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Carricante

Spurring from the Italian word carica (“load”), the name of this white grape variety reveals its characteristic of high production rates. Not only is Carricante a one-zone variety (it is only produced on and around Mount Etna), but it also accounts for 95% of the white grapes grown on the slopes of this volcano. The vines are found on the southern and eastern slopes of Mount Etna at extremely high altitudes. The grapes are elliptical in shape and bear a thick, yellow-green skin. The bunches are organized into a cylindrical-conical formation that is medium-large in size.

The main wines produced from Carricante are Etna Bianco DOC (minimum 60% Carricante) and Etna Bianco Superiore DOC (minimum 80% Carricante), both of which can be either monovarietal, or blended with other local grapes like Minnella or Cataratto. Due to the high acidity of this variety, winemakers often employ a process of malolactic fermentation in producing these wines. This is a form of secondary fermentation in which the harsh malic acid present in the grape must is converted to a lower-acidity lactic acid. Another technique to reduce the acidity is harvesting the grapes as late as possible, allowing them to ripen to their full potential. These wines generally have low alcohol content and express aromas of orange flower, chamomile, lemon, aniseed, unripe apricot and minerals. Unlike most white wines, Carricante productions can benefit from about ten years of aging.

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Cataratto Bianco

The diversity of this white grape is expressed in its name, which refers to the “cataracts”, or “waterfalls”, of different wines it can produce. In the past few centuries, Cataratto wines were viewed as everyday drinking wines, placing emphasis on their quantity, rather than quality. They were also often used in blends of Marsala wines. It was not until the 1980’s that Cataratto gained more respect as a quality variety.

The separate biotypes of this grape are divided into three categories: Comune, Lucido and Extra Lucido, with Lucido referring to the bright color of the berry. The Comune biotype is characterized by a higher sugar and low acidity, while the other two express the opposite, with Extra Lucido containing the highest acidity and lowest sugar content of the three.

As the most common variety produced by this region, Cataratto Bianco Comune covers about 29% of the main island’s vineyards. In addition, it is also the second most common white grape grown in all of Italy, following Trebbiano Toscano. Considering both Cataratto Bianco Comune and Cataratto Bianco Lucido, the Cataratto Bianco varieties own about 35% of Sicily’s vineyards, thriving especially in the hills surrounding the cities of Trapani and Palermo.

Some of the top DOC wines which can be monovarietal Cataratto Bianco are Alcamo, Contea di Sclafani, Monreale and Santa Margherita di Belice. The common DOC blends which incorporate Cataratto are Contessa Entellina, Menfi, and Sambuca di Sicilia. Cataratto Bianco wines can be compared to Chardonnay, with a medium to full body, and notes of butter, herbs, banana, pineapple and citrus.

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Grillo

Grillo is a white grape variety which is referred to as Ariddu or Riddu in local Sicilian dialect. During the 1930’s, Grillo vineyards composed more than half of Sicily’s wine country due to its resistance to phylloxera, a pest that swept through wine country during the mid-nineteenth century, killing most vines. However, this grape lost popularity during the second half of the twentieth century because of its low-yielding production.

Grillo is almost exclusively grown in Sicily, but some vines can be found in Puglia and Australia. The two biotypes are Grillo Vecchio and Grillo Nuovo, the latter being the most common due to its better resistance to shot berries and millerandage, a condition in which the grapes develop into different sizes and maturity. These medium-sized grapes are heat and drought tolerant, however, caution must be taken in the process of deleafing, due to their susceptibility to sunburn.

DOC wines made with 100% Grillo include Contea di Sclafani, Alcamo, Delia Nivolelli, and Monreale. Grillo is also included in many IGT wines. As a result of the lack of terroir in these wines, people often argue the flavors and aromas are direct products of the winemaking process itself, and not of the nature of this grape. Grillo wines require quite extensive winemaking procedures. Winemakers must use reductive methods in order to prevent oxidization by preserving the thiols, alcohols in which an oxygen atom has been replaced by a sulfur atom, and must be balanced to perfection in order to prevent unwanted odors. When executed correctly, the aromas of Grillo wines are often compared to Sauvignon Blancs - lemony, herbal and crisp.

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Zibibbo

With its oldest name documented as Zibibbo, this white grape is also known as Moscato di Alessandria due to its place in the moscato family of varieties, and potential birthplace of Alexandria, Egypt. Its first name is most likely rooted in the Arab word zabib, meaning raisin or dried grape. However, these origins are up for debate and experts believe Zibibbo was most likely born in Italy or Greece.

Zibibbo is a typical variety of the small island of Pantelleria, where it thrives in volcanic soil; but the viticulture here comes along with difficult working conditions for winemakers. Due to the presence of a national park composing about 80% of the island, it is almost impossible to plant new vineyards. In addition, working on volcanic rock rules out the option for mechanical harvesting, and winemakers must struggle to harvest themselves. For these reasons, Zibibbo wine production has lowered significantly over the past twenty years.

The vineyards of Pantelleria have been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for their unique agricultural appearance. This area, called Alberello Pantesco, is a result of the alberello training system used today, a technique brought by the Greeks during their expansion of Magna Graecia. This procedure is used for areas like this volcanic island where climate conditions are tough and nutrients are limited. The vines are kept low to the ground.

Zibibbo grapes are characterized by round or oval, yellow-green berries arranged in a tight, large, elongated pyramid shape. Due to their resistance to heat, drought and heavy seaside winds, they thrive on this volcanic island. However, Zibibbo vines are susceptible to oidium, a mildew fungal disease, and zinc deficiency, which can affect grape development.

