Ep 416: The History of Sicily... From the Wine Perspective

Sicily has a long history, and all of it is tied up with the evolution of wine and food in the Sicilian culture. In this show, we look at how this huge Mediterranean island played a major role in every major civilization from indigenous tribes to the current generation of young winemakers who seek to carve out a niche for Sicily and its unique wine culture.

Here’s a brief timeline of what we talk about: 

Sicilian Wine Timeline...

  • 10,000 years ago: Natural grapevines on Etna

  • Indigenous groups – Siculi, Socani, Elymi (Greeks who brought wine to Sicily)

Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

  • 8th – 3rd century BCE: Greeks arrived, introduced grapes and planted a lot of vineyards. They introduced pruning, varietal selection, bush training, and techniques to make great wine. Wine became an economic essential, as Sicily’s strategic position allows Greeks to export wine all over the Mediterranean. Inzolia, Zibibbo, Lucido/Catarratto were brought from Greece.


  • 3rd century BCE: Roman Republic wins control of Sicily over the Greeks. The Roman Empire reigns afterwards. During both eras, the Romans planted more grapes, refined viticulture and winemaking techniques and traded Sicilian wine throughout the Roman empire, enriching wine merchants on Sicily. Mamertino, Julius Caesar’s favorite wine was made in Sicily. Wine vessels from Sicily have been found in France and other parts of Europe.

Photo: National Gallery Open Access

  • 535 AD –826 AD: After the chaos that ensued after the fall of the Roman Empire, Byzantines conquered Sicily and used it as their base in the Mediterranean to take over other parts of Italy. The church revived viticulture and make wine for religious purposes and for trade around the Mediterranean.

 

  • 826 AD –1061 AD: Muslim rule -- not great for wine, as it is against the law to consume alcohol. Viticulture did not prosper, but it didn’t die. A few people still drank, and Z'bīb, Muscat of Alexandria, thrived as a table grape. The food and spices introduced during this time had a lasting impact on the cuisine of Sicily.

 

  • 1061 AD –1189 AD: The Normans, Christian descendants from Vikings conquered Sicily and brought wine back to the table in full force. The rulers expanded vineyards and wine became an economic mainstay for the Normans – they traded it and it was part of life for the aristocracy so Sicilian wine had status. Rather than throw out the influence, the Normans incorporated Arab spices and cooking in their food. Vermicelli (pasta) likely was made here in 1154 AD, 100 years before Marco Polo was born.

 

  • 1189 AD – 1266 AD: Norman rule ends and Henry VI of Swabia claims the throne.

 

  • 1266 AD: Pope Clement IV puts Charles, Count of Anjou and Provence, on the throne in Sicily but in 1282 a French soldier insults a Sicilian girl on her way into a church for Vesper services. This sparks the uprising called the Sicilian Vespers, ending French rule.

 

  • 1282: Peter II of Aragón (Spain) took control of Sicily. Wine was an important economic commondity as it was traded to northern winemaking areas to beef up their wines with color, flavor, and alcohol.

Photo: Wikipedia

  • 1400s-1500s: Guilds of wine merchants and growers flourished under the Aragón rule. Tomatoes, chocolate, squash, cactus, and other items were brought on Spanish ships from Mexico, revolutionizing the Sicilian cuisine.

 

  • 1700s: The House of Bourbon, a power family from Spain who ruled in Sicily, invested in local wine again.

 

  • 1773: John Woodhouse makes Marsala on the western side of the island, ships it out to England and the American colonies. Marsala was the first Italian wine to be exported America. Marsala was a major contributor to the Sicilian economy and to the islands prestige


Photo credit: Dedda71, CC-BY-SA-3.0

  • 1816: Naples and Sicily were united under the Aragón crown in the Kingdom of two Sicilies.

 

  • 1861: Giuseppe Garibaldi claims Sicily as part of the Italian Republic, ending Aragón rule. The Risorgimento, Italian unification, was not beneficial to Sicily. They found it difficult to integrate into continental Italy.  The economy suffered, and the first great emigration out of Sicily, occurred, spreading of the cuisine and wine traditions around the world – to America, Australia, the UK, and other places.

 

  • Late 1800s: Mass plantings of vineyards became necessary to supply Europe with wine in the wake of phylloxera. This was a prosperous time for wine in Sicily until phylloxera hit the island. Due to economic restrictions, poverty, and the level of destruction from phylloxera, Sicily took about 60 years to properly recover from the aphid.

 

  • 1950s: Sicily finally recovers from phylloxera. Vineyards mechanize, but in the post-World War II – global demand dropped for Sicilian wine.

 

  • 1960s and 1970s: Again, Sicilian wines exported to bulk wines up from northern areas. Sicily’s reputation for quality suffered.

 

  • 1980s –1990s: Some older families on the island planted international grapes to garner international attention from critics, and build a reputation for good wine. Consultants were hired, and Sicily gained global recognition for its wines made of Syrah, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other international grapes.

  • 1990s – Native grapes were introduced to the world to a positive reception.

 

  • Today – the new generation is ready for smaller production and higher quality from native grapes, continuing the 3000+ year legacy of quality wine.

 

Don’t forget to check out the LIVE class on Thursday or watch it on my YouTube Channel if you can’t catch it live. Thank you to the Wines of Sicily DOC for the opportunity to offer this class for free!

 

 

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Main Sources for the podcast:

https://cantinebarbera.it/en/cookie/47-myblog-marilena-barbera/154-history-of-sicilian-wine-culture.html

 

https://www.umass.edu/journal/sicilyprogram/sicilianfoodhistory.html

 

Others:

https://www.myguidesicily.com/usefulinfo/wines-of-sicily-and-their-history

https://www.britannica.com/place/Sicily

https://www.winemag.com/2019/04/16/beginners-guide-to-the-wines-of-sicily/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Sicily

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