Sunbathing in the southernmost corner of Italy, Sicily or Sicilia in Italian, is a Mediterranean paradise rich with food, wine, culture, art, and history. Sicily is the largest Mediterranean island, making the picturesque beaches, turquoise waters, and dramatic mountains unmistakably breathtaking. The island is separated from the rest of Italy by the Strait of Messina, and spans 175 miles from east to west.
Sicily is located in the central Mediterranean Sea and has heavy Grecian and North African cultural influences. The first cities in Sicily were built by the Greeks in the 5th and 6th centuries BC and the island has become somewhat of a cultural melting pot since. The Arabs brought farming, trade, and mining, and the Spanish brought the Baroque style of art and architecture to the island. Sicilian wine culture began 4,000 years ago and its economy still thrives off of its viticultural and agricultural production.
Sicily is a geographical wonder when it comes to viticulture. The island’s most prominent landmark is Mt Etna. Climbing 3,329m, Etna is the tallest active volcano in Europe and one of the most active in the world. The mineral-rich soil the volcano offers the island paired with Sicily’s bright sunshine and moderate rainfall makes it an ideal candidate for growing grapes.
Sicily has nine provinces: Palermo, Catania, Messina, Siracusa, Ragusa, Enna, Caltanissetta, Agrigento, Trapani.
THE TERROIR OF SICILY
Sicily has such ideal grape-growing conditions that it has been described as the “wine continent”. The islands unique topography and climatic conditions deliver savory (slightly salty) whites, ashy reds, and some of the best sweet wines in the world.
The warm Mediterranean sunshine and moderate rainfall in Sicily make for perfect grape growing conditions. The dry, warm climate inhibits disease from growing on the vines, which allows for lesser use of chemical sprays yielding a plethora of organic and natural wines.
Mount Etna, the fiery active volcano, runs the Sicilian show when it comes to soil. Etna occasionally saturates the island with black ash, providing dark, mineral-rich soil to the vines planted on the slopes. The hilly terrain throughout the island allows for a plethora of vineyards to be planted, especially on the volcanic slopes. The coastal breeze helps the island cool off from the sun-drenched days and the occasional rainfall helps keep the soil rich. These elements combined make Sicily a wine-producing powerhouse.
THE WHITE WINES OF SICILY
Catarratto - This grape varietal accounts for 36% of Sicily’s vineyards. This is a low-acid, dry white wine with a medium body with tasting notes of lemon zest, oranges, and citrus blossoms.
Carricante - This is an ancient white that has been found growing on the volcanic slopes of Mt Etna for at least a thousand years. These wines offer strong citrus flavors, full of lemon, lime, grapefruit, and orange, also paired with herbal notes such as mint. Because of its proximity to Etna, there’s an underlying mineral flavor with high acidity.
Grillo – Native Sicilian white grape that became famous as a component of the island’s beloved fortified wine, Marsala - the other varietals in the blend being Inzolia, Catarratto, and Damaschino. The primary flavors are grapefruit, citrus blossoms, saline, minerals, and fresh herbs (like thyme).
Inzolia - This grape is mainly found in western Sicily in Trapani. When vinified (made into wine that is), Inzolia is marked by aromas of tropical fruit and almonds. On the palate, there’s firm acidity, sharp green herbs, and sweet lemon.
Zibibbo – This is a white grape variety also known as Muscat of Alexandria, which was brought over and planted by Arab settlers centuries ago. Different wine styles can be made from Zibibbo grape, but it's mostly vinified into sweet and Passito wines.
THE RED WINES OF SICILY
Nero d'Avola - this is the most widely planted red grape variety in Sicily. Its name stems from the town of Avola on the island’s southeast coast. Nero d’Avola is very fruit-forward, with flavors of black cherry, black plum, licorice, and sometimes chile pepper. This is a full-bodied wine with similar characteristics to a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Syrah. It has moderately high acidity and round tannins.
