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Uncorked: Smooth and Sicilian

For centuries, Sicily produced much wine to little praise. Times have changed. Modern winemaking and marketing have polished the rough edges, and connoisseurs are noticing.

Published April 6, 2005

[Tampa Museum of Art]
This ancient Greek urn made in Sicily was used to hold liquids such as wine or olive oil. It is decorated with a scene from Greek mythology, the death of the centaur Nessos at the hands of Hercules.

Golden ages don't come along very often. But as adventurous wine drinkers and winemakers moved steadily down the Italian peninsula, they headed toward where it all began, both for Italian wine as well as many Italian-Americans.

We have drunk wine from Sicily for 2,500 years or so, although we haven't bragged about it and often didn't know it.

Odd. Sicily practically started Italy's serious winemaking when the Greeks arrived in 750 B.C. to colonize the big island at the toe of the peninsula. The word viino was first found recorded there, according to some scholars.

Now we have new wine words to learn from Sicily, actually old grapes such as nero d'avola, a smooth, robust red a bit like syrah, and grillo, a ripe melon of a white grape, long hidden in dessert wines. Remember them, for these are well-made and affordable wines, but not bland. They have a taste of Sicily and its history.

Many of the elegant urns, bowls and other vessels in classical art collections, such as those found at the Tampa Museum of Art, show that the ancients of Magna Graecia put great store in wine - and what they stored it in.

Sicily was the right place for growing grapes and making wine. Hot, bright sun and shiny hillsides were as suitable for vineyards as they were for grand classical temples.

The Greeks were just one of many invaders and traders who conspired with the island's natural resources to create a distinct cuisine of exotic tastes and smells: honey, almonds, wild fennel, sardines and eggplant, fried rice balls, chickpeas, cannoli and cassata cake.

Grape vines spread across Sicily and ripened into the most productive in Europe, though not the best, except for the prized sweet Marsala. Indeed, they overripened.

For most of the 20th century, Sicilian wine was high-powered in alcohol (as much as 16 percent), anonymous in pride and vast in quantity. The island made more wine than any other region in a nation full of wine-rich regions. Most of it was shipped in bulk to wineries elsewhere in Italy and to France to juice up the alcohol, color and aroma in unripe local wines.

In the past two centuries, Sicily also exported people to the United States, to places such as Tampa's Ybor City. Perhaps 95 percent of Tampa's Italian community who arrived before World War II came from Sicily, according to historian and University of South Florida professor Gary Mormino. Most came from Agrigento, a province south of Palermo, full of vineyards and Greek temples.

They brought a strong culinary tradition and still do. The Alessi family of Tampa has been a major importer of olive oil and other goods for almost a century. It was also a Sicilian couple who arrived in Bradenton two decades ago and started planting grape vines that now make the wines of Rosa Fiorelli, one of Florida's valiant small wineries.

However, the only time most Americans knew the wine in their glasses was Sicilian was over pizza and spaghetti on a checked tablecloth when they bought a cheap bottle of Corvo. When Italian wine improved in the past 40 years, good modern Italian wines came from the north, the Barolos of the Piedmont and pinot grigio of the northeast, and the renaissance in Tuscany.

But the bulk of wine came from farther south, and slowly the quality movement - and winemakers and companies from the north and as far as Australia - moved there, too. They tore out old vines and installed modern techniques and refrigeration to cope with the heat.

Yet modern winemaking and marketing got smarter along the way, and by the time it reached Sicily, wineries saw less value in more cheap cabernet.

Instead, they concentrated on improving the traditional grapes, cutting production to improve quality and giving the sales pitch more style. Consider the Arancio, a Sicilian line started by Mezzacorona, which sells nero d'avola, grillo and others in a slick bottle marked with a slice of blood orange, another trademark crop of the island.

Though new brands got the buzz, old Corvo renewed itself, too. The government sold the cooperative, and bureaucrats were replaced by private owners and Guido Tachi, an enologist who has championed new quality for Sicily.

The result is Sicilian wines that can sell for $10 to $25 instead of $4 to $5. They are already popular across Italy, says Tampa importer Marco Vivano.

"Everyone is drinking grillo now," he says.

More important, the best of them refine and preserve a real Sicilian taste. What was once peppery and sometimes harsh, musky and too sweet is no longer so rustic.

Contemporary wines are polished in texture and crisper in balance, but the reds have spice and the whites rich perfume, flavors Sicily has always cultivated.

- Chris Sherman, who writes about food and wine for the St. Petersburg Times, is the author of "The Buzz on Wine" Lebhar-Friedman Books, $16.95. He can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or

[Last modified April 5, 2005, 13:20:03]

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