Zibibbo wines can be liquoroso (dense, sweet), spumante (sparkling), passito (sweet by process of drying the grapes) and bianco (dry). The two main wines composed of Zibibbo are Moscato di Pantelleria DOC and Passito di Pantelleria DOC. The first is a dry, fresh wine with aromas of dried herbs, lily, ginger and apricot. The Passito di Pantelleria, made from air-dried grapes, is sticky-sweet and creamy, with honey and orange marmalade aromas.

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Frappato

As a contributor of 30-50% to the famous Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG, this red variety is used as a softening agent when mixed with Nero d’Avola (50-70%). Frappato vines are believed to have originated in Ragusa, in the countrysides surrounding Vittoria and Syracuse, but they are also found in the province of Trapani. The grapes are described as medium-sized, round-oval in shape, and grouped into compact, triangular bunches. They thrive in hot, dry climates on red sandy-calcareous soils.

Formerly known as Surra or Nero Capitano, Frappato grapes are known for their light-colored wines, which are often compared to Sangiovese. Aside from Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG, Frappato is also incorporated into Eloro DOC and many IGT wines, but it is not often produced as a monovarietal wine. These wines give aromas of strawberry, herbs, violet and fresh, juicy flavors. They are best drunk at a young age, and they pair well with complex fish dishes due to their characteristic medium body.

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Nerello Cappuccio

The name of this red grape comes from the Italian word “cappuccio”, meaning “cap”, which describes the characteristic busy canopy shading the grape bunches. Nerello Cappuccio grows most abundantly in northeastern Sicily, in areas near Catania and Messina, but it can also be found in Calabria, a region on the mainland of Italy. It is the eighteenth most produced grape in Sicily.

These round, dark-blue berries are known for good vigor and production levels, but they are also susceptible to spring frost and coulure, a failure of grapes to fully develop due to poor weather conditions. The deep hue of the berries is a result of large amounts of malvin and acylated anthocyanin, making for wines which are dark red and long-lasting in color.

Monovarietal wines have been made from this grape for about ten years, but many argue its tannins are not strong enough to stand alone. Nerello Cappuccio is often blended with Nerello Mascalese, adding color and softening the acidity. Such blends include Etna Rosso DOC (up to 20%) and Faro DOC (15-30%), known for aromas of vanilla, ripe red cherry, minerals and coffee.

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Nerello Mascalese

Though it is locally called Niureddu, this red variety is named after a commune northeast of Catania, called Mascali, which separates the city from the sea. Mascali is also the name of the port from which loads of Nerello Mascalese were once exported. Nerello Mascalese is about five times more common than its partner-in-crime, Nerello Cappuccio, making it Sicily’s eleventh most common grape. Many of the vines are old and pre-phylloxeric. They are abundant producers and are strongly influenced by the terroir. Nerello Mascalese is found in the northeast corner of Sicily, around the countrysides of Messina and Catania, but also on the southern, northern and eastern slopes of Mount Etna.  

The grapes of Nerello Mascalese are smaller and lighter in color compared to those of its counterpart, Nerello Cappuccio, and are grouped into long and winged bunches. The two varieties are blended in order for Nerello Mascalese to provide tannins, while Nerello Cappuccio provides color, and acts as a softening agent. The wines produced from a combination of Nerello Mascalese and others are DOCs like Etna Rosso, Faro, Contea di Sclafani, Sambuca di Sicilia, and Calabrian. These DOCs have aromas of red cherry, tobacco, herbs and minerals.

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Nero d’Avola

The name Nero d’Avola comes from Calau Avulisi, meaning “coming down from Avola”, a small town near Ragusa where this grape originated. The second name it bears, Calabrese, is speculated to come from a nickname, Calavrisi, meaning “from Calabria”, but the actual birthplace is unknown.

During the twentieth century, loads of Nero d’Avola were shipped to northern regions in order to provide color and alcohol to wines which were produced in areas of less sunlight. This process halted when Nero d’Avola began to produce higher quality wines; however, the wine’s popularity backfired and quantity became the focus over quality. For this reason, Nero d’Avola wines are harder to sell in Italy today.

Nero d’Avola is the second most common cultivar in Sicily, and the seventh most common in Italy overall. Its medium-large berries thrive in warmer areas because of this variety’s ability to tolerate high saline soils and heat, while maintaining its acidity. The vines are vigorous and abundant, so they require canopy management in order to control flowering and influence yields.

Nero d’Avola is used in multiple Sicilian red blends. This variety contributes to many IGT wines, as well as DOCs including Delia Nivolelli, Contea di Sclafani, Eloro, Alcamo, Marsala and Noto. Nero d’Avola is blended with Frappato (up to 40%) to create Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG, making for a perfect combination of Frappato’s light-bodied floral notes and Nero d’Avola’s richer texture and aromas. The wine ages nine months and is released in June of the next year following the harvest. The “Classico” version requires twenty-one months of aging. Its fallback appellation is Vittoria DOC, which includes white wines as well (minimum 85% Insolia).

Nero d’Avola wines are typically characterized by bright, dark red cherry and herbaceous notes, and are greatly influenced by their terroirs. For example, when produced in the higher altitudes of central Sicily, the wines are paler and more mineral than the ones from the lower altitudes and warmer areas of Sicily, which are richer and more complex.

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