Sipping Sicily

By Robert Paul –

I’ve traveled to many parts of Italy and have explored wine regions to taste and savor the varieties of robust reds for which the country is so justly famous. But, I’ve not been to the island of Sicily yet and my first encounter with the white wines of Sicily was close to home in a neighborhood Italian restaurant. The surprisingly pleasurable experience sent me to area wine stores and to research sources to learn more and to taste a lot more.

I’m drinking my way though a lexicon of labels evaluating as I sip Sicily. You should too. I make no claim that these are world-class white wines. But, many Sicilian whites are too budget-friendly and flavorful to ignore and since they tend to be light and refreshing, they are excellent choices to explore during these hot summer months. Seafood is basic to the island’s cuisine and most of Sicily’s whites are meant to pair with it.

Sicily’s wine-growing history is ancient and the most famous wine of the island is probably Marsala, a sweet fortified sherry-like wine that Americans are most likely to use in cooking dishes such as Veal Marsala. It can be much more than that.

But let’s focus on the whites of Sicily. Many vineyards are clustered near legendary volcanic Mount Etna. Vines on the slopes of this mountain grow in ideal conditions – rocky, sandy soil with good drainage. Wines from Mount Etna grapes contributed significantly to the economic prosperity of Pompeii and made it a famous city long before it achieved archeological notoriety.

A delectable white from this Mount Etna region is Catanese Bianco (also known as Carricante or Nocera Bianca). Pale yellow when you pour it, this white wine offers a nose of honey, candied nuts and flowers. On the tongue are hints of lemon and more florals while under all this is enough acidity mingling with the more mellow tones for an impressive finish. This is a reliable wine to pair with seafood.

Cavallo Brut del Murgo is another label to look for. These Mount Etna grapes produce a delightful sparkling white wine that offers tantalizing hints of melon and green apple. From the same producer, you might open a bottle of Cavallo Grillo, especially nice with white-sauced meats and fish.

Apart from the Mount Etna region, there are vineyards cultivating grapes for white wines spread out all over the island of Sicily. They produce Pinot Bianco, which has a flavor profile similar to Chardonnay. It’s popular among Italians while Pinot Grigio (a soft and fragrant white) is more of an American favorite and it appears on just about every restaurant wine list that serves Italian food in this country. Its price points are friendly.

Other significant Sicilian grape varieties to become familiar with so that you can effectively scout labels in your local wine mart would be Cataratto Bianco, a white traditional wine grown in the Trapani area. It’s characterized by a delicate flavor and medium alcohol level.

Corinto is light white, nice to served chilled with nibbles on a summer day. Inzolia, Insolia and Anzolia are grapes not meant for a single-grape wine; they are grapes cultivated especially to create blended dry white table wines that Italians would drink every day because they are inexpensive and taste good.

The problem with Sicilian white wines is that you don’t often find them in abundance in big box wine marts or liquor stores. But, when you do find them, they’re often affordable, $8-$20+. Sicilian whites appear most often on wine lists at Italian restaurants. If you spy a bottle on the menu at the next Italian restaurant you frequent, order it. Chances are it won’t cost a fortune (under $40) and you might be surprised at how enjoyable it comes across with the food you order. Keep an eye out for the Vigna di Gabri (100% Ansonica/Inzolia grape). This Sicilian white is fruity but flinty and perfectly lovely with chicken, vegetarian dishes (especially mushrooms) and seafoods of all kinds. When you drink Sicilian whites, you’re drinking what average Italian people drink in that part of Italy. And that’s always encouraging to an oenophile looking for a cultural connection as well as a pleasurable wine experience.

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