Continuing Our Virtual Tour of Italy: The Ancient Island

I’ve become infatuated, and circling in on obsessed, with the latest wines from Italy arriving on our shores. Not simply the significantly improved traditional wines such as Chianti Classico and Pinot Grigio, but previously unfamiliar wines produced for centuries and typically consumed locally in the towns atop hills and the undulating hillsides throughout Italy.

In prior installments of this reprised series, I presented the reasons for this “new” Italian Renaissance. First, the youngest generations of family-based winemakers are better educated in wine viticulture and viniculture. Second, winemakers have seamlessly integrated their traditional, often centuries-old, approach to winemaking with the benefits of modern technology and techniques. Third, importers and distributors have sought out these previously obscure winemakers and are heavily marketing their wines.

These young Italians have a long tradition of excellence in all things cultural. I refer to this seemingly genetic trait with a uniquely Italian term: Sprezzatura, the art of effortless mastery. This term refers to the success of famous Italians throughout history in architecture, politics, the fine arts and gastronomy. I’ve begun applying it to the fine art of winemaking.

In this third installment of our virtual tour through the wine regions of Italy in search of historical influences and indigenous grapes, we’ve landed on the largest island in the Mediterranean: Sicily.

Sicily’s grapes and cuisine are unique. To this day, the influence of ancient empires is evident. With a lineage that harkens back to the earliest Phoenician settlers to Greek traders, Roman settlers and Arab invaders, the people of Sicily are a fiercely proud populace.

They have much to be proud of. First, their land: Mother Nature has blessed Sicily with an ideal climate to nurture and nourish numerous agricultural products, including grapes. The soils, especially the volcanic soils near the multiple volcanoes, enhance the complexity and character of its indigenous grape varietals. Sicily’s exposure to the Mediterranean Sea provides the ideal amount of moisture and cooling breezes.

Second, the cuisine: Today’s fusion of diverse ingredients and recipes has global roots. The Greeks created a thriving economy based on olive oil and wine. The Romans refined these products. The Arabs brought spices and citrus fruits (think lemoncello) and introduced Eastern recipes. Today, this confluence of international cuisine and proprietary grapes has transformed America’s eating and drinking preferences.

Third, the wines: The dominant grape varietal is the now familiar Nero d’Avola. However, few of us have been exposed to the other indigenous grape varietals.

Allow me to focus on the white grapes.

  1. Grillo, an excellent alternative to Chardonnay, is crisp and light in texture, with moderate acidity and notes of honey and almonds.
  2. Inzolia, one of my favorites, is dry, with citrus underpinnings and a nutty flavor. It pairs especially well with crab cakes and white fish such as halibut.
  3. Catarratto has a pleasing level of acidity, with dollops of apricot and grapefruit on the palate. Try it with grilled calamari or octopus.
  4. Carricante is highly acidic, but with a pleasing flavor profile of green apples and citrus. It is an ideal complement to most shellfish.

The red grapes are equally prolific, including Nerello Mascalese – one of the most prolific and esteemed wines produced on the island, on the slopes of Mount Etna. A focus for a future column: Frappato, Pignatello and Nocera.

Nerello Mascalese has the potential to become the new signature grape of Sicily, having the finesse of a Burgundian Pinot Noir and the complexity of a Barolo. Medium bodied, simultaneously earthy and silky, this tannic wine has flavors of black cherries and pairs well with roasted game and rich mushroom recipes.    

For me, Sicily is the rising star in the Italian firmament and the Mount Etna region is the pinnacle of its grandeur. Blessed and cursed by one of the most active volcanoes in the world (it erupts several times a year), the soil and altitude provide ideal conditions for two highly regarded grapes: Carricante and Nerello Mascalese. Look for Etna Bianco (Carricante and/or Catarratto) and Etna Rosso (Nerello Mascalese and/or Nero Cappucio) for well-balanced examples of Sicilian Sprezzatura.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.