By Frank Cipparone
When it’s summertime in Sicily, it’s time to head to the local market or down to the docks to look over the day’s catch, pick out the night’s dinner, select herbs from the garden and fire up the grill. It’s a pescatarian bonanza – swordfish, tuna, branzino, octopus, squid, sardines, mullet, cuttlefish – so fresh it may still be flopping around on ice. There’s enough meat around to satisfy carnivores, but seafood rules the kitchens in Sicily, as it does on most Mediterranean islands.
There’s no better accompaniment to this abbondanza di mare than Sicily’s white wines. They have been eclipsed by the popularity of Nero d’Avola and the emergence of Etna’s reds, but on a sultry evening in the piazza or at a trattoria with an ocean view they’re what to pour with sarde beccafico or pescespada a la Marsala.
The five main white grapes have a lot in common due to their genetic links. That’s to be expected when they are planted in the same vineyard and natural cross pollination results in shared characteristics, or the creation of a completely new variety or biotypes of the original grape. Four of them were traditionally used in varying degrees to produce Marsala.
Catarratto, the most widely planted, grows mostly around Trapani and Palermo but can be found all over Sicily except in the northeast corner near Messina. It was a favorite of farmers because it is extremely productive. Even though the number of acres has declined it is still the third most planted grape in Italy, behind only Sangiovese and Trebbiano. Thirty years ago it represented a whopping 75% of Sicily’s vineyard acres. Though that figure is currently about 35%, that’s not necessarily a bad development.
When Marsala’s popularity hit the skids Catarratto could have been reduced to a blending afterthought or, as often happens, joined the ranks of the unemployed. Instead, two types of Catarratto were identified
and produced separately to highlight their differences. One is high in sugar and has low acidity, the other just the opposite, so wine from them is obviously different. Winemakers who had only known it as a player in low quality table wines began to realize its potential as a solo act.
A good Catarratto is medium bodied with ripe citrus fruit flavors and just a touch of Chardonnay roundness. Though there is, unfortunately, subpar Catarratto lurking on the shelves there are some really good monovarietal versions to be found. Look for those from Benanti, De Bartoli, Firriato, Tasca d’Almerita, Caruso & Minini, and Feudo Montoni, all of which I’ve had.
Since it’s a naturally occurring cross of Cataratto and Moscato, Grillo takes well to the climate and soil in western Sicily between Trapani and the city whose wine it too was part of – Marsala. As with its “parent,” it fell out of favor in the 1970s but is making a comeback due to modern winemaking techniques. The “new” Grillo is crisp, lemony and loaded with local herbs, an unassuming food companion. It isn’t going to rock the boat, more or less an Italian Sauvignon Blanc without the sharp aromas. Grillo has become readily available as more of it is planted. Some I’ve uncorked include Donnafugata, Firriato, Tasca d’Almerita, Valle dell’Acate and Gaspare Vinci.
This next one isn’t just my favorite Sicilian white, it’s in my top ten for Italy. Carricante’s sweet spot is confined to the high- altitude terraces surrounding Mt. Etna, so there’s not as much of it as the others. Everything you get from it has the stamp of what the mountain gives to the vineyards. Low alcohol and high acidity impart mouthwatering and crisp layers of minerals, salinity and a range of aromas that make it ideal with light seafood or seafood-based pasta and risotto. Unlike most whites it has the goods to age well. With more unblended Carricante coming out it’s the one to have when you’re having more than one. To me, the best examples are Barone di Villagrande, Benanti, Biondi, Salvo Foti, Salisere, Gulfi, and I Custodi dell’Etnea.
About 90% of Inzolia calls Sicily home, the rest is in Tuscany. It too was part of Marsala because of its low acidity. The rise of the other white grapes has meant a lesser role for Inzolia. Those produced now try to drive down its unusually strong tannins. On its own it’s a refreshing summer wine. I’ve not had many, but Baglio di Pianetto and Cusumano are okay for every day.
Zibibbo (Arabic for raisin) echoes the Moorish era but is actually an ancient Sicilian native – Moscato d’Alessandria, a member of the extensive Moscato family of grapes. Dry versions exist, but Zibibbo reaches its peak as a passito wine, the best of which are Passito di Pantelleria, Moscato di Noto, and Moscato di Siracusa. What these sensuous wines have in common are distinct flavors of honey, golden raisins, apricots, figs, and almonds. Have them with biscotti or cannoli and there’s a history of Sicilian culture in every bite and sip. They aren’t cheap but from experience I’d recommend Francesca Curto, De Bartoli, Pupillo, Carlo Pellarini, Salvatore Murana, Riofavara, and Tenuta La Favola.