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Reading Between the Wines: show some respect for Sicilian wines

For such a wee place, Sicily is something of a Godfather in the world of wine.

All woeful Cosa Nostra jokes aside, it's true: a favourite 'pop' fact among wine nerds is that despite having 0.3% of the landmass of Australia, Sicily still produces a higher annual volume of wine. It's quite mind-boggling, really.

Despite this gargantuan output - a significant contribution to Italy's title as biggest wine producer in the world - Sicily doesn't rank amongst the most esteemed of Italy's wine producing regions.

Instead, it's better known for simpler fare and 'everyday' wines. As an example, while there are 23 legally protected geographic areas of production in Sicily, known in Italy as DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), there is only one that has been deemed fit to hold the more prestigious rank of DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita). Overall, about 97% of Sicilian wine is non-specified DO (Denominazione di Origine), or 'table wine'.

To put that into perspective, look at Veneto in northern Italy. Despite producing a similar overall amount of wine, it has 27 DOC areas, 13 DOCG areas, and only 70% of wine is designated as the lower-ranked DO. Personally, I don't think it's entirely fair, but then I don't make the (incomprehensible and archaic) rules!

However, what Sicily lacks in recognition for its fine wines, it more than makes up for with its astoundingly competitive budget and mid-range wines. You don't have to spend a whole lot to get good Sicilian wine. It tends to be my go-to when looking for cheap red, and 'going Sicilian' is often a safe bet if you're baffled by a restaurant's wine list.

It does a very neat line in juicy, middle-bodied reds, such as the dominant Nero d'Avola, and other less well known, but very pleasant reds like Nerello Mascalese and Frappato. Meanwhile the whites are usually fruit driven and refreshingly dry, employing 'off-the-beaten-track' grapes like Cataratto, Grecanico, and Grillo.

Beyond this, there is a wealth of dessert wines on offer from Sicily, such as the Italian chef's eternal friend, Marsala, and other more unusual examples like Passito de Pantelleria, which is produced on one of Sicily's own islands, halfway towards the coast of Tunisia.

So while Sicily is great for buying on a budget, you'd be astounded at the quality if you spend just a teensy bit over the entry level. To help you choose, I'll make you some offers you can't refuse!

For a good, but affordable introduction to understanding Sicily's laid-back wine style, try Asda's Extra Special Nero d'Avola 2012 (£7.50). It has a nicely perfumed nose with dark cherry fruit, followed by a more lifted red cherry succulence on the palate, and a pleasant rustic finish with vanilla and a hint of wood spice.

A bit more tannic, full-on and not to mention left-field is Nero d'Avola's partner in crime, Frappato. A good example that has just hit the shelves is Tesco's Finest Frappato 2012 (£7.99). The fruit is wilder and more intense - still dry, but generally a bit lighter than the Nero. Think brambles and freshly-picked strawberries. Great with a spicy sausage arrabbiata.

A wonderful (and unusual) dessert option is Pantelleria Passito Liquoroso 2011 (37.5cl - £10.50, Oddbins), which shows a nice mix of citrus and dried stone fruits, and has a rich, raisiny quality to match most baked-fruit desserts.

They're all such good wines that even if you try to get out, they'll pull you back in!

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