If you mention Sicily, people imagine Francis Ford Coppola's “The Godfather” (“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”)
Ask a friend to name just one Sicilian wine and you might get Marsala, the stuff most people experience as fortified “cooking” wine used to deglaze a pan. But Sicily has emerged in recent years as one of Italy's most exciting and innovative regions for fine wine, with styles ranging from crisp, refreshing white wines from Mt. Etna to refined and aromatic reds like Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Marsala, too, has experienced a resurgence with high-quality examples now emerging from small, quality-conscious producers.
Sicily's singular geographic landscape is responsible for the island's vinous diversity, most notably the imposing Mt. Etna, a large and active volcano. Mt. Etna dominates the northeastern corner of the island and its impact on the region's wines is immediately visible to anyone visiting the slopes.
You can see volcanic rubble strewn about the soil and in some vineyards it has been pulverized into a fine, black powder.
These well-drained soils and the superb exposition of Mt. Etna provide excellent growing conditions for the red Nerello Mascalese grape and its white grape counterpart, Carricante.
Etna Rosso (the red version) resembles Pinot Noir in many ways, with floral aromatics and bright cherry fruit, yet seems to have a little more weight and spiciness, as if Pinot Noir had been crossed with the red Rhone grape Grenache. Etna Bianco (the white version) is dry and crisp with unusually fresh acidity for such a southern latitude and features a slightly bitter edge.
South of Etna, red wines are dominated by Nero d'Avola, a grape variety capable of deep color and intense black fruit flavors. Nero d'Avola is the most-planted grape on the island and reaches its pinnacle in Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Sicily's only DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), the top of Italy's quality pyramid.
Here in Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Nero d'Avola is blended with a lighter-bodied and more aromatic Frappato grape to produce something akin to a top-quality Cru Beaujolais.
A few disparate zones around the island produce sweet wines from the Moscato grape, and Sicily is also the home of limoncello, but Sicily's best sweet beverage remains its famous fortified wine called Marsala, although top-quality examples are few and far between.
Marsala can be produced from numerous grape varieties such as Grillo, Inzolia and Catarratto, and is produced in a broad range of styles from very sweet to very dry.
Marsala allows an endless array of adjustments to its color, flavor and sweetness. Sadly, its image has been relegated to that of a commercial product stored in the pantry for the occasional splash in Chicken Marsala, so consult your wine merchant or sommelier for a good producer.
One reason why Sicilian wines have seen a recent surge in popularity is their compatibility at the table. One only needs to look to the island's famous dishes to see just how food-friendly these wines are.
Eggplant seems to make its way into an endless number of dishes, like caponata, a typical starter of eggplant, tomato peppers and capers, or Rigatoni alla Norma, pasta tossed with eggplant.
The slightly bitter edge of Sicily's white wines matches these bitter flavors seamlessly. Sicilian red wines are a perfect complement to roasts of beef or lamb. The pairing of Moscato and Marsala with cakes and cannoli are, like the Godfather might have already known, to die for.
Here are some Sicilian wines you can buy in Omaha.
2010 Valle dell'Acate, Case Ibidini, Insolia Sicilia IGT, Sicily, Italy
Insolia is a white grape variety planted mainly in western Sicily where it is an important blending component in the fortified wine known as Marsala. This dry and still version from top producer Valle dell'Acate is crisp and lemony with floral notes of jasmine and citrus blossom. It is ideal with vegetable courses and sushi. Available at V. Mertz for $28/bottle.
2007 Az. Ag. COS, Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico, Sicily, Italy
COS is the iconic quality leader of Sicily's only DOCG Cerasuolo di Vittoria. This is a classic blend of 60 percent Nero d'Avola, 40 percent Frappato and shows fresh cherry fruit, spice and earth notes. A cutting-edge producer crafting profound wines that work just as easily with grilled lamb as they do with seared Ahi tuna. Available at the Boiler Room for $54/bottle.
2010 Tenuta Delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso, Sicily, Italy
Terre Nere is a reference point for the once forgotten, ancient vineyards of Mt. Etna. This typical blend of 2 percent Nerello Cappuccio (for color) and 98 percent Nerello Mascalese (for everything else) shows a seductive nose of crushed red flower, warm spices and earth with a moderate level of tannin and acidity on the palate. Excellent when paired with burgers or a flavorful vegetable lasagne. Available at Dante Pizzeria Napoletana for $52/bottle.