side and enough pureed squash to turn your intestines bright orange. There are lemons too of course, piled high on street carts, knobbly like conventional lemons’ wizened ancestors with massive wrinkly noses and ears.
There’s beautiful architecture in the form of cathedrals, ancient palaces and theatres. There’s all the biblical art you could pray for, from vast wall murals emblazoned on the interiors of religious buildings to kitsch fishtank-like shrines to the VM on every corner. Take a short trip to Cefalù for postcard-prettiness, sea air and shops dedicated to everything from terracotta to truffles to celebrity-endorsed flat caps. But do go for the wine, cos it’s brilliant.