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Tasting Sicilian White Wines
By Marguerite Thomas
Aug 25, 2015
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I was in Italy earlier this summer attending VinoVip, an annual event at which Italian vintners show their wines.  Sponsored by the wine magazine Civiltá del Bere, VinoVip attracts hundreds of people including wine buyers, wine writers, and wine drinkers.  The gathering is set in the magnificent Dolomite Alps, a locale recently described in The New York Times as a “geological wonderland.”  In addition to the spectacular scenery, there were many other reasons I was happy to be at VinoVip, paramount among them being the opportunity to sample both older and current vintages of wines I already know, as well to taste new ones.  Among the exciting discoveries for me this year was the great variety of white wines from Sicily.

Of course I’ve known about Sicily’s wines for a long time.  In fact, one of the first Italian wines I ever drank came from Sicily.  It was in my college years, when my friends and I “discovered” Marsala, which some irresponsible bartenders in San Francisco were willing to serve to us underage drinkers.  We thought this sweet, fortified wine was the ultimate in sophistication.  Then, in the 1990s, I actually went to Sicily, which at that time boasted about a dozen commercial wine producers, and was known primarily for red wines (with the notable exception of Marsala--which is made from white grapes, and which even today is the most prevalent grape in Sicily).  Today there are some 300 Sicilian producers, many of them turning out delicious red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, of course, but also from Nero d’Avola (Sicily’s most popular red grape), as well as the island’s own Nerello Mascalese, and to a lesser degree, Nerello Cappuccio. 

At VinoVip I tasted a number of fine red wines, but it was the whites that swept me off my feet (figuratively speaking that is, as I did manage to stay upright through all three days of tastings).  Among Sicily’s finest white wine grapes are Carricante, which thrives on Mount Etna’s high slopes and volcanic soils and is said by some to resemble Riesling, both in its flavor profile and ageability, and Inzolio, a wonderfully fragrant, low acid grape that is often blended with Grecanico, which can supply acidity.  Zibbibo (a.k.a. Muscat of Alexandria) is best known in luscious sweet wines such as Passito di Pantelleria, from the volcanic island of Pantelleria.  Excellent Malvasia can be equally enchanting in Malvasia delle Lipari (from the island of Lipari).  And Chardonnay is as popular in Sicily as every place else I guess. 

One of the appealing Sicilian Chardonnays I tasted at VinoVip was made by Planeta.  The wine was rich and vibrant, with a thrilling nerve of ripe fruit running through it (Planeta Chardonnay is imported into the USA by Palm Bay International). 

Some of the blends of native grapes with Chardonnay and other international varieties were outstanding, Regaleali’s for example, which blends a little Chardonnay (about 9%) with Inzolia, Catarratta and Grecanico.  Fermented in stainless steel, the wine is aromatic and refreshing (Regaleali is imported by Winebow). 

Baglio di Pianetto’s tasty “Ficiligno” is a 50/50 blend of Inzolia and Viognier, and the resulting wine is layered with freshness, fruitiness and minerality (VinVino imports “Ficiligno”).  Among Sicily’s many sweeter wines Donnafugata’s “Ben Ryé” was a true standout.  It is a mellifluous amber-toned elixir that delivers an elaborate strata of sweet fruit and sunbaked herbal flavors.  Its Zibibbo grapes are sourced from 100-year old low, bushy vines (“Ben Ryé” is imported by Folio). 

Pellegrino makes some very luscious dessert wines, including “Nes” Passito de Pantelleria.  And of course my old friend Marsala was much in evidence at VinoVip.  A few of the brands seemed overly sweet and cloying for my taste now, but Pellegrino’s succulent and stunningly complex 1998 Marsala Superiore Riserva Ambra Dop was one of the notable exceptions, and a sterling example of how fine Marsala can be (Frederick Wildman imports Pellegrino wines).