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One of Europe's oldest viticultural regions still offers some pleasant surprises. Sicily's oenological history is an ancient one dating from the time when the island was part of Magna Graecia. One usually associates fine wines with eastern Sicily and the areas near Mount Etna, but many new wineries have sprung up across the island. Sicilian oeniculture is not just varietals. Sicily's vintage wines are a magical creation, and many of the island's traditional wines and spirits are famous far beyond its shores. Several boast denomination of origin. Sicily has its own table and dessert wines, and a number of regional liqueurs.

Marsala

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Sicily's most famous wine, Marsala, was first made in the city of that name on the western coast by the Woodhouse firm, which also sold Port. Like its sisters Port and Sherry, Marsala is a fortified wine with an alcohol content of around twenty percent. It is usually made from native Grillo, Catarratto, or Inzolia grapes. John Woodhouse established his winery at Marsala in 1796. Benjamin Ingham founded a competing firm in 1812, followed by Vincenzo Florio, a Calabrian, in 1832. Larger vintners such as these have always dominated the Marsala wine trade, though smaller firms have entered the field in recent years. They've brought a welcome family spirit to the industry, which in the last two decades had fallen under the aegis of larger corporate entities (Florio, for example, is now owned by Cinzano).

For more than a century, Marsala was the equal of Sherry and Madeira. By the 1950s, however, it found itself relegated to the kitchen as cooking wine, and competition came from unorthodox quarters, with the introduction in the United States of a watery "California Marsala." In 1986, the Italian Republic's appellation laws for Marsala were revised to incorporate stricter regulations similar to those which the Portuguese government instituted for Port (a somewhat heavier wine), and Marsala is now resuming its place as a dessert and aperitif wine.

Today's Marsala is made in three different forms, namely oro (golden), ambra (amber), and rubino (ruby). There are both sweet and dry types, and various categories (of which we'll mention just a few). "Fine" is aged for a minimum of one year, while "Superiore" is aged for a minimum of two years (some vintners age it for three years). "Superiore Riserva" (often simply "Riserva") is a vintage wine aged in wood for four years, and sometimes as long as six. "Vergine" is aged in wood for a minimum of five years (some firms age it in small oak casks for as long as seven years). For cooking, there's even a Marsala made with the addition of egg white (though you probably won't notice this ingredient). Truth be told, there are dozens of kinds of Marsala wine, some unique to certain houses, each meeting particular standards. Some houses age it in oak casks from the 1860s, making your Marsala experience a piece of Sicilian history.

Marsala Liqueurs

Nero d'Avola grapes.Some pleasant Marsala liqueurs have also been introduced, though they're difficult to find on the market. Florio makes a fine brandy, and several firms make almond-flavored Marsala, best described as Sweet Marsala with a touch of Amaretto, though it's much more than that.

Zibibbo

Purists will tell you that Zibibbo is a grape variety that can be used to make anything from table wine to grappa. However, the Zibibbo made commercially by several houses is a strong wine similar to Marsala but fermented and then partially distilled naturally, without the addition of spirits. The process differs also in that Zibibbo is actually made from grapes partially fermented in the sun. It is a very old process, and Zibibbo, though not the direct precursor of Marsala, derives from a formula known in the Middle Ages. It is typically slightly lower in alcohol than Marsala (about fifteen percent compared to eighteen or twenty percent) and sometimes more robust. The Zibibbo grape is similar to Moscato, and the wine known as Moscato di Pantelleria Naturale is made mostly from Zibibbo grapes.

Regional Liquors and Liqueurs

Several liquors unique to Sicily are worthy of mention. Ala, made by Florio, has a distinct flavor, as does Averna, which is made in Caltanissetta. Fichera, a newcomer, is made near Mount Etna. There are also several mildly fortified almond-flavored white wines which, though not suitable for every occasion, go well with some desserts. Several Sicilian liqueurs are similar to those produced on the mainland, namely limoncello, from lemons, anisette and amaretto. There are others, such as the interesting liqueur made from prickly pears (cactus fruits). Grappa is actually a brandy distilled from grape seeds and pomace. Dry and high in alcohol, it is usually white and served as an after dinner drink. In Italy, grappa is often sold in artistically original clear glass bottles which the distillers commission specially for this liquor.

