I continue to be astounded by the turnaround in Sicilian white wines.
When I first started coming to Sicily in 2003, it was an exercise in frustration. On this island smack in the middle of the Mediterranean, you’re surrounded by fish. Lavish displays of fresh swordfish, tuna, mollusks, and silverfish tempt with bright-eyed freshness at outdoor markets, while in every restaurant, exotic and simple fish dishes beckon—and all cry out for a crisp, snappy white. But eight years ago, restaurant wine lists offered only a meager selection of whites, mostly listless insolia blends from Alcamo that lacked acidity and personality. They made for very tired, boring dinner companions.
Today it’s a whole new scene. And if there’s one grape to thank, it’s grillo—now the life of the party.
I used to pin my hopes on fiano, a grape brought by the Greeks to Campania 2,500 years ago, which several Sicilian wineries had started to cultivate. (Planeta’s Cometa is a superb example.)
But rescue came from a local son. Grillo’s origins are uncertain. Some say it was brought to Sicily by the Phoenicians, who established colonies on Sicily’s western shores. Others speculate that it came from Puglia, planted to replenish Sicily’s phylloxera-striken vines.
Whatever the case, grillo is now widespread in western Sicily, where it has long been grown on the flat, calcareous expanses near the sea to make marsala—and only marsala. Sicily’s fortified wine is traditionally a blend of grillo, cattaratto and insolia. Though grillo was the better grape—full-bodied, with higher potential alcohol, yet able to ferment with its own natural yeast—it has been abandoned in recent decades by the megalithic marsala industry because it was fussier in the field. (Trouble-makers are never pleasing to industry giants.
Marsala maverick “I’ll do it my way” Marco De Bartoliwent against the tide and started making his revolutionary marsalas with 100 percent grillo. Though that’s a different story (told here), his work with grillo got him thinking. No one had ever vinified grillo as a table wine, but in 1990, he unveiled Grappoli del Grillo, a dry grillo. He picked his grillo early—three weeks before the grillo destined for marsala—thus preserving its freshness and acidity. Then he fermented it first in cement, then fine French oak, then aged it in barrel for eight months on the lees with regular battonage. They considered him crazy.
But the results are delicious. There’s lime, chamomile, and minerality, plus a nutty base, which continues to separate De Bartoli’s grillo from its followers, now popping up everywhere in western Sicily. (In eastern Sicily near Mt. Etna, carricante is the white grape of choice among discriminating vintners aiming to raise the bar.)
Last week on our SICILIAN SAUNTER hiking tour, our group had eight different grillos (see list below). We tried many other whites at wineries and meals, but every time the group smacked their lips and said, “I really like this wine,” it was some form of grillo.
Other than De Bartoli, most winemakers shy away from oak, especially when it’s pure grillo. The best examples tend to have prolonged lees contact, which gives focus and power to the fruit.
But we also found grillo blended every which way. It was coupled with international grapes like chardonnay and, astonishingly, viognier (a rare breed in these parts), as well as with local partners like grecanico.
I’d happily drink any one of these wines again…and again. They’re perfect summer wines—and I don’t mean that dismissively. Last week in Sicily, we needed something crisp and refreshing, having spent the days hiking under a sweltering sun. But even if you subtract the cobalt blue sea, the smoked swordfish, and the pasta con sarde, even if you’re Stateside rather than on an island in the Mediterranean, grillo is a must to try. It’s versatile, affordable, and offers that refreshing zip that lights up any seafood dish.
These are the grillos we drank. But since Sicilian wines still lag in US distribution, try any grillo that you find in your local wine shop. It might just become your new house white.