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History of wine in Sicily

Sicily, island of wine: the nectar of the Gods that spans the centuries

by Giusi Patti Holmes

Wine of color and smell of rose, mixed with water shows you stars in the rays of the sun. With it I chased away the cares of the soul with a drink whose ardor winds subtly and almost unnoticeable.

We relied on the verses of ibn Hamdīs, one of the greatest exponents of medieval Arab-Sicilian poetry, to decant, a double verb used here in its poetic sense and not in the technical one, wine, our protagonist today, considered "nectar of the Gods ". When you think of Sicily, the first thing that comes to mind is food, the son of contaminations due to the countless conquerors, its succulent being, aphrodisiac and guardian of traditions, which are handed down from generation to generation. And with wine, on the other hand, how do we put it? Would he be, perhaps, the son of a lesser god? Absolutely not and for this reason we want to get intoxicated with its magic, discovering its origins right in our magical island. Are you ready for this journey through history, myth and anecdotes?

The origins of wine Wine has accompanied the history of our island since the dawn of time and this is demonstrated by the fact that in eastern Sicily, on the slopes of Etna, and in the Agrigento area, traces of ampelids, a family of plants to which the “Vitis vinifera” belongs, the species that produces grapes for making wine, dating back to the Cenozoic or Tertiary age, therefore to 65 million years ago. Many grapes, now considered indigenous, were introduced by the Phoenicians, but we owe to the Greeks, already consumers of this drink, the techniques of pruning, sapling cultivation and varietal selection that overturned the local habit of letting the vine grow spontaneously which, however, thanks to the particular climatic conditions, it was however capable of copious harvests. The Hellenes, always in search of "harmonies and consonances", made an "Apollonian" consumption of wine, which was inspired by temperance and the "marriage" between this and water, 9 parts of the latter, 1 of wine and honey, which finds its highest ceremonial and symbolic expression in the symposium. Visually dominating the ceremonial scene was the crater, a refined container widely depicted in the vase paintings, which became the iconographic symbol par excellence of the sensual liquid.

At the time of the Roman Empire, Sicilian wines were already very famous and it is said that the Mamertino, whose origins date back to 289 BC when the Mamertines planted in the territory of Milazzo and the surrounding area "a valuable vine for the production of a fine wine" , was appreciated to such an extent by Julius Caesar that he told, in the “De Bello Gallico”, that he offered it to his guests during the banquet held to celebrate his third consulate. Among the most loved wines of the time there were also: Potulanum, Haluntium and Tauromenitanum. Regarding the latter, Pliny says that it was used to cheer the tables of the Romans and the Greeks; Cicero liked it particularly, thanks to the alcohol content of almost eighteen degrees that made his guests fall asleep, often too talkative.

With the advent of Christianity, in the first centuries AD, the island lands passed under the control of the Church which supported the production of wine thanks to the monastic settlements, which played a key role in the modern development of enology. On the other hand, for religious communities, vine and wine were essential for the celebration of the Eucharist. With the Muslims to whom, practicing the laws of the Koran, the use of alcoholic beverages was forbidden, the production almost completely disappeared but, intelligently, not forbidding it, the precious table grapes such as the Zibibbo of Pantelleria were kept. In the Norman era, wine re-emerged in the double meaning of a sacred and profane drink. An antidote to face "the anguish of medieval man, the tension that animated him between life, death and resurrection". Abd ar-Rahman of Butera, a Sicilian-Arabic-speaking poet, celebrates it thus, referring precisely to the Norman court:

Circulate the old, golden wine, and drink from morning to evening: drink to the sound of the lute and songs worthy of Ma 'bad! There is no serene life, if not in the shadow of sweet Sicily Under a dynasty that surpasses the caesarean dynasties of the king.

Elective places for wine consumption were also the taverns, “putii i vinu”; Unfortunately, however, the too many taxes caused the discontent of the islanders who decided not to plant more vineyards. Sicilian wine resumed its development and exports with the Aragonese and then the Spaniards.

Origins of wine John Woodhouse 1773 is a date not to be forgotten: it was due to a storm that John Woodhouse, a wealthyLiverpool, he landed with his ship in the port of Marsala, instead of Mazara del Vallo, where he was headed to conclude a deal. Once he landed in the Sicilian town, a little to celebrate the narrow escape and a little to cheer up, he went to a tavern where he was made to taste Perpetuum, a strong wine, produced in those parts, similar to Madeira or at the Port, just what the English liked. From here was born, almost by chance, the decision to buy a large stock to sell at home. At that time, however, the transport of wine by sea involved huge conservation problems and Woodhouse, to remedy the inconvenience, adopted a simple expedient, that of adding a certain amount of alcohol to the barrels, thus increasing the alcohol content and ensuring conservation. of the wine to its destination. The first expedition was an incredible success and all the barrels were sold out in a few days.

This convinced him to return permanently to Sicily to give life to a new and stable commercial activity. By the end of the 18th century, Marsala wine was now routinely drunk on all the ships of His British Majesty and even Admiral Nelson used to celebrate a victory with Woodhouse wine. The story tells that it was after the naval battle of Trafalgar that, for the first time, Marsala began to be referred to as the "victory wine", that is, the wine of victory. From that moment on, the Sicilian wine trade also interested other English entrepreneurs, such as Benjamin Ingham and, subsequently, his nephew John Whitaker.