Moscato

Moscato grapes.Moscato is difficult to describe. It comes from the Muscat grape, of course, or from the sub-variety known locally as Moscatello, sometimes with the addition of Corinto or Zibibbo. Some fine whites can be made from Muscat, but in Sicily and the nearby islands it is usually rendered as a golden or light amber dessert wine, sometimes fortified or even sparkling (spumante). A few localities are famous for Moscato. Moscato and Moscato Passito are made by some distinguished wineries on the islands of Pantelleria and Lipari. As its name implies, Moscato Passito contains Appassito grapes. The areas around Siracusa and Noto, in the eastern part of Sicily, also produce fine Moscato wines.

Malvasia

Malvasia is another white grape used to make a strong varietal that is golden to amber in color and slightly fortified. Bred from an older grape variety, Malvasia is grown in northeastern Sicily (near Messina) and on the island of Lipari, where it is used in the making of a wine somewhat similar to Moscato.

Varietal Wines

Chardonnay, the world's ubiquitous varietal, is present in Sicily, but primarily from smaller vintners. In Sicily, as well as other parts of Italy, there's also Chardonnay Grappa. Native varietals are also present in the regional market. Inzolia and Grecanico are pleasant whites. Cabernet Sauvignon is also popular, sold especially by better houses like Tasca (Regaleali). Pinot Bianco has been made in Sicily for some years. It has a flavor and texture similar to those of Chardonnay. Pinot Grigio is used to produce wines that are soft and fragrant, with more color than most other whites, but it's not as popular among Sicilian vintners as Pinot Bianco. Trebbiano is not usually made into a varietal wine in Sicily, but this grape is used in certain wines. Frascati ranges from dry to sweet. It is not, strictly speaking, Sicilian, though these grapes are grown here.

Denomination of Origin

A few Sicilian wines are defined by appellation or denomination of origin (D.O. or D.O.C.). This obviously includes Marsala (usually made from a blend of several grapes), as well as the Moscatos and Malvasias (of which there are various recognised types based both on location and the grape varieties used), but also wines such as Alcamo, made in the locality of that name in the province of Trapani from Catarratto and other grapes, usually Damaschino or Grecanico. Cerasuolo di Vittoria is made in the province of Ragusa from Frappato and Calabrese, with the addition of Grosso Nero and Nerello Mascalese. Etna Whites, produced near Europe's largest active volcano, are usually made from Carricante and Catarratto, with the addition of Trebbiano or Minnella. Etna Reds and rosés are made from Nerello. Faro (the name means "lighthouse"), as its name implies, is typical of the area around Messina. It is a Red made from two different Nerellos, as well as Nocera and Calabrese, with the addition of Gaglioppo or Sangiovese. Regaleali, made by Count Tasca, is not recognised as a D.O. wine, but the the vineyards where its grapes are raised are so well known that this former fief is indicated on most Sicilian maps, and Regaleali is preferred by most Sicilians to D.O. vintages like Alcamo and Etna.

Other Wines

Novello is Sicily's nouveau vintage wine, sold annually just months after the grapes are harvested and pressed. It is usually red, robust and fruity. You're not likely to find it outside Sicily. Sicilian vintners offer a range of vintage D.O. wines which are not varietals. Though Sicily is not famous for its sparkling wines, a few are made here. Castelmonte Frizzante, which is naturally effervescent, is similar to Spumante.

House Wines

When Italians speak of "il vino della casa," they usually mean "house wine" in the sense of the wine that a restaurant or individual has made from local grapes, and images come to mind of a farmer's strong home-made red wine that tastes like vinegar. Among Italian vintners, however, mention of a "casa" (literally "house") is like a French vintner referring to a chateau, and in Italian aristocratic parlance a "house" is a noble family. Some of Sicily's best houses make excellent wines that don't officially make their way to the consumer market, often because the quantity of a few hundred bottles is not sufficient to justify an advertising or sales campaign.