Sicily makes a lot of wine. More than most countries. Not so long ago Sicilian wine was not something anybody had any interest in except as thick cutting wines for thinner northern wines or as jug wine for everyday consumption. The last twenty years has seen a total change in the reputation of Sicilian wine and wine shop shelves are full of Sicilian wines with "artist" labels, big prices and bottles as thick and heavy as the wines.
Like the rest of Italy, Sicily has become a battleground between so-called "traditional" and "modern" wines. However, we should ban the word "traditional" from this debate. The real argument should start when a wine loses its sense of place. Without a sense of place, or terroir, wine is only a beverage to wash down a meal, not something worthy of debate. All the best winemakers today are modern in their approach introducing better vineyard practices, more controlled winemaking and consistent temperature control. There is no such thing as a true "traditional" winemaker, making wine exactly as they did 100 years ago - as least no one making great wine.
So the issue is not "traditional" vs. "modern", but between wines that have a distinct and therefore more interesting character and those made in a style that reveals more about how they were made than where they where made. A Sicilian wine that does not taste like it is from Sicily is simply a commercial product designed to be a wine beverage that pleases the broadest range of consumers possible. There is nothing wrong with making such a product and good clean commercial wines admirably fill the need for everyday wines. What is wrong is charging more than everyday prices for such wines. Sicilian wines like Planeta, Morgante, Cottanera and Firriato exhibit beautifully executed technical winemaking. They are quasi-perfect when you look at the numbers. However, they are also soulless international citizens: wines without a home or a need for one. Therefore they are nothing more than top-quality wine beverages that could come from anywhere and I believe that is the goal of the people making them.
On the BBC there is a very entertaining program called "Top Gear" where they compare various automobiles. In one program they were comparing three sports cars, one of which was an Alpha Romeo. For ten minutes they talked about the qualities of the other two cars and the problems of the Alpha, but in the end they all picked the Alpha because it was just so damn much fun to drive. I think wines are the same. Some brands may be very well-made, but wines that really sing of the place and vines that made them are so much more fun to drive.
There are many producers using modern methods while still maintaining the integrity of their terroir and vines. High on the north-east slopes of Mt. Etna lies the Valle Galfina estate of Tenuta Scilio. The Scilio family has done an excellent job of introducing modern wine making techniques while still respecting the traditions of this ancient wine growing area. From 20 hectares of organically grown vines, planted to only indigenous varieties, they produce a range of delicious wines that speak clearly of the mineral laden soils of Mt. Etna and the fine character of the nerello mascalese vine.
1999 Tenuta Scilio Orphéus, Etna Rosso DOC ($25) Brilliant ruby, just translucent. The rich, deep raspberry and black current aromas blend with cigar smoke and ripe menthol/cherry notes. Mouth coating without being a bit heavy, the flavors offer ripe sweet plum and bitter cassis notes blended with firm mineral and bitter cherry highlights. The finish is warm, but not overripe. The balanced tannins are approachable now, but a few years patience should be well rewarded. Beautifully made and a pleasure to drink, this is one of the most interesting wines coming out of Sicily and happily is clearly a Sicilian wine - not Australian shiraz. A blending of nerello mascalese(80%) and nerello mantellato(20%) this wine is aged for one year in 225 liter oak barriques followed by one year of bottle age before release.
2000 Tenuta Scilio Sikélìos Rosso di Sicilia IGT Not unlike a tawny port in character and weight. Bright light ruby with garnet hints, quite translucent. Ripe plum and prune aromas blend with fresh raspberry and bitter chocolate. Warm and ripe on the palate with flavors of raisins and fresh, warm cherry pie. The finish is round, rich and sweet without being heavy. The round tannins disappear in a warm richness. This sweet wine is made by drying the grapes in the sun before fermentation.
A John Given Selection-Imported by John Given Wines