Mr Hudson on the best Sicilian wines – ‘table wine’ no more

Mr Hudson on the best Sicilian wines – ‘table wine’ no more

Gina Samarotto

Presume to call a native Sicilian ‘Italian’ and you’ll more than likely be met with a quick, ‘Bah… sono Siciliano’. For most Sicilians, the motherland is not Italy per se. Rather, the loyalties and hearts of the Siciliano are firmly planted just off the tip of Italy’s iconic boot. A sun-strewn haven closer to Tunisia than it is to Rome, the island of Sicily is idyllic in more ways than one. A jasmine-infused, citrus-scented haven in the Mediterranean; Sicily’s temperate climate and breathtaking landscape make it perfect for many things – winemaking being at the top of the list.

By all accounts, 2011 was a game-changing year for Sicilian winemakers. Not because of a bountiful harvest or in celebration of some stellar vintage year, but because that was when the region soared passed the limitations imposed by its prior ICG (or Indicazione Geografica Tipica) designation and received authority to certify its wine as Denominazione di Origine Controllata or Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – more commonly referred to as DOC or DOCG. Simply defined, the designations are ‘guarantees’ from the Italian government assuring consumers that the wine they buy bearing the Sicilian DOC label has indeed been produced in Sicily under certain guidelines. And that one bearing the DOCG seal has been held firmly to not only geographic rule but to a specific set of exacting, quality standards as well. If one were to doubt the impact such seemingly benign designations could possibly impart, one need only consider the weight carried by wines bearing the Burgundy, Bordeaux or Champagne names – each the product of an appellation controlled by the French AOC (Appellation d’Origine Côntrolée).

Cinisi | Photo: Gina Samarotto

Cinisi | Photo: Gina Samarotto

“Producing a wine to be certified as DOC or DOCG as opposed to producing a wine without any designation is more difficult, yes” explains Antonio Rallo, President of the Consiglio di Tutela of the Sicilia DOC and director of the award-winning (and DOC bearing) Donnafugata cellars in Marsala. “But it is a difficulty we embrace. The designation alone does not define great wine, but it is very valuable for both the winemaker and the consumer. It challenges the winemaker to strive and work to keep making better and better wines. And it challenges the consumer to discover the great wines of a region like Sicilia and helps them to have a greater sense of confidence when making their selections”.

Given the explosive success of food and wine-focused tourism around the globe, it is not at all surprising that Sicily’s DOC and DOCG designations have given the region a boost in both their winemaking endeavours and travel sector. The proof, as they say, is in the numbers. In 2015, Sicily was home to a dozen Michelin-starred restaurants. A notable accomplishment for an island one tenth the size of Italy’s mainland – at only 26,000 square kilometres, Sicily is smaller than the state of Massachusetts. Yet, Sicily welcomed nearly fifteen million visitors in 2015; many of whom no doubt came to embark on an epic, (Michelin) star-studded journey through some of the world’s best food and wine.

Palermo | Photo: Gina Samarotto

Palermo | Photo: Gina Samarotto

Serendipitously enough for this barrage of indulgence-driven tourists, the island affords access to a veritable who’s who of impressive restaurants, award winning vineyards and impossibly sumptuous accommodations. Indeed, hospitality in Sicily has never been more alluring – or more cosmopolitan. Case in point, Giuseppe Costa’s Il Bavaglino in the seaside town of Terrasini, just outside of Palermo. Paying homage to its Mediterranean location, Costa’s seafood was described as ‘the Queens of the table’ by the Michelin inspectors who bestowed celestial blessing. During a recent gathering in Marsala, Antonio and Barbara Rallo welcomed an international group of food and wine journalists to Donnefugata to tour their impressive winemaking operation followed by a degustation dinner prepared by none other than Michelin-starred chef Tony Lo Coco of iPupi fame.

Sicily’s answer to Gordon Ramsay, the tatted, tough-talking and utterly delightful Lo Coco wowed the crowd with plate after plate featuring whimsical interpretations of his favourite Sicilian street foods – all meticulously paired with equally stunning, (natch) Sicilian wines. At Firriato Winery in Trapani guests can spend a morning among the vines and an afternoon touring the medieval town of Erice before ending the day enveloped by the creature comforts of Baglio Soria, the winery’s lux resort and restaurant. “What we hope to create for our guests is a notable culinary and wine experience that is also very much a luxury experience,” says Firriato’s Federico Lombardo di Monte Iato. A visit to Settesoli and the Mandarossa winery means exploring hectares of vineyards that edge so tightly towards Sicily’s jagged coastline they look as if they might tumble into the sea. Afterwards, lunch at Fattoria Lombardo means a chance to sit at a table where rustic meals prepared by the family matriarchs are so simple yet so delicious they’re enough to make a grown oenophile cry. At the impressive Cusumano Winery, Diego Cusumano joins guests at a table laden as heavily with gregarious charm and rollicking fun as it is Sicilian delicacies and fine wines from the estate his father started in 2001.

La Foresteria | Photo: Planeta Winery

La Foresteria | Photo: Planeta Winery

Of the wine-inspired hospitality options throughout Sicily, one of the most notable – and most beautiful – is La Foresteria. Part of the Planeta Estate, this boutique-style luxury resort and its noteworthy restaurant are set against a seemingly endless vineyard landscape, just minutes from the blue flag beaches of Porto Palo di Menfi. Our chef, Angelo Pumilia, has taken the Planeta family’s recipes and reinvented them to be even spectacular”, explains Francesca Planeta. “And of course, the Planeta wine we pair with is unmatched”. While the hotel’s accommodations and surroundings alone are more than enough to put Menfi on your shortlist of destinations to visit in Sicily, Planeta’s food and wine experiences elevate its allure exponentially.

While Sicily’s wines are best enjoyed while ensconced on a Mediterranean patio, should you choose to peruse a few before your next trip to the island visit Wines of Sicilia DOC for some divine inspiration.

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