Sicily’s strategic placement in the Mediterranean - ideal climate and fertile soils - resulted in thousands of years of winemaking history touched by outside influences. Sicily is a tapestry woven over time, offering amazing flavors and stories.
Sicily may have been making wine for 6,000 years!
Paleontological evidence has shown that three indigenous tribes of Sicily, The Sicani, The Siculi, and the Elymians, have been in Sicily for 10,000 years and may have been making wine for 6,000 years!
The Phoenicians bring advanced viticulture to Western Sicily
This ancient civilization of merchants and sailors settled Western Sicily near Marsala and brought their enology and viticulture knowledge, creating Sicily’s first wines.
Greeks bring viticulture and winemaking expertise to Eastern Sicily
The Greeks had developed a systematic way to grow grapes and create wine, which they brought to the shores of Eastern Sicily. Even Homer, the Greek poet, wrote about how easy it was to grow grapes and make wonderful wine in Sicily in his epic poem, The Odyssey. Sicily was such a wonderful place to grow grapes that the Greeks nicknamed it Oenotria, the land of vines.
Sicily becomes famous for wine and food throughout the Greek Empire
Just as Sicily is known today for its gastronomic heritage, it was equally important to the Greeks for its fine ingredients, such as tuna and oil, and wonderful wines.
Rome’s breadbasket and wine shop
Rome took control of Sicily, using its fertile land to grow much of the wheat needed to feed the many legions of Roman soldiers. Sicilian wines spread throughout the Roman Empire.
Invader, after invader, after invader
Everyone from the Vandals to the Byzantines, Moors, Normans, Vikings, the Habsburgs, and the Bourbons have ruled Sicily. This myriad of cultures has impacted Sicily's language, food, and culture.
Many Sicilian desserts, such as cannoli and cassata, are believed to have originated from the time of Arab rule. Couscous, a common dish in Sicily, is from North African influences. Wines were often exported to the current ruling nation and treated more as a commodity than a delicacy.
The British, Marsala, and Thomas Jefferson
John Woodhouse, a British entrepreneur, sees the potential for high-quality fortified wines in Marsala and helps expand the industry. By 1805, Thomas Jefferson bought over 100 gallons of it for his home, stating "it is an excellent wine, and well worthy of being laid in stocks to acquire age." With their love of fortified wines, such as Sherry and Port, the British helped expand the market for Marsala.
Homegrown Sicilian wineries start to bud, but phylloxera impedes
Many Sicilians started their own wine businesses in Marsala and throughout the island. However, just as their own entrepreneurial spirit was taking hold and as they became unified with Italy, Phylloxera devastated the vineyards.
Once upon a time in America
Sicily lost a lot of its labor force through mass emigration to the United States and Argentina. Quality throughout Sicilian wines suffered and the overall reputation of the wines was not ideal, including Marsala. This paired with prohibition in the US and the onset of WWII, meant that the Sicilian wine industry suffered dramatically for the first 50 years of the 1900s.
Cooperatives and increased production of bulk and inexpensive wines
Many grape growers in Sicily sold their grapes to large cooperatives, which at the time focused on quantity rather than quality. This led to a huge increase in bulk and inexpensive wines being produced and sold at low prices throughout Italy and Europe.
A push for quality
Many leading winemakers, such as Diego Planeta, Giacomo Tachis, and Marco De Bartoli, pushed for quality rather than bulk exports. This led to an increase in bottling wines in Sicily and a focus on lower yields, higher quality wines, and an increase in reputation for the island.
Family run estates and quality wines take the stage and people notice
International grapes - Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot - rose in prominence, while the indigenous grapes took the backseat. But high-quality wines received international attention. This meant lots of "foreign" (from the north of Italy) investment started coming to create wineries.
Etna sets an example
Etna wines, made from indigenous grapes such as Nerello Mascalese and Carricante, started to receive international recognition. This also helped producers around the island to notice that indigenous grapes could be well received internationally and began the push towards looking at the rich genetic diversity of grapes that Sicily has to offer.
Sicilia DOC created
The DOC’s creation further pushed producers on the island to move away from bulk production and towards high-quality wines.
A focus on indigenous varieties, quality, and sustainability
While the international varieties still make high-quality wines, the native varieties are receiving more attention. Over 30% of vineyards in Sicily are certified organic and many producers look to reduce their carbon footprint in the winery and the vineyard.