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Evening setting over a sloping Sicilian vineyard

Dionysus did it

A statue of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, drinkingAccording to the Greek mythology, it was the god of wine, Dionysus, who brought vines and the art of winemaking to Sicily. Although people in Sicily had been producing wine long before the Greek even set food ashore, the figure of Dionysus is simply too fascinating to discard. This outsider among the gods was know for his gentle spirit and being good to people. Once he transformed a bunch of pirates who tried to captured him into dolphins so they wouldn’t drown after he had thrown them – in self defense -in the water. What the Greek actually did introduce were pruning techniques and selection better yielding varieties.

Wine for Rome

bas relief of romans happily drinking wine in a tavernThe Romans liked what they found when annexing Sicily to their empire. One of the first to praise the local wine was Pliny the elder. The rich kept the best stuff for themselves, and soon wines such as Mamertino were sought after by the happy few, Julius Caesar being one of them. Tavernas would serve bulk wine to ordinary people at a reasonable price. And they drank a lot, averagely 400 liters a year. Not all of what Sicily exported was high in quality, a lot was plain plonk and sold to quench the thirsty poor. A legion abroad cracked a whopping 2 million liters of wine a year, about 70,000 party boxes -or amphoras as they called them.

Good old Gaul

The Gaul were beer drinkers but surely liked wine. In contrast to the romans, they did not water it down, making it twice as strong as the usual beer. Ships loaded with Sicilian wine would travel along the Italian west coast to southern France and then, up river, to Gaul. The trip was worth the effort since one party box – amphora – could be exchanged for a slave. While in Rome, the rich sipped from their goblets, the Gauls boozed and got rowdy, horny and sick on Sicilian wine. One could state that much of Europe was shaped and a large part of the population in Northern Europe conceived through Sicilian grapes.

Wine and religion

an old priest leaning on a cane and drinking a glass of wineWith the Romans gone, the catholic church kept the winemaking alive. Considering that wine is a central theme in this religion, a lot of dedication went in studying and improving. And probably some drinking, too. The Muslim occupation on the other hand, did not care for wine since their holy book forbids the drinking of alcohol. They concentrated on new table grapes, introduced the lovely Zibbibbo, and perfected the drying techniques – until today, in Italian raisins are called ‘sultanina’. It should be noted that the did not prohibit the making of wine.

Very Sicilian indeed

As it happened with food, every domination brought its likes and dislikes. Norman liked the wine but heavy taxes they imposed on the drink drove producers away from their vineyards. Under the Spanish and Bourbon occupation production rekindled. But it was an English merchant, John Woodhouse, who brought the flames back. Bearing the success of Sherry and Port in mind, he was the first to add alcohol to local wine. Very much appreciated in the homeland, he soon supplied the English fleet in the Mediterranean. Nelson was so keen on Marsala, he ordered 200,000 liters after having tasted it. And until the second world war, Marsala wine was part of the daily allowance on the Royal Fleet.

Blending in well

a wine tanker bringing Sicilian must to who needs sunApart Marsala, most wines remained anonymous. Northern regions – and France – happily bought sweet Sicilian nectar. It made their product richer and more interesting. The drawback of this massive export was that local producers really couldn’t care less about the quality nor its potentiality. As long as it was not seriously poisonous, it’d find its buyers. Recently producers started to make and care about their own creations. And right away they joined a place among the best wines word wide. With a variety of grapes and a fertile soil, differing from north to south and west to east, an ample assortment is now being produced and appreciated.

Future for wine

Most of the wine produced in Sicily still goes unlabeled. This means the demand for the raw product remains high and, that there is a enormous potential increase in production. While almost 70 percent of the production is white, most rewards and appreciation goes to reds. And sweet wines -often called dessert wines – such as Zibibbo, Passito and Malvasia haven’t been introduced properly to the world yet. The future looks bright, very bright indeed.

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