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Premium agenda at Sicilia en Primeur as bottled exports hit new high

Published:  08 May, 2018

Bottlings of Sicilian wine rose 123% in the first quarter of 2018 (vs Q1 2017), reflected in both an ongoing trend to more premium exports and a reduction in bulk sales following the short 2017 harvest.

Speaking at the annual Sicilia en Primeur event organised by Assovini, which took place on May 6 and 7 in Palermo this year, Donnafugata’s Antonio Rallo said that this boost was indicative of a broader underlying trend that saw the island-wide Sicilia DOC volume rise by 9.9% and total DOC(G) wines up by 7.5% in 2017 vs 2016.

“We are working on building premium Sicilian wine and the latest research shows that more than 11% is premium,” said Rollo, referring to bottled vs bulk sales.

“We have 1 DOCG (Cerasuolo di Vittoria), 22 DOCs and one DOC for Sicilia – the only [broad, regional] DOC on Italy – and DOC Sicilia is helping other DOCs to grow - but in the past five years all other DOC are growing and growing more than Sicilia DOC, which is really important,” he added.

Exports of champion grape Nero d’Avola remain strong, with bottled sales of other native varieties also rising, with Grillo leading the whites, up 23% in 2017.

Between them, Assovini’s 80 collaborators produce around 80% of bottled wine in Sicily, counting big, established names such as Donnafugato and Tasca d’Almerita, plus smaller producers like Cos and Tenuta di Fessina, among their number.

Current Assovini president Alessio Planeta of Planeta outlined the organisation’s mission as being to “reduce the distance between Sicily’s wines and the rest of the world”, saying that winemaking on the island had “radically changed” in the past 20 years.

“Unlike a tasting of Barolo or Amarone, [Sicilia en Primeur] has 35 varieties from 15 DOCs,” said Planeta. “We want to add value to our product and position Sicilian wine where it deserves to be placed.”

In addition to the evolution among established and newer producers, Sicily’s winemaking scene has witnessed an influx of investment both locally and from external sources over the past couple of decades, as past struggles with Mafia and economic instability have largely receded into memory.

Etna remains the hot ticket for driving Sicily’s quality image, both in Italy and abroad, with its cooler climate, volcanic contenders red Nerello Mascalese and white Carricante having attracted much global attention among sommeliers and independent merchants.

Speaking to Harpers at the tastings, Mariangela Cambria of leading Etna producer Cottanera described the region as being “like an island within an island”, while stressing the need for producers to continue to work towards a goal of greater stylistic cohesion, plus striving to build upon the quality reputation so far gained.

Nonetheless, with Etna accounting for only around 2,000ha of Sicily’s 120,000ha, producing a quarter of Italy’s wine, much of the premium growth is being driven by producers across Sicily’s 22 other DOCs, notably with indigenous varieties – rather than international cultivars – increasingly driving sales uptake at the higher end.

“At the high end, in restaurants and quality retailers, we are definitely now seeing more demand for [wines made from] native grapes among more informed wine drinkers,” said Donnafugata’s agronomist Pietro Russo.

“Our traditional strengths with Bordeaux-variety blends remain popular, but the growth is now coming from indigenous varieties, those which you can only find in Sicily, wines like Frappato, Nero d’Avola, Cerasuolo (a blend of the two previous grapes) and Nerello Mascalese” he said.

“These will become increasingly important as, unlike the international varieties, they are very well adapted to the climate and soils here, are indigenous to Sicily, and reflect a sense of place that can only be found here.”

Assovini Sicilia was founded in 1998 by Diego Planeta, Lucio Tasca d’Almerita and Giacomo Rallo, as an association of the islands’ small, medium and large quality-focused wineries. Exports currently account for 59% of members’ sales.

The collaboration launched the annual Sicilia en Primeur event in 2004. This was aimed at raising awareness of premium Sicilian wines for international press, with the latest edition offering some 500 wines from both the latest 2017 vintage and older samples for tasting and evaluation, along with a series of MW-presented masterclasses and seminars on the island’s incredibly diverse wines.