Wine School is back for 2022 and we are resuming our world tour of wine in Italy, specifically the islands of Sardinia and Sicily.
Italy has a huge range of indigenous varieties to offer, however, a lot of the grapes simply have different names in different regions. There are also a number of grape ‘families’ where lots of different clones of a grape make subtle variations on a theme – examples of notable families include Sangiovese, Malvasia and Moscato. Sangiovese is variously also known as Prugnolo Gentile, Brunello (as in Montalcino) and many more. This, combined with a huge range of regions from the Mediterranean to arid to wet and cloudy alpine make Italy a hard but hugely exciting area to grasp.
In Italy, the wines laws are divided into Vino de Tavola, which is essentially table wine, Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) which refers to wine from a designated geographical area, Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) a newer classification that allows more latitude for winemakers to think outside of the box and use non-native varieties and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), the highest classification.
Our exploration of Italy is starting in the Mediterranean in the large area of Sardinia, which is home to some of the earliest recorded winemaking and has some unique indigenous varieties, amongst others found across Italy. The principal varieties are Cannonau for Red and Vermentino for White, and the DOC’s for both these grapes cover the whole island: Cannonau di Sardegna and Vermentino di Sardegna. The main reason Sardinia’s grapes are largely different to the rest of Italy is that it was under Spanish rule for four centuries; The dominant red variety Cannonau, accounting for 20% of wine production, is Garnacha or Grenache. Whilst, Cagnulari is another Spanish grape, better known as Rioja’s Graciano.
Many of the DOC’s are named by variety here, reflecting the fact that only recently have the wines of Sardinia gained attention and classification. Carignan, as we have seen elsewhere from Languedoc to South Africa is a workhorse grape- high yielding and good if not often outstanding. But from old vines carefully managed, it can produce amazing wine, such as in the Carignano del Sulcis DOC in the southwest of the island. The first DOCG in Sardinia was for Vermentino di Gallura, made in an area just inland from the wealthy playground of Costa Smeralda, and the proximity to that wealth coming into the area must surely have helped the winemakers invest and improve their wines. Other DOC’s named varietally worth mentioning are Vernaccia di Oristano, a native variety making wines from dry and unfortified to rich, sherry style wines, Nasco di Cagliari, Nasco being a musky scented variety again made in all styles from dry to sweet and fortified and Moscato di Sorso-Sennori.
If Sardinia is still largely showing potential with new winemakers coming in and exploiting the riches of its indigenous varieties, Sicily, across the Tyrrhenian Sea is much further down the road of innovation and modernisation. Investment from wealthy families, such as the Planeta’s in Etna and more consulting winemakers arguably make Sicily a bit more diverse and interesting, along with a much wider pallet of climates, altitudes and soils. As a whole, Sicily has quite a dry climate, with most of the rain in the northeast of the island, whilst much of the south is extremely hot with arid winds from north Africa exacerbating the warmth and dryness.
The main red grapes here are Nero d’Avola, Frappato, Nerello Cappucio and Nerello Mascalese. Nero d’Avola is Sicily’s calling card making everything from basic jug wine, found in all the tavernas, to a component in some of the best wines from Sicily. Frappato is lighter, floral and slightly tart; it is sometimes seen on its own, but is also commonly blended with Nero d’Avola. Nerello Cappuccio has quite a deep colour but soft tannins and a floral fruitiness, comparatively, Nerello Mascalese has much higher tannins and acidity. Although single varietals of both can be excellent, they are a much better fit as a blend.
For whites, the main grapes are Inzolia, Grillo, Cataratto, Carricante and Grecanico. Inzolia needs to be picked early to retain acidity, and at best it is a light, nutty white but is more commonly blended with other Sicilian varieties. Cataratto is another light table wine that can produce fine wines if yields are restricted. Grillo is an offspring of Cataratto and Muscat of Alexandria. Mostly used in fortified Marsala production, it has great potential as a varietal wine and is gaining in popularity. Fuller bodied than cataratto, Grillo was mostly planted post-phyloxxera as better quality and more reliable than Cataratto, if more fruity and less aromatic. Grecanico is another name for the Gargeanega of Soave, a grape that can be anything from bland to full-bodied and top drawer in the quality stakes.
Watch the full YouTube video for more about specific wines from Sardinia and Sicily and a bit more information on wine production here.
Next time, we’ll cross the narrow gap of the sea to look at Southern Italy, starting in the toe of the Italian boot in Calabria and working our way up. Meanwhile, you can catch up on the rest of our episodes here.