The recent release by the Instituto Regionale Vini e Oli (IRVV) of data concerning the area of grape varietals in Sicily in 2012 provides an opportunity to take a look at one aspect of how the Sicilian vineyard has restructured during the 21st century.
In 1987 Sicily had 202,000 ha of wine vineyards. The following year the EU introduced a vine pull scheme in response to its structural problem of wine overproduction. This resulted in the uprooting of many Sicilian vineyards, so that by the beginning of the 21st century the Sicilian wine vineyard totalled ca. 138,000 ha. White varietals then occupied 78% of the vineyard area. During the early 21st century the total vineyard area has continued to decrease and had declined to 108,595 ha by 2012. Initially decreases were primarily due to the loss of white varietals, but more recently the overall ratio of black to white varietals has remained roughly constant at approximately 36% to 64%. There is though considerable regional variation. Western Sicily (provinces of Trapani, Palermo and Agrigento) contains 90% of the Sicilian vineyard, of which 71% is white. By contrast, in eastern Sicily (provinces of Catania, Messina, Siracusa and Ragusa), which contains only 6% of the Sicilian vineyard, 90% of the vines are black varietals.
The removal of white varietals from the Sicilian vineyard has disproportionately affected native varietals and, in particular, Catarratto. Used mainly to produce grape concentrate, or sent for distillation, Catarratto has often been thought of as an inferior varietal. Renewed interest for use in table wines has seen the vineyard area of the biotype Catarratto Bianco lucido increase at the expense of the less well regarded Catarratto Bianco comune. Neither Inzolia nor Trebbiano are commonly used to produce quality table wines and both have been major casualties of the continued Sicilian vineyard restructuring.
Chardonnay is the most notable white international varietal in Sicily and is used to produce table wine, sparkling wine and even desert wine. Its growth pattern appears to have leveled off, as does that of the more recently introduced Viognier. Grillo has traditionally been used as a component for high quality Marsala. Increased recognition of its potential as a table wine has come about as clonal selections have helped reduce problems of coulure. Grillo’s presence in the Sicilian vineyard has shown impressive growth during the 21st century.
Compared with their white counterparts, black indigenous varietals have fared rather better in terms of retaining their place in the Sicilian vineyard. The most import black varietal, and the second most planted varietal in Sicily, is Nero d’Avola. Its area peaked in 2008 at 19,304 ha. Although this area had declined to 17,580 ha by 2012, this figure is still well above its area at the beginning of the centruy. Nerrelo mascalese and Narello cappuccio are both natives of Etna. Despite increased interest in table wines from Etna, both varietals have been in decline this century.
The black internataional varietals Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon were first introduced to Sicily in the 19th century. Their more recent history and reintroduction followed work by the IRVV in the 1990s. The IRVV also trialled and recommended the planting of Syrah. These three varietals showed rapid growth off a small base in the early part of the 2000s, but since about 2005 their areas have levelled off and are currently showing small declines.