Marsala, Catarratto, Passito . . . wines of Sicily

Jane Hunt and Tina Coady have pulled off yet another well-organized and enjoyable tasting for the wine trade. The theme: Sicily; the exhibitors, in most cases, the winemakers themselves. Everything about the event was professionally done, and the number of wineries represented was more than impressive.

For an island less than a tenth in size of Italy, Sicily has a surprising 17 wine regions, and a large number of local, indigenous (or at least so regarded) grape varieties, learning about which was to me the highlight of this tasting event.

Even though Sicily is mainly known for its red grape (and wine) called Nero d’Avola, red wines actually only make up about one-third of its production. Whites dominate, and, again, most of them local varieties with assertive masculine names such as Catarratto, Grillo or Carricante. Catarratto is in fact the most widely planted variety on the island, beating the internationally much better-known Nero d’Avola by more than 10 per cent. Catarratto comes in two shades: comune, the more common and less interesting kind, which tends to overcrop and produce fairly average wines, and lucido, which shows better concentration and more individuality in the hands of a good winemaker. But it does not only produce light white wines: because it oxidises fairly easily, it is also used in Sicily’s speciality fortified wine, Marsala.

BottleMARSSeccoMarsala is produced in the eponymous western wine region of Sicily, in and around the town of the same name, and its history goes back to the late eighteenth century. As with many other fortified wines, its creation had to do with long sea voyages. An English trader tasted the wines of Marsala, fell in love with them and decided to ship some back home. To make sure the wine didn’t go off on the long journey, he stabilized it by adding some spirit. Marsala then had a hugely successful career, especially in the British Navy, where, story has it, it even replaced rum on board ships and became Nelson’s ‘victory wine’.

The classification of Marsala seems at first a rather complex matter. It is, to begin with, classified according to colour. It can be Gold, Amber or Ruby. Then there’s the age factor. The youngest Marsalas are called Fine, then comes Superiore, and the oldest ones are called Riserva. Finally, there’s the sweetness level. Marsala can be dry, off-dry or sweet. The grapes used are mostly white (e.g. Grillo, Catarratto and Inzolia), but red Marsala – from Nero d’Avola – is also produced.

I tasted two white Marsalas at the event, both produced by Vito Curatolo Arini: a Superiore and a Riserva, both dry. They were lovely examples of a well-made fortified wine with smooth texture and great flavour intensity: nuttiness, dried fruits, a medicinal character, and an extremely long finish.

passito Abraxas


Another special delicacy produced on the island is Passito, a dessert wine made from late-harvested grapes. The one example I tasted here was produced by Abraxas, and it was 100% Muscat of Alexandria grapes, locally known as Zibibbo. A beautiful, intensely flavoured wine with great flavour concentration of apricots and honey. No such acidity as one would expect from a Tokaji aszu, for example, but it’s produced much further south and the grape variety is also inferior to the Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains used in the making of the Hungarian cousin. That said, the result is a delightful and rich wine – but with much higher alcohol. An average Tokaj aszu will be in the range of 11-12% and here we had a warming 14.5%. The owner warned me that his Passito was the real McCoy, not to be confused with the ‘cheap rubbish’ widely available at airports and touristy places, which is really a liquoroso (inexpensive sweet wines with added alcohol) and has nothing to do with Passito – but unfortunately at this point there is no legislation protecting the name and the product.


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