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With a move from quantity to quality, Raymond Blake uncovers Sicily’s newest label as one of Italy’s most innovative wine regions

The Mediterranean’s largest island was once a byword for quantity first, quantity second and quantity third. The output of reliably hearty wine was vast and much of it was shipped north to disappear into blends that needed stiffening. The turn of the century, however, saw a change, as producers took their feet off the quantity throttle and began to take quality seriously, the result being that Sicily is now arguably the most exciting, vibrant and innovative of all Italy’s wine regions.

Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of recent developments is that the grape varieties traditionally used in Sicily, the likes of Catarratto and Carricante, Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese, Grillo and Inzolia, have not been abandoned in favour of a predictable roster of international varieties. Too many wine regions, when seeking to present a vibrant new face to the world, fall over themselves in their hurry to plant the tried-and-trusted varieties that come with stellar reputations attached, the likes of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Syrah. This quartet all feature in the Sicilian palette but not as principal players – those roles are still reserved for the long-serving old timers.

Personally speaking, as somebody who has long championed variety and diversity as wine’s greatest calling card, I am delighted that Sicily has displayed enough confidence to stick mainly with her own grapes. It is a confidence that has been amply justified, now that the grapes are being grown and vinified by quality conscious hands. It is a confidence that sees a very public manifestation every year in the Sicilia En Primeur tasting, a vast event which showcases many hundreds of wines from every corner of the island. Nothing better exemplifies the dynamic, 21st century face of the Sicilian wine industry than this event and when I attended last year, I managed to taste my way through many dozens of wines. Yet despite this, I still felt I had only scratched the surface of the new Sicily.

If I was to pick one grape and one style as a standard bearer it would be Nerello Mascalese from Mount Etna. For starters, it is more varied than might be expected, with scents and flavours ranging from brooding and smoky to intense and perky. Some I found a bit rustic, others a little heavy, but the majority displayed an appealing mid-palate of vibrant fruit and delivered a vital shot of flavour that lingered fresh on the finish. They drink well young but with a few years’ age the flavours soften nicely and develop mellower, rounder notes without losing the crisp freshness on the finish. Seek them out as an introduction to Sicilian wine but don’t forget there’s a whole world of wine to be discovered from the giant island of the Med. Getting acquainted with them all could take a lifetime.

MOUNT ETNA

Mount Etna is Europe’s highest and most active volcano, rising to 3,350 metres and regularly erupting, spectacularly so last May. Undaunted, winemakers continue to take advantage of the altitude and the mountain’s black volcanic soil to plant vineyards and produce wines of appealing freshness – in complete contrast to the inferno below ground. At their best, they are models of restraint, with some elegance to boot, and in character they have been likened to Burgundy, which is no mean compliment. Thankfully their prices don’t match those of Burgundy.

THREE TO TRY

Passopisciaro, Passorosso Terre Siciliane 2013
ABV 14%
€37.50

Andrea Franchetti is one of the great innovators of the Italian wine industry who, before establishing a winery in Tuscany and then this one in Sicily, owned a restaurant in Rome and also had a career as a wine importer in New York. He’s theatrical, flamboyant and a mean winemaker too, whose wines are made very much in his image. This one is a delight, as it fairly dances across the palate, courtesy of singing acidity and impressive intensity of fruit

Guardoilvento, Etna Rosso 2014
ABV 13.5%
€26.00

Fermentation in stainless steel tanks, and then a modest eight months’ ageing in second fill French barrels, guarantees the freshness of this wine, which is made from Sicily’s ever present red grape, Nerello Mascalese. There’s a savoury cut and a faint herbaceous whiff, alongside notable intensity without too much weight. Above all, the flavour is vital, it is alive on the palate. Are there any drawbacks? Only dangerous gluggability but that’s hardly a crime.

Cusumano, Alta Mora Etna Bianco 2015
ABV 13%
€21.95

Mention Sicily to most wine lovers and they will immediately think of robust reds bursting with vivid fruit flavours engendered by the hot summer sun. But Sicily is far from a one-trick pony, as this clean-flavoured white demonstrates. The secret is altitude – the vineyards for this wine sit way up on Mount Etna’s slopes at 1,200 metres altitude, which is higher than any point in Ireland. In addition to the electric charge of acidity there’s some body, though no fat. Try it with creamy seafood dishes.