Sicily is enchanting. It casts a spell over those who experience it, and travelers who make the journey to discover the island and its wines in their native environment are touched deeply. The wines become the experience – etched in their memories, synonymous with the time spent in the place.
I recently caught up with Robert Camuto, author of the book Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey, which brings to life the island’s wines and winemakers. In a 2010 reading, he eloquently captured the essence of Italy’s southernmost region: “Sicily has kept its soul in tact. It is a magical place. When I think of Sicily, the book Eat Pray Love comes to mind – the author had chosen Rome for the Eat [and then continued onto Bali for Pray and Indonesia for Love]. To me, Sicily is the one place you can eat, pray, and love, in 20 minutes of your time. You don’t have to go anywhere else. What I love about Sicily is that there isn’t eating, praying, and loving. It’s all the same thing simultaneously. And that, really, is the beauty of the Sicilian way of life.”
I couldn’t agree more.
The eating, praying and love of Sicily – the soul, if you will – is expressed in the island’s wines, which are fully understood when experienced in the place where they are made. In a recent conversation from his home in France, Robert and I talked about some of his current favorite wines from all corners of Sicily.
And so we present a roadmap of Sicily, one which points not only to wine, but to place: understanding Sicily through memories of bottles, people, history, and food.
As the home to the eight cities of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Val di Noto, whose somewhat deceptive name derives from the Arabic Wāli meaning administrative district and not valley, the Southern area of Sicily is rich in cultural heritage. The area is rich in beautiful expressions of Baroque style, stunning stretches of vineyards, and rich culinary tradition. And having lived through millennia of invasions of Greeks, Romans, and Arabs before transforming into its current Baroque splendor, Southern Sicily offers layers of history to discover.
The most notable wine here is the DOCG Cerasuolo di Vittoria, a blend of the two indigenous grapes of Nero d’Avola, rich in dark fruits which express the island’s intense heat spells, and Frappato, light, fruity, and reminiscent of a bright ray of sun. Robert Camuto recalls the wine that best expresses the region to him: “When I think of this region, I think of one wine experience in particular: drinking Arianna Occhipinti’s Grotte Alte 2006. The words ‘my synthesis of Sicily’ were on the back label.”
Occhipinti herself began winemaking in 2004 at the age of 22, fearlessly planting her own vineyard and abolishing Sicilian stereotypes as a young woman winemaker with a commitment to biodynamic wines. “Hers are wines of terroir,” Camuto continues, “they express a heat, a Southern elegance. In a way, like the culturally rich towns around it, the wine was Baroque in expression, a full-bodied exuberance of Sicily.”
Buying Guide: Although it might be difficult to find Occhipinti’s first vintage, current vintages are readily available in the United States. You can find them at specialty wine stores, such as Eataly, or online. I personally love the simplicity of Il Frappato, but you can decide for yourself by reading her short e-book introducing her estates and its wines.
Baroque elegance is also apparent in Western Sicily’s Trapani, a city whose style and busy port also reflect the Arab domination, when it was a hub for salt, coral, and tuna. Slightly south of Trapani, salt pans are visible to this day in the Stagnone Lagoon, which harbors the island of Mozia, famous for the Whitaker Museum’s unique collection of archeological remains. The nearby city of Marsala is the fifth largest in Sicily, and is namesake to one of the most internationally recognized Sicilian wines.
Robert Camuto was attending an informal lunch hosted by COS with an A-list of Sicilian winemakers when he had the Marco de Bartoli Marsala Superiore 1986. “The way the other wine makers looked at him… he, with his intense love for Sicily, was the godfather of the Sicilian wine movement.”
De Bartoli himself is from a privileged Sicilian family and it was out of pure passion and dedication to bring old-style Marsala back that he set out to “find the perfect perfume.” The wine Camuto describes tasting that night had “a sense of age, like an old book” – or like an old winemaker from an ancient town.
Buying Guide: Select vintages are available at specialty stores, such as the Italian Wine Merchants, who ships across the nation and offers cellar management services.
The northern coast of Sicily stretches and changes from west to east. Its most western side (closest to Trapani) displays a heavy Arabic influence in areas such as San Vito Lo Capo, which hosts an annual Couscous Fest attend by many of the world’s most enthusiastic gourmands. Palermo, two hours east, is capital of the region with distinct displays of Arabic architecture and a colorful culture of cuisine, history and tradition. The surrounding area is covered with agricultural estates and vineyards, such as Tasca d’Almerita’s Regaleali, and is home to the Monreale DOC.
An hour east in the central area of northern Sicily lies Cefalù, a small city that draws droves of tourists for its seaside and historical sites, including a Normal cathedral dating back to the 12th century. However, it is the Greek-influenced, eastern-most tip of northern Sicily that caught Camuto’s attention. “It was a strange wine, Palari’s Faro DOC – light-colored yet displaying a Burgundy-like nose. You couldn’t decide if it smelled like a barn or sublime.”
“I was intrigued to meet Salvatore Geraci, the man behind the wine,” Camuto continues, “I expected a farmer, a contadino. Yet the person I met was an elegantly dressed man with impeccable taste.” Geraci, in fact, is no farmer. As a former architect, he invested in an abandoned 20th century property in Messina and produces exceptional wines whose character are remarkable different from vintage to vintage.
Buying Guide: Collectors and wine enthusiasts rave over these wines. Faro DOC is the estate’s most reputable bottle, but any you can get your hands on are sure to be exceptional.
Distinctly more Greek than its Arabic-like counterparts in other area of Sicily, the cities of Catania, Taormina, and Siracusa boast Greek ruins that have been said to be better preserved than the Parthenon. An architectural tour of this area of Sicily can be complemented by a stop at Europe’s most active volcano and producer of spectacular wines, Mt. Etna.
The cuisine of eastern Sicily is also a highlight of a visit to this side of the island, with spots like the pistachio mecca of Bronte, Catania’s fish market, and savoring the unique and refreshing combination of granite with a warm brioche topping visiting foodies’ lists. The mountain cuisine of Etna, especially dishes incorporating the volcano’s porcini mushrooms or wild game, also stands out, especially when paired with Etna wines.
“The Etna wines of Girolamo Russo are intellectual,” Camuto explains. “Giuseppe Russo was a renowned pianist with a degree in literature who took over his family’s estate in 2004. He now says his best work are his wines. I think Giuseppe had taken all of the elements of the new Etna wine scene – waiting for the right time (Frank Cornelissen, Azienda Agricola frank Cornellisen), making Cru’s (Marco de Grazia, Tenuta delle Terre Nere), and extraction and power (Andrea Frachetti, Passopisciaro) – and perfectly synthesized them.”
Buying Guide: Chicago’s own Binny’s Beverage carries Girolamo Russo’s Etna Rosso ‘A Rina’, while other specialty shops around the country do as well. 1000 Corks gives consumers an idea of which stores to look for it in all areas of the country.
Special Thanks to Robert Camuto for taking the time to contribute to this article. Robert Camuto is a longtime journalist who moved to an old olive mill in southern France with his family in 2001. A frequent traveler through the wine countries of Italy, France and occasionally beyond, he is author of two books exploring old terroirs in modern times: Corkscrewed: Adventures in the New French Wine Country (2008) and Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey (2010). He was also the main project writer for the Michelin Green Guide Sicily (2012). Robert is a contributing editor for the Wine Spectator and writes a twice monthly blog from his travels called Letter from Europe. Visit Robert Camuto’s website to learn more: http://robertcamuto.net/