Sicily has a warm Mediterranean climate, tons of sunshine, and lots of heat. The red and white wines are fresh, and high in acid. Let's figure out how the terroir of Sicily helps create this exuberant tapestry.
Ancient winds bring water to Sicily's vineyards
Most of Sicily gets less than 21 inches (550 mm) of rain per year, which is close to the bare minimum for vines to survive.
There are very few rivers constantly flowing in Sicily, meaning access to irrigation is tough, and producers rely on rainfall to sustain their crops - this means that many vineyards in Sicily are dry-farmed (no added irrigation water).
However, grape growers in Sicily know that certain ancient winds (the winds have been known to Mediterranean sailors for millenia) can bring rainfall to their parched vineyards. Vineyards on the north and east coasts of the island receive more rainfall thanks to two key winds:
- The Scirocco
- The Maestrale
For example, vineyards on the eastern slopes of Mount Etna receive 47 inches (1200 mm) of rain! That’s more than double the average! These areas are known for being able to produce fresh styles of wine, in part because of the water the winds bring.
Winds are really important in Sicily and two of the main winds, the Scirocco and Maestrale, give life to many vineyards in Sicily and help produce refreshing styles of wine.
Whereas warm winds from the west (Ponente) and the south (Saharan) ensure very long growing seasons for red grapes - leading to full-bodied, robust styles of red wine too.
How the winds bring rain to Sicily
The Scirocco is a warm and humid wind that blows from the southeast and absorbs moisture as it runs over the Mediterranean sea. When it hits the eastern slopes of Etna and the mountains near Messina it drops all that water as the winds rush upwards, causing condensation and eventually rain.
The Maestral wind, also known as the Mistral, is a cool and humid wind that blows from the North and drops moisture on the windward mountain slopes in the north of Sicily.
Mountains and elevation create freshness in Sicily's wines
Mountains are super important to the terroir of Sicily because they do two main things:
- The temperature decreases with altitude (Lapse Rate)
- Help to create large differences between day and night temperature (Diurnal range)
Freshness from elevation - Lapse Rate
Grapes planted at higher altitudes can produce fresher styles of wine because the grapes have more acid and fresher fruit flavors. Carricante, Catarratto and Nerello Mascalese all thrive at these higher altitudes, found throughout the island.
The higher elevation means higher levels of aromas, fresh fruit flavors, lower alcohol levels, and higher levels of acid.
That’s because for every 328 feet (100 m) in elevation, the temperature drops 1°F (0.6°C). And with some vineyards sitting above 3300 feet (1000 m), the average temperature can go from 22°C to 16°C.
That’s like going from the Central Valley in California, to Willamette Valley in Oregon! The climate goes from really warm, to cool, pretty quickly.
Freshness from cold nights - Diurnal Range
But there’s yet another trick that grape growers in Sicily have to help battle the heat and that’s diurnal range. When nights are cold, grapes can retain acid and flavor, making for fresh wines despite the heat of the day.
When it’s super hot in the day, sometimes reaching 104°F (40°C) or higher, especially in the center of Sicily where there’s no influence from the sea, you would think it would be near impossible to create wines that are fresh.
But, planting away from the sea, just like in a desert, means that though it’s warm in the day, the temperature plummets at night, often to 64°F (18°C) or lower in the height of the summer.
This means that winemakers, even in the blistering hot center of Sicily, because of its mountainous elevations, can make ripe, intense, but refreshing styles of red and white wines.
This temperature change is vital in retaining the acidity and delicate fruit and floral aromas found in grapes like Carricante, Frappato, Nero d'Avola, Catarratto, and Nerello Mascalese.
One grape, many different styles
One of the most interesting things about the various altitudes in Sicily is that if you take a grape variety, like Nero d’Avola, and plant it by the sea, the resulting wine will be ripe and full bodied with higher alcohol levels.
If you take the same grape and plant it at high altitudes in the center of Sicily, you get a wine that is fresh and delicate with floral aromas, and less ripe tannins.
One grape, but styles that can suit anyone’s palate! That’s the joy of terroir!
Sicily's main soil type helps keep vines cool
Sicily’s soils are cool – literally! They are cooler than many other soils because they are made from something called Calcium carbonate (aka: chalk). This means they are white in color (which reflects sunlight and heat) and they hold water well (keeping them chilled for longer).
These soils tend to produce lighter styles of wine (both white and red) with paler colors, higher levels of acidity, and increased aromatics, leading to elegant, fresh wines.
Some examples of calcium carbonate-rich soils that we can find throughout Sicily are chalk, gypsum, and limestone. We can see similar examples from great wine regions around the world, such as Burgundy and Champagne.
Volcanic soils create textured, savory wines.
There are a select few places within Sicily that do not have calcium carbonate soils and these are centered around volcanoes. The soils we find around Etna, and certain islands around Sicily, such as Pantelleria and the Aeolian islands, are volcanic.
These soils are quite different; they’re deeply colored, often black, and full of minerals.
This means wines from these soils have a mineral flavor, sometimes described as stony or iron-like, in both the red and white wines. The red wines have lots of tannin too, making them quite robust and food friendly.
Nerello Mascalese and Carricante thrive in these volcanic soils and are fresh with intensely perfumed aromas.
Aromatic grapes, such as Zibibbo (Muscat), found on Pantelleria, and Malvasia, found on the Aeolian Islands, also thrive in these volcanic soils. These wines are sweet with intense aromatics of peach and honeysuckle.
Sandy soils make light, elegant wines
Finally, if you’ve ever visited Sicily before, you’ll probably have seen a sandy beach. Sandy soils, found often on the southern part of the island, can make wines that are elegant, aromatic and delicate. Frappato does well in these soils, producing lightly colored, refreshing, juicy red wines.
♦ The World of Sicilian Wine, Bill Nesto MW and Frances di Savino, 2013