Why You Should Be Drinking More Wine from Sicily and Puglia

From the flanks of Mt. Etna to the heat of Salento, Sicily and Puglia are among the most exciting regions in the world of southern Italian wine.

Sicily & Puglia Regional Wine Guide

Peter Eastland / Alamy Stock Photo

Sicily and Puglia are hot right now…in more ways than one. These two standout southern Italian wine regions have been growing in popularity for several years now, and it’s no wonder: Their wines offer everything that collectors and casual consumers look for, whether it’s easy drinkability or cellaring potential, food-friendliness, or the ability to express a particular vineyard site with precision and idiosyncrasy. Though they’re hundreds of miles from one another, Sicily and Puglia represent one very important common phenomenon: The rise of southern Italian wine to the world stage.

 The Uniqueness of Southern Italian Wine

Discussing any large swath of the Italian wine firmament is bound to be inaccurate. After all, this may be an ancient land — the Greeks called it Enotria, which literally means “land of wine” — but Italy as a single country wasn’t officially unified until 1861. Combine that with the fact that this long country boasts a broad range of climates and terroirs, from the cooler and often alpine north to the hotter, more maritime south, and you have what really amounts to a single country with countless regional and even local wine cultures.

So while Sicily and Puglia are very different places, they both share the common thread of their location in the hotter south of the country, a deep influence by the food and wine of the Mediterranean Basin, and a history of influence by countries outside the traditional stiletto boot of Italy.

 As such, the food, architecture, and more of each is fairly unique to that particular place (think of Sicilian caponata and its dramatic nod toward North African flavors and ingredients, for example, or the conical trulli homes of Puglia). As wine almost always transmits some ineffable truth about a particular place, it should come as no surprise that their individual wine cultures are deeply emblematic, too.

Sicily: One Island, Many Facets, and A Few Key Neighbors

Located to the southwest of Italy and looking like it’s about to be kicked by the toe of the mainland further into the Mediterranean, Sicily is a land apart, literally and figuratively. Even when discussing the wine culture of the island itself, it’s impossible to speak of any one Sicily: The incredible fortified wines of Marsala in the west are totally different from the nervy, mineral Nerello Mascalese-based wines of Mt. Etna in the east. And then there are the plummy, sweetly spiced reds produced from Nero d’Avola, which were many consumers’ first introduction to the quality reds of the island. Make sure to also look for Frappato and Cerasuolo, which may challenge everything you thought you knew about lighter Sicilian wines. The island may only be around the size of Massachusetts, but it contains multitudes.

 Off the coast of Sicily, there are many wine-producing islands that are often discussed as part of it, though they’re not physically attached. Pantelleria, for example, is closer to North Africa than it is to the Italian mainland, but its history of producing Zibibbo – Muscat of Alexandria, typically grown on bush vines whose roots are sunk deep into the volcanic soil, the grapes dried in the pounding sun and then the wine produced from those raisins (look for the stellar ones from Donnafugata for classic and profound examples) – makes its reputation far bigger than the island of Pantelleria itself. To the north, the Aeolian Islands dot the Tyrrhenian Sea, and there, producers like Tasca d’Almerita craft wines of freshness and profundity on Salina. Look for the wines of Tenuta di Castellaro from the island of Lipari, too.

But it’s Mt. Etna that seems to be on the hottest streak in recent years. Like so much else in Italy, there is no single evocation of Etna. Indeed, its rich variety of terroirs is what makes it so special, and producers around its volcanic flanks take advantage of the rich array of expositions and individual lava flows to grow grapes and subsequently craft wines of fascinating character.

 Etna is an entire vinous universe just waiting to be discovered, as is Sicily in general, whether it’s rich or nervy reds, bright whites like Grillo, or more. Look for producers like Feudo Montoni, Cusumano, COS, Valle dell’Acate (they make a delicious Frappato di Vittoria), Occhipinti, Alessandro di Camporeale (their Kaid Syrah is a mineral, linear gem), Alberto Graci, La Spinetta, and Planeta for a fantastic taste of Sicily.


Puglia: The Heel of the Boot

Extending off the southeastern part of Italy, the proverbial heel of the Italian boot, is Puglia, a land that’s been ruled over the millennia by the Byzantines, the Normans, the Spanish, and more. As such, it boasts a thoroughly unique culinary heritage, architectural history, dialect, andwinemaking culture.

 The grapes that thrive best here are those that have the ability to survive in the heat and pounding sunshine of the region —  this is also one of the main reasons it’s such an important place for the growth of olives and the production of olive oil. The most important ones are Primitivo and Negroamaro, both of which are made into reds and rosés of power and serious potential character.

 Primitivo is genetically more or less identical to Zinfandel. Its origins go back to Croatia, where it’s known as Crljenak Kaštelanski and from which it found its way to southeastern Italy via trade routes. In Puglia, it took on the name Primitivo. From there, immigration to the United States led to its thriving in California, where as Zinfandel it was among the first calling cards for producers in the Golden State. In Puglia, particularly Salento, Primitivo boasts powerful dark red and black fruit as well as a notable sense of spiciness. With rich meats and game, it’s a great pairing partner.

 Negroamaro, or “the bitter black” variety, as the name implies, produces a deeply colored, often tannic red wine that can stand up to hearty cheeses, cured meats, and even the richest smoked barbecue. Yet it also produces a delicious rosato, or rosé, which is admired for its often darker color and denser flavor profile—it serves as a tasty alternative to the paler bottlings more classically produced in Provence. For a taste of all that Puglia is capable of, check out wines from Li Veli, Leone di Castris, Lirica, Due Palme, and Pichierri. Other grape varieties to search for include Susumaniello and Uva di Troia among reds, and Fiano, Malvasia, and Trebbiano among whites. There are even some very good Chardonnays produced there–the one from Tormaresca is relatively easy to find and worth checking out.

 For all of their differences between one another — and for all of the rich variety within each region as well — Sicily and Puglia embody much of what makes the wines of southern Italy so special, and worthy of space in any collection.


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