Sicily: Wine Travel
Sicily is a destination that has it all; dramatic coastlines, colorful fish markets, an abundance of historic sites, an active volcano, salt flats and a countryside filled with the aromas of grapes, olive, orange, and pomegranate trees.
As a travel destination, I can highly recommend Sicily for the wine and the abundance of activities beyond the wine. It is a very affordable European option for both traveling expenses and wine values. In contrast to notable Italian destinations, this region of southern Italy has all the history of Rome along with the small-town seaside appeal of the Cinque Terre without all the crowds. There is a rustic charm to Sicily that sets it apart from other Italian destinations.
People will tell you they are Sicilians first and then Italians. It is a continent with its own history, language, customs, and a sense of difference that is proudly maintained. It is an island that has been heavily influenced by other cultures over the centuries from the Sicanians (from whom the land takes its name) to the Phoenicians, the Greeks to the Romans, the Arabs to the Normans.
Some interesting and unique experiences when exploring Sicily would be investigating the most recent lava flow on top of Mt Etna, uncovering an archaeological site like Agrigento's incredible Valley of the Temples and discovering the salt flats near Marsala with their windmills. Syracuse is one of the best towns to see the evolution of cultures comprising a Roman Amphitheater, a Greek Theater and a Baroque Duomo built upon a 5th-century BC Greek temple which at one point in time was used a Mosque before being converted to Christianity.
Sicily is a big island and driving across it be prepared to spend a lot of time on bumpy, potholed roads. Although the biggest word of warning is the drivers, we came up with the term "Sicilian stop" and coined the phrase, "the horn is your friend." With this said, don't be afraid to venture on your own just rent a small car and channel your inner Mario Andretti.
Exploring the Wine:
Sicily has been growing grapes since ancient Greek times, but it’s wine revolution got underway in the 1980s with urgings from Diego Planeta. Planeta winery is a must stop for its history, influence and it's various vineyards which will offer a tasting of the unique terroirs around the island. Their resort is hugely inviting for a meal or a fabulous place to stay in a lovely countryside setting near the town of Menfi. On this western side of the island, you will also find some unique wines from producers Donnafugata and Firriato where they are growing grapes on small islands off the coast.
The volcano isn’t the only thing exploding on the island; wine production is also igniting with recent big-name Italian producers from Tuscany and Piedmont forming a presence. The wine tasting experience in Sicily is still a very intimate one, where wineries are not only excited to have you visit but will seek your input as to how they compare and can improve. In visiting many of the wineries, it is appropriate to schedule a visit in advance. Most will offer a group tour, but you can request a private tasting. As well many offer a food and wine pairing option, which I would recommend pursuing.
The Mount Etna region is producing some exciting wines with the coolest vineyards at altitudes of up to 1100 meters. Vineyards with vines 50 to 100 years old are being brought back to life and wineries across the island seem to have a vineyard on the mountain. After exploring the mountain we visited Graci, situated on the north slope of Mount Etna at Passopisciaro, found in an area where viticulture dates back several thousand years. Their sole objective is to reflect the personalities of their vineyards and the sublime differences between each and every harvest. On this side of the mountain you are not far from the seaside town of Taormina, which combines both scenic beauty and history, offering a nice option to explore this particular sub-region.
The only DOCG in Sicily is the Cerasuolo di Vittoria region where many of the wineries are producing exceptional wines with the indigenous grapes found here. This region is also near what is called the Baroque towns; Modica, Noto, Scicli, and Ragusa. Ragusa’s “new” town beholds panoramic views before descending upon the winding 200 stairs down to the old town. Modica is the village known for its chocolate made with an ancient recipe passed down from the Aztecs. Noto is a Baroque masterpiece where the entire town glows in amber color with the buildings built of local limestone. Anyone of these towns would be perfect for a home base to explore this wine area.
One of our favorite winery visits was to Zisola, owned by the Mazzei family of Tuscany; this country estate is near the town of Noto. The winemaker took us on a private tour of the vineyards and olive groves informing us of the unique microclimates on the acreage. We followed this with a relaxing lunch at the family’s property where we dined under the vine-covered patio sampling their olive oil, eating pasta and tasting four different wine varietals. The setting could not have been more idyllic, capturing the true expression of the Sicilian experience.