Thursday, June 16, 2016

The history of quality wine production in Sicily (after Nesto MW and di Savino)

I visited a number of Sicily and Mt. Etna wine producers around the time of Contrada Dell'Etna, the annual event that showcases the region's producers, and I am slowly working around to reporting on those visits. Before delving into the individual visits, though, I am attempting to characterize the broader environment, an effort which began with a post on the soils of Sicily. In this post I continue that framing with a history of quality wine in Sicily. As did the prior post, this one also draws heavily on the scholarship of Bill Nesto MW and Frances di Savino (The World of Sicilian Wine).

When the Greeks and Phoenicians began establishing settlements on Sicily between 800 and 700 BC, they encountered the "indigenous" peoples as indicated in the figure below. The Greek settlements on the east coast of the island encountered the Sicels (originally from Calabria) while the Phoenicians encountered the Elami (from modern-day Turkey) and the Sicani (from the Iberian Penninsula).

The figure below shows that Sicily has had a multitude of rulers over the years. The Greeks brought their grape-growing and winemaking skills to Sicily and it became known as Oenotria -- the land of trained vines. By 300 BC Sicily had become a well-regarded wine producing and exporting region. With Rome's usurpation of Greece as the primary Mediterannean (and world) power, Sicily's role in the world of wine changed dramatically in that it became more relevant as a grain source of the Roman Empire.

Sicily's history of quality wine production has been characterized more by its absence than by its presence. According to Nesto and di Savino, Strabo, the Greek geographer, writing about a wine from Messina called Potitian (after its producer), said that it was as good as the best wines produced in Italy. In the same writing he also lauded the terroir of Mt. Etna.

The figure below maps out the history of quality wine production in Sicily from just prior to the arrival of Woodhouse at Marsala -- and the beginning of the Marsala industry -- and the start of the Marsala industry. As the table in the figure shows, wine was being produced in a number of different zones but, in that time period, would have been, as described by Lukacs (Inventing Wine), non-modern, poor-quality wine.

Woodhouse came to Sicily, saw the quality of the fruit and wine (as well as the cost of production) and determined that he could profitably make a less-expensive alternative to Madeira. He was extremely successful and was followed by a number of other British merchants and, together, they built a robust industry. According to Nesto and di Savino, the British Marsala merchants brought a market-driven standard of consistency to Sicilian winemaking in that region by:
  • Fronting money so Sicilian farmers could expand their vineyards and improve the quality of their grapes
  • Investing in the farming, production, and transport of Marsala wine
  • Investing in the infrastructure of the town of Marsala
  • Prescribing improvements in viticultural and enological practices (Ingham handbook).
The figure also shows the recognized quality problems with non-Marsala wines. In 1824, the Duke of Salaparuta began bottling a dry white wine, dry red wine and a sweet wine at his estate in Bagheria. This wine was described as French-like due to its delicate taste. These wines were later named Corvo and, according to Nesto and di Savino, were "Sicily's beacon of quality for the next 150 years."

The figure identifies a reduction in Marsala quality that came about after the Garibaldi invasion but there were a number of other contributing factors (Nesto and di Savino):
  • Increase in the number of Sicilian merchants, many with no agricultural experience
  • Phylloxera
  • Taxation on buying spirits and making wine
  • Worsening US markets resulting from Prohibition.
A bulk-wine market had sprung up to support the French need for cutting wine (vino da taglio) but, as shown in the figure below, this market also eventually collapsed; a collapse evidenced by the declines in vineyard acreage and wine production between 1880 and 1892 as shown in the table following the figure.

This collapse of the bulk wine industry led to the development of a small-scale quality wine industry led by the previously mentioned Corvo wine. Due to its method of production, this wine was "delicate and fresh tasting" and compared favorably to Sicilian whites which were generally "amber-tinted, high-alcohol, and coarse-textured." The vino da taglia wines were normally "deeply colored, alcoholic, and tannic." This quality-wine initiative died in 1905 when the Palermo Chamber of Commerce criticized the Corvo as weak. Winemakers reverted back to the wines of yore. According to the authors, "By 1950, the Sicilian Wine Industry had lost almost everything it had achieved during the 19th century."

The modern quality wine industry was launched in the 1960s, precipitated by events such as the consulting work of Ezio Rivello, the contributions of Diego Planeta, the rise of family wineries, the influence of Giacomo Tachis (the enologist who had risen to fame through his work with Antinori properties), investments from the North, the rise of Etna, and appellation status for the broader region.

The big takeaway here is the relative youth of the Sicilian quality wine industry vis a vis other Italian and European wine regions.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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