Frappato - The primary flavors in Frappato are sweet red berries such as dried strawberry and pomegranate, it also tastes of white pepper, clove, and tobacco. This grape makes a light-bodied wine with kinetic acidity and pairs well with tomato-rich pasta dishes.
Nerello Mascalese - This grape primarily grows on the slopes of Mount Etna and its taste resembles a Pinot Noir. Nerello Mascalese's dominant flavors are volcanic rocks, cinnamon, leather, wild strawberry, and floral dried herbs. Frank Cornelissen, one of the most popular natural wine producers, makes some of the best Nerello Mascalese wines in the world.
THE FOOD OF SICILY
Sicily is an incredibly fertile island; produce is grown in abundance including, lemons, oranges, olives, eggplant, tomatoes, almonds, pistachios, and all kinds of fresh herbs. On top of that, it’s surrounded by water, making the quality of fish some of the freshest you can eat. Safe to say Sicilian cuisine is arguably some of the best in the world.
Typically, when strolling around Sicilian streets, you’ll come across Arancini. These are fried rice balls made with risotto rice and stuffed with meat ragu or mozzarella with peas.
Another typical Sicilian dish is caponata. Fresh eggplant from the local aguritismos are chopped and fried then served with capers or balsamic vinegar.
Because fish is so fresh on the island, it doesn’t take much to make it delicious. Polpo bollito is a staple and is simply boiled octopus.
Pasta alla norma derives from eastern Sicily in honor of a famous opera singer. This dish is made with fried eggplant tomatoes, basil and ricotta salata.
Two of the best desserts to try are cannoli and granita. Cannoli is a delectable tubular-shaped fried dough filled with sweetened ricotta and topped with chocolate or pistachios. Granita may sound as simple as ground ice and sugar, but Sicilians have their traditions and techniques on how to make the very best. Granita is a staple for hot summer days.
The History of Sicily
- Ancient Foundations
- Greek and Roman Domination
- The Byzantine and Arab Era
- Norman and Spanish Rule
- Unification with Italy
- Sicily in the Modern Age
Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, boasts a rich history that begins in the prehistoric era. The earliest human settlements are traced back to the Upper Paleolithic period. The island's strategic position attracted various ancient peoples, including the Phoenicians and the Greeks. The Greeks established prominent cities such as Syracuse and Agrigento, significantly influencing the island's culture and architecture.
Greek and Roman Domination
The Greek period, starting around the 8th century BCE, saw Sicily become a center of Hellenic civilization. This era is marked by remarkable architectural and cultural achievements. Following the Greeks, Sicily fell under Roman control in the 3rd century BCE. The Roman era was characterized by economic prosperity and further urban development, leaving behind a wealth of archaeological sites.
The Byzantine and Arab Era
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Sicily experienced a period of Byzantine rule, followed by Arab conquest in the 9th century. The Arab period introduced significant agricultural advancements and left a lasting impact on the Sicilian language and cuisine. The island became a melting pot of cultures, evident in its unique architectural styles.
Norman and Spanish Rule
The Norman conquest of Sicily in the 11th century ushered in a new era of prosperity and cultural fusion. Norman rule is celebrated for the coexistence of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities. The Spanish domination, beginning in the 13th century, marked a period of economic challenges but also contributed to the rich tapestry of Sicilian culture and art.
Unification with Italy
In 1860, Sicily became part of the newly unified Kingdom of Italy. This period was marked by social and economic upheavals, including the rise of the Mafia. The 20th century saw Sicily grappling with poverty and emigration, yet playing a crucial role in both World Wars and the post-war Italian Republic.
Sicily in the Modern Age
Today, Sicily is a vibrant region with a strong identity, known for its rich history, diverse culture, and stunning landscapes. Its economy is bolstered by agriculture, tourism, and a growing technology sector. Sicily continues to cherish its historical sites, unique cuisine, and a blend of cultural influences that make it a fascinating microcosm of Mediterranean history.
Author: Melissa Norton ©