From wine rebels on Mount Etna, in Vittoria and beyond.
It's safe to say that Sicilian wine has garnered more attention from the cognoscenti in the last five years than in the twenty that came before. And it's not hard to understand the hype. Take Mount Etna, for example. What could be more rebellious than making wine on an active volcano?
Terroir hunters love the stuff: a soil of salty ash, pumice and rock, steep slopes, and a star grape variety—Nerello Mascalese—that can channel intense minerality and that tastes like the lovechild of Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir. The appellation has attracted a flock of talented winemakers, some avant-garde, some seeking to revive the oldest traditions (three of them profiled below), and a new generation of drinkers who love a good story as much as a great glass.
But it doesn't end with Etna. Around the town of Vittoria on the island's opposite coast, two generations of organically-minded vintners have managed to propel hyperlocal grape varieties like Frappato into international renown. In the north, there's a Marsala revolution afoot. And due west on the even smaller island of Pantelleria, one of the quirkiest wines to achieve cult status.
Here, 7 bottles that put Sicily on the map of wine cool:
2015 COS 'Pithos' Bianco ($34)
The C-O-S in COS stands for Giambattista Cilia, Giusto Occhipinti and Cirino Strano—three school friends who, in the early '80s, started a winery that would grow into one of the leading labels not only in the region but in the country. COS produces organic wines from the indigenous grapes of Vittoria, like the Grecanico that goes into this saffron-scented, mineral-laden white—one of the first skin-contact, anfora-aged bottlings to break onto the international wine scene.
2014 Arianna Occhipinti 'Il Frappato' ($43)
Giusto Occhipinti's niece Arianna started making her own wine in 2004 at the young age of 21 from a couple acres of abandoned vines. Now, she farms her 30 acres of Frappato and Nero d'Avola grapes biodynamically, and her coveted bottles have been chronicled in countless publications and poured at dozens of natural wine fairs. She ferments this one, a vibrant, juicy red, in stainless steel using only the grapes' native yeasts and a small amount of sulfur at bottling.
2015 Frank Cornelissen 'Contadino' Rosso ($30)
A self-taught, Belgian-born winemaker, Frank Cornelissen was drawn to Mount Etna's volcanic slopes for their extraordinary and unusual terroir. There, he crafts wines according to a strict "nothing added" philosophy—no added yeasts nor any chemicals, including sulfur. Contadino, a light-bodied, cherry-inflected blend of Nerello Mascalese and other mixed local reds is the most accessible in his portfolio, but worth trying also are his anfora-aged 'MunJebel' wines and his top bottling, 'Magma', if you can find them.
2013 Marco De Bartoli 'Terzavia' Metodo Classico Brut Nature ($43)
Marco De Bartoli could be credited with reviving traditional Marsala production from its decades-long slump during which industrial versions flooded the market and aligned the category with cheap cooking wine. If you've never tasted good Marsala, look for his solera-aged wines, such as Vigna La Miccia. When De Bartoli's children took the helm, they added a new line of dry wines made from Grillo (the Marsala grape), including this zero-dosage sparkler that makes appearances in top wine bars around the country.
2014 Gabrio Bini 'Serragghina' Zibibbo ($85)
Zibibbo, the most fun-to-pronounce wine grape variety, is Muscat of Alexandria by another name. This one grows on Pantelleria—the tiny volcanic island off the coast of Sicily known more for its caper production than for wine. It's skin-fermented, wild, and both succulent and savory. Plus, it's made by an eccentric winemaker who would be a dead ringer for Doc from Back to the Future if Doc had an epic mustache. Miniscule amounts of it exist, so be sure to snatch one up if you see it on a wine list. More likely, you'll see it in your wine-centric Instagram feed.
2015 I Vigneri Salvo Foti 'Vinudilice' Rosato ($40)
For decades, Salvo Foti served as a viticultural advisor for the best estates on Etna and in eastern Sicily. When he started I Vigneri—more a collaboration with local growers than a one-man show—he acquired old vines on the north side of the volcano which he works by hand and by mule (the site is impossible to farm any other way) and two high-altitude plots due west in Bronte. Foti makes notable whites and reds, but this rosé from Alicante grapes is arguably the area's best.
2015 Vino di Anna 'Palmento' Vino Rosso ($27)
The 'Anna' in question here is Anna Martens, a transplant winemaker from Australia and relative newcomer to the Etna scene. She and her husband Eric Narioo, a London-based wine importer, were drawn to the volcano the way most are: by a flavor that couldn't come from anywhere else. Together, they farm 15 acres biodynamically and foot-stomp and ferment this Nerello Mascalese blend in a 250-year-old palmento—one of the area's historic traditional winemaking facilities.