Wine with Leslie Williams: A look into Sicily's long history of viticulture

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and fiercely independent — it is after all an island between two continents — Africa and Europe, writes Leslie Williams

In wine terms, the region has a long history of viticulture dating from ancient times.

Sadly much of the old bush vines were replaced with higher yielding varieties but the move towards quality is now apace and it is now rare (in Ireland at least) to come across bad wine from the island. Native grapes such as Nero d’Avola, Catarratto and Grillo are always interesting and imports from mainland Italy such as Aglianico, Greco,

Alicante Bouschet, Narello Mascalese, Fiano and others have adapted well as have some French varieties — you will even find Pinot Noir growing on the slopes of Mount Etna.

Most of my selections this week are from the excellent Mandrarossa Co-Operative based on the south-west coast of Sicily. I’m an avid fan of the Italian TV series Inspector Montalbano which is set on the same coastline as many of this week’s wines. Inspector Montalbano would be able to reach the co-op in under two hours by driving along the gorgeous coastline from Porto Empedocle (the town on which his hometown of Vigato is based).

The Co-Op has more than 2,000 growers with an average holding size of under 10ha and is quality focused with growers incentivised to focus on quality rather than quantity, a practice that is rarer than you might think.

The vineyards here are blessed with warm days with intense sunlight tempered by cooling sea breezes. The growers work with a variety of soils from limestone and clay-loam to sandy and chalky soils and the co-op is keen to ensure the right grapes are on the right soils.

I didn’t have room to mention their supple fruity FIano/Chenin-Blanc Santannella (€24) or their light fragrant cherry and raspberry pie flavoured Frappato (€16-17) which works well chilled on warm days or with spicy food. Given the almost perfect weather for grape growing there are lots of organic growers on the island also so I’ve included a good example imported by Le Caveau in Kilkenny.

UNDER €15

Mandrarossa ‘Ciaca Bianca’ Fiano,Sicily — €14.99

Stockists: World Wide Wines, 1601, Bradleys, Cashel Wine Cellar, Baggot Street Wines, Redmonds, Jus de Vine Fiano probably originates in Campania and has been grown throughout Southern Italy since Roman times. Fiano is almost always interesting and worth seeking out, with floral and honey aromas and (these days) decent acidity. This has floral tinged lemon and citrus aromas.

Mandrarossa ‘Costadune’ Grillo,Sicily — €14.95

Stockists: As above 

Grillo thrives in Sicily’s hot climate and is most associated with Marsala dessert wine but increasingly it has proved useful as a varietal thanks to modern production methods. Grillo has some Muscat in its heritage so has a pleasing fleshy peach and floral aroma. The Mandrarossa version has lemon flowers and textured fleshy fruit aromas.

Mandrarossa ‘Costadune’ Nero d’Avola,Sicily — €14.99

Stockists: As above 

Nero d’Avola is native to Sicily and also likes the climate and performs wonderfully as both a workhorse grape at entry level as well as producing ageworthy wines of depth and quality. This is packed with ripe bright plum fruits with liquorice and smoke tinged aromas, juicy and full-fruited with a lingering bitter cherry kick.

OVER €15

Cantina Rallo Baglio Rosso,Sicily IGP — €18.95-19.95

Stockists: Le Caveau, Greenman Wines, Bradleys.

This is 100% Nero d’Avola from an organic estate in the hills above Alcamo in north-west Sicily. I’ve mentioned their good value Ciello label Nero d’Avola and Bianco Catarratto before but this is more serious — packed with spice-tinged ripe dark fruits, cherries and blueberries and a touch of chocolate. This is a good example of a ripe and pure ‘natural’ wine.

Mandrarossa ‘Cartagho’Nero d’Avola 2014, Sicily — €23.99

Stockists: Bradleys, World Wide Wines, Drink Store, Redmonds, McHughs 

This is one of the Mandrarossa co-op’s best wines from a vineyard at Sicily’s most southern point. The grapes are long macerated and the wine is aged in 225l French barriques for 12 months — deep purple in colour with aromas of vanilla, cedar and floral tinted black cherries.

Mandrarossa ‘Timperosse’Petit Verdot 2014, Sicily — €23.9

Stockists: Bradleys, World Wide Wines, D6 Wines, Drinkstore, Higgins, Redmonds 

Petit Verdot is the fifth grape of Bordeaux where it is used to add a little backbone to some blends but rarely makes up more than 10%. It ripens considerably better in Sicily and this has volet and cherry aromas, soft ripe fruits with herbal touches, integrated tannins and a juicy freshness.


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