Origins of wine

I Florio But it is only in 1832 that we finally find an Italian name among the producers of Marsala, and it is that of the Calabrian Vincenzo Florio who, having bought a piece of land in a stretch of beach located between the Ingham and Woodhouse beams, built there its cellars that reflected the typically Anglo-Saxon style of the time, with large pointed arches and floors in "beaten" with tuff dust. The plant aroused great admiration and accentuated the industrial character of the city, which became one of the richest centers in Sicily. After about 20 years, in 1855, Florio managed to establish itself by offering a quality Marsala.

The saturation of the market did not worry the entrepreneur from Bagnara Calabra who, in the years between 1840 and 1845, extended his interests to maritime transport, textiles, steel, traps and sulfur. The ships of the Florio family, moreover, not only dealt with marketing their wine, but also made themselves available in the cover of the Garibaldini during the landing of the thousand, in May 1860, on the Sicilian coasts. Garibaldi, not forgetting this gesture, donated a collection of rifles to the family, which are still on display and clearly visible during the visit to the cellar. It is said that the hero of the two worlds, despite being a teetotaler, found the sweet version of the Florio Marsala so good that he convinced the family to dedicate it to him: "Garibaldi Superiore", a type that is no longer produced. In 1861 the affirmation of Marsala was by now complete.

The 1800, a century of historic cellars During the 1800s, historic and prestigious Sicilian cellars were born: in addition to the aforementioned Florio, Duca di Salaparuta (1824), Amodeo (1837), Rallo (1860), Curatolo Arini (1875), Carlo Pellegrino (1880 ) and Lombardo (1881). The development of Sicilian viticulture during the nineteenth century was mainly concentrated in the Etnea area, so much so that, in 1880, Catania was the province with the most vineyards in Sicily with about 92,000 hectares and a million hectoliters of wine produced. The production of wine in the area was so important that, for its transport, the Circumetnea railway was built which allowed the connection with the port of Riposto, from which the wine took the sea route to other countries. This flourishing period was interrupted in 1881 by the arrival of phylloxera which decimated the vineyards, which was followed, in 1888, by the breaking of the trade agreement with France, which caused a sharp decline in exports. The restoration of the vineyards affected by phylloxera lasted over half a century and ended during the 1950s.

Sicilia1970 DOC labeling With the introduction of the MUC (Single European Market) in '70, the DOC labeling (Controlled Designation of Origin), the improvement of cultivation techniques and mechanization, we can speak of a true boom in Sicilian wines. Among the DOC areas of Sicily the following certainly stand out: Marsala, Pantelleria and Lipari; it is worth mentioning two DOC in which interesting sweet wines from Moscato Bianco grapes are produced: Moscato di Noto and Moscato di Siracusa; among the most representative areas for the production of white wines we find the DOC of Alcamo and Etna, whose wines are characterized by interesting qualities of longevity;among the red wines, the DOC areas of Cerasuolo di Vittoria, produced with Frappato grapes, and Faro, an area of great interest but little exploited, are worth mentioning. Nero d'Avola is present in almost all the red wines of the denomination areas of Sicily, confirming its importance in the viticulture of the island. As for the most common white berried grapes in the denomination areas of Sicily, the primacy goes to Catarratto and Inzolia. In Sicily there are currently 19 DOCs and precisely: Alcamo, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Sclafani County, Contessa Entellina, Delia Nivolelli, Eloro, Etna, Faro, Malvasia delle Lipari, Marsala, Menfi, Monreale, Moscato di Noto, Pantelleria, Moscato di Syracuse, Riesi, Sambuca di Sicilia, Santa Margherita di Belice and Sciacca.

Little curiosities 1. It is in the Odyssey, in canto IX, that the vines on the slopes of Etna grow so well that they do not require the intervention of man, indeed of the Cyclops.

2. Cato the Elder, Marrone, Virgilio, Plinio, Columella magnified the quality of the Sicilian vines that were already exported to other regions both in Italy and in the Mediterranean basin to give rise to new grafts.

3. The first scientific cataloging of the varieties present in Sicily was reached only in the seventeenth century with the studies of Francesco Cubani who describes 49 varieties.

4. In the nineteenth century the studies became more solid and extended to the 3000 varieties surveyed by Baron Antonio Mendola di Favara, one of the most esteemed ampelographers (study of leaves) of the time and the first hybridizer of those times. He is responsible for the black Malvasia Rovasenda, the white Catarratto Caruso, the Moscato Pulliat, the Catarratto moscato Cerletti. Unfortunately, all of his manuscripts were dispersed before his death.

5. Century after century, the native vineyard of the island's motherland has come down to the present day, relying above all on the knowledge of the peasant culture of oral tradition. Planting a vineyard is like uniting in marriage, in good times and bad, with the earth. The cycle of the vine, from grapes to wine, outside of space and time, is the perfect metaphor for life and for three topical moments inextricably linked: being born, dying and being reborn. We close with the Traviata and the famous toast:

Let us free, let us free in the happy chalices That beauty blossoms. And the fleeting hour got drunk A voluptuousness. Let us free from sweet thrills That arouses love, As that eye to the Omnipotent core goes. Let us free, love among the glasses. Warmer kisses will have.

Author: Giusi Patti Holmes

Sitography: https: //www.ilsicilia.it/la-